I‘ve been struck by the varying reactions to this week’s news that the Federal Trade Commission will now begin to regulate product endorsements not just in advertisements but also on blogs and other forms of social media. (PDF here; the regs don’t start until page 55.)
Two heavyweight bloggers and longtime free speech champions Jeff Jarvis and Dan Gillmor — bless them — have lambasted the FTC for its move into the online arena (here are Jeff‘s and Dan‘s posts, and reader comments). While I think skepticism is in order, and the specifics of the government’s involvement need to be more clearly defined, in the end I believe the FTC’s move is a healthy and welcome development for social media.
I’m coupling my thoughts on the FTC ruling with an interview (above) I did a while back with Jory Des Jardins, co-founder of BlogHer, which I’ve just gotten around to publishing today. In it, Jory describes how JCPenney approached BlogHer with the idea of having bloggers in its network of 2,500 blogs write about its new line of Linden Street furniture as part of BlogHer’s review program.
As in its past dealings with retailers, the BlogHer exec team decided on this approach: It would allow a dozen bloggers to accept $500 gift cards to purchase furniture from JCPenney, but only on the condition that the bloggers fully disclose the relationship with both Penney and BlogHer, that the bloggers be free to write reviews and produce videos telling about their experience — both positive and negative — and that the reviewers could not accept any advertising from JCPenney. Importantly, they were not paid to write product endorsements but to write reviews. BlogHer then assembled their posts into a widget, which they ran across their blog network.
JCPenney was “thrilled” with the program, and so were the bloggers. (You can judge for yourself about the quality of the reviews; this one was typical. The authenticity is what makes this valuable to marketers.) BlogHer has run several similar retailer partnerships — and in each case, Jory says, the key ingredient was disclosure.
Watch, embed or download the video on Vimeo
Lisa Stone, another co-founder of BlogHer, evoked the same themes in her keynote address to the Online News Association conference on Saturday. One reason for BlogHer’s continued growth and success, she said, was they adhere to the same standards and practices that traditional journalism institutions have built up over the decades. By 2006, BlogHer “became the schoolmarms of the Internet,” Lisa said.
Every one of the 2,500 bloggers participating in the BlogHer network must fax in a signed agreement to abide by BlogHer’s community guidelines. BlogHer blogs must not contain “editorial content that has been commissioned and paid for by a third party, (either cash or goods in barter),” the guidelines say, and so I wish the guidelines page would address how reviews fall into a different category. (For the record, I think the way BlogHer has done this is absolutely fine, though this would violate many newspapers’ policies.)
Lisa also made clear that BlogHer has no desire to impose its guidelines on the entire Internet. “We don’t believe in a universal standard for the Internet,” she said.
Fair enough. It’s not BlogHer’s job to police the Internet. Nor mine. Nor the Media Bloggers Association’s. Two years ago I chaired a committee to write the association’s Statement of Principles, which includes this:
“Clearly disclose conflicts of interest including personal relationships, financial considerations or anything else that might influence or appear to influence your independence and integrity. If you accept payments from advertisers or sponsors, clearly demarcate advertorial from editorial content.”
Jeff was against even those voluntary guidelines. But the MBA, too, made clear it was imposing those standards on its own members, not on all bloggers.
In social media, an explosive growth in deceptive practices
While it’s impossible to measure precisely, we’ve seen an explosion in deceptive uses of social media, particularly over the past six months. Payola goes out to bloggers who embed commercial links (without disclosing it). Twitterers are now paid to tweet about their sponsors — making us wonder whether a promotional tweet is genuine or merely pay-per-tweet. Direct-message come-ons by people I’ve (mistakenly) followed on Twitter now fill my Twitter in-box.
As Time wrote this week:
At a site called Sponsored Tweets, Twitter users can sign in, set the price they want companies to pay them for tweeting an ad on their behalf and wait for the offers to come in. Jocelyn French, the mother of a 2-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl, has tweeted for a parenting website, a college-information site and Kmart, among others, at $1 a pop. “I figure, hey, why not get paid at the same time?” French says. On average, companies are paying Sponsored Tweets users $29 per tweet.
Years ago, Dave Winer fretted about commercial interests polluting the free exchange of ideas in the blogosphere. Well, now those commercial interests threaten to pollute all of social media.
This is not a new debate. Lewis Perdue and I drafted a set of ethical giudelines that we suggested commercial blogs voluntarily incorporate back in the early part of this decade. And I wrote a series of articles about online ethics and news sites for the Online Journalism Review:
• Ethics codes: A compact of trust (1998)
And so, even though government involvement in any aspect of the online arena must be carefully considered, I welcome the FTC’s ruling and hope that Silicon Valley can work with the agency to make sure it doesn’t become overzealous. (Agency officials have already said they’re unlikely to go after any individual bloggers.) The details of the FTC’s rule-making are far from perfect, and its application in other areas needs to be examined, but let’s keep focused on the central principle of transparency and truth in advertising.
I think Jeff and Dan are mistaken. This is not about free speech. It’s about deceptive practices that need to be disclosed — a decades-long role that the federal government has played in all kinds of media, from the FTC to the FDA. (And no one says you have to disclose your relationship in every Twitter tweet. Tweet your product, then tweet your relationship with the company.)
On-the-up-and-up reviewers like Steve Garfield, and the BlogHer bloggers, and my own blog and countless thousands of others have long played by the rules of fairness and disclosure. Nobody’s explained why the Decepticons should get a free pass. While Internet pioneers have hoped we would be able to self-regulate the flood of online deception, that clearly has not happened. So it’s welcome news that the Obama administration has taken a step toward weeding out the charlatans, just as it’s appropriate that earlier administrations went after spammers and this administration is pushing for network neutrality.
In all three cases, the online marketplace of ideas — which we’ll be spending an increasing amount of our time in — cannot be allowed to turn into a cesspool.
• FTC: FTC Publishes Final Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials
• FTC: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising: Notice Announcing Adoption of Revised Guides (PDF)
• Time: Brought to You by Twitter
• BuzzMachine: FTC regulates our speech
• Dan Gillmor at Mediactive: A Dangerous Federal Intervention in Social Media
• Mediabistro: Transparency is key
• ReadWriteWeb: FTC to Bloggers: Disclose Freebies or Face $11,000 Fine
• EdRants: Interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland.
• Mediabistro: New IZEA Featured Blogger Julia Allison Forgets Disclosure, Keeps JobJD Lasica, founder of Socialmedia.biz, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.