The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has responded to the lack of transparency in product endorsements on Internet forums and blogs by amending the guidelines it requires advertisers to follow. Under new rules which will go into effect on December 1st of this year, bloggers will have to disclose any material relationship they have with their advertisers when offering reviews. In other words, if they receive money or products for free when they write reviews, they will have to disclose that information to their readers, or face a fine of up to $11,000.
These new guidelines promote transparency between advertisers and endorsers, which will make the Internet a more trustworthy source of relevant and neutral information. Given the scope of the online world, it is necessary to curb the activities of scammers and hucksters and to promote a public forum where a reader can trust the material they see. The FTC’s new guidelines are a step in that direction.
Moreover, the success of a writer is based on the trust she is able to engender amongst her readership; this is no less true for producers of on-line content than it is for traditional print media. By requiring bloggers to be faithful to that trust by telling their readers when they have received cash or goods for their reviews, the FTC is effectively helping that writer to stay honest to her audience. If it turns out that the blogger doesn’t deserve that trust because her opinions are essentially for sale, then the FTC’s new guidelines will reveal the true nature of these mercenary endorsements, and give the reader more power to determine who is credible and who is not.
Are there problems with the new guidelines? Yes. For one, it is difficult to see just how the FTC is going to differentiate between a traditional media outlet with an online presence, which is already regulated, and currently unregulated media outlets that happen to be blogs? If, for instance, the New York Times runs the same opinion column both in print and on one of its blogs, is the same story going to be held to two different standards? Additionally, moving forward, the FTC is likely to find that its definition of a blog is too broad given the scope of its intended regulation.
Nonetheless, these guidelines are a step in the right direction because they introduce integrity to a media format that in some instances is currently being bought and sold. The end result is that Internet sources may be forced to become more transparent, so as to avoid being fined. Ultimately though, what will become apparent is the difference between an opinion that can be purchased and one that is honest and worthy of a reader’s trust.
If you, as a reader, are suspicious of material you are viewing online and you suspect that an endorsement has been solicited by an advertiser, you can lodge a complaint with the FTC at their website.