The new revisions of the guidelines set out by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have been controversially stated as vague and unenforceable. The issue for bloggers, though, should not be whether or not the FTC can catch you, but whether or not the guidelines are even applicable to your blog at all.
Recently, the FTC has had a great number of questions posed to them regarding their guideline revisions and where bloggers stand with them, what is and isn’t covered for bloggers and the punishment for disobeying them. The FTC have retaliated by setting out to provide answers to the frequently asked questions in an attempt to help bloggers gain some perspective on the situation before all hell breaks loose. With rumours of $11,000 fines for all those flouting the FTC guidelines, there’s no wonder that bloggers are at their wits’ ends.
So what counts and what doesn’t count? If you’re a blogger, should you be doing anything to actively comply with the FTC guidelines?
[heading color=”black”]Doesn’t Count[/heading]
1. Reviewing products your bought
If you buy a new pair of sneakers which solve your ankle issues, allow you to run 13 miles a day and have light up bottoms, and you want to share that with the world on your blog, then go ahead. Don’t worry.
The FTC guidelines don’t cover reviews which are written when the endorser has bought the product themselves and is receiving no financial incentive to provide a good review. This means that you can write as many ‘free’ recommendations as you like, even linking to the website and the FTC don’t have a problem. One of the main aspects of the revision was to be able to provide consumers with honest reviews from genuinely happy customers rather than those paid to preach about a product or service.
3. If you’re well-known for it
If you’re a blogger who is famously known for endorsing certain products or companies, it is not as important to explain every time you provide a review that you work for the company. If you’re an Avon representative for example who has a blog title which clearly states that, it’s obvious to readers that you’re gaining financially for promoting products. There’s little or no misunderstanding here so there shouldn’t be an issue.
4. If everyone gets a free sample
Say you’re in your local supermarket and there is a ‘free sample for cheese’ counter and you have a little taste and decide this is the most heavenly cheese ever and you need to blog about it. Yes, the cheese was free, but no it wasn’t a special incentive for you to write about it. As the free samples were given to everyone, this means you don’t need to specifically state that you received it without having to pay.
1.Money OR Goods
Initially companies gave out free samples of their products to bloggers to encourage them to write positive reviews. Although the incentive or ‘payment’ isn’t in the form of money, the fact that special treatment was given to you as a blogger may persuade you to write a more positive review than you would have if you had actively bought the product yourself.
The FTC sees that in order to provide an unbiased and honest review, the endorsement or recommendation should come from the kindness of your heart, not because you received free stuff. Their implication is that consumers reading your testimonial would be more cynical or less influenced by your review if they knew you’d been paid (in either goods or services) to write it. After all, we all know that if someone’s giving you a free meal to say something nice about their food, you’d rather not look at gift horse in the mouth!
The FTC specifically sums this up as anyone“receiving free products or other perks with the understanding that they’ll promote the advertiser’s products in their blogs would be covered, as would bloggers who are part of network marketing programs where they sign up to receive free product samples in exchange for writing about them or working for network advertising agencies.”
2. ‘Money Off’ coupons
Coupons for money off products still count as rewards or compensation for positive endorsements. The underlying issue here is that no-one is going to give you money off their product if you say something bad, so in a sense, you’re forced to write a good review. The FTC believes that a coupon for money off, no matter how much, is equivalent to receiving free goods.
3. If it’s something your return
This is a grey area here. If you bought a jumper with your own money, reviewed the fact that it broke and wasn’t great, and then returned it; that’s hardly an endorsement of a product so therefore it wouldn’t count.
However, the FTC points out that if you were given a car for free to trial for a short period of time and you returned it – that counts. At the end of the day, you still used the service for some time, even though not forever, so it should be disclosed to your audience that you received a free trial.
If your Facebook employment status shows you work for a company and you’re promoting their products in return for some kind of financial or service-related gain, you still need to disclose the contractual benefits you’re receiving. The burden of proof is on your shoulders so the FTC advises to actively demonstrate your involvement in your review, rather than presume people will look at your profile. It’s better to show you’re actively abiding by the rules than having to splash out for criminal defense lawyer!
Additionally, your review may be shared across different social media forums and therefore your personal profile may be ‘lost’, meaning consumers need to actively see from your review, your underlying purposes.
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