Here I was writing this post about new FTC rules for social media, feeling self-righteous about it, when it occurred to me that Shutterstock.com gives me a free stock photos account, which I use to illustrate this blog. And I’m an Amazon.com affiliate. I accept review copies of books, some of which I’ve reviewed here (although I bought most of the books I’ve reviewed, and I don’t go around asking for review copies, just accepting them, occasionally, when they’re offered). And I’m an employee of Palo Alto Software. So I don’t want to be a pot calling kettles black. Or a wolf disguised as a sheep.
Still, it’s about time. A new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ruling aimed at blogging and, I assume, Twitter starts Dec. 1. This is from the New York Times story on it:
Beginning on Dec. 1, bloggers who review products must disclose any connection with advertisers, including, in most cases, the receipt of free products and whether or not they were paid in any way by advertisers, as occurs frequently. The new rules also take aim at celebrities, who will now need to disclose any ties to companies, should they promote products on a talk show or on Twitter. A second major change, which was not aimed specifically at bloggers or social media, was to eliminate the ability of advertisers to gush about results that differ from what is typical — for instance, from a weight loss supplement.
I’m glad they made it specific. I hope they enforce it. The same general idea was previously built into basic journalism ethics and it should have been obvious that it applied here as well. Ethics? I mean what do you think, when people are paying people to blog about their products, tweet about them, and do reviews on social media sites. Making endorsements look like honest opinion, or reviews pretending they’re objective, is ugly. I hope it’s obvious why.
What if some company offered to pay you under the table for talking it up with all your friends? How would you feel to be a walking talking advertisement parading as a person?
But it happens all the time. I got an email last month offering me money to endorse products on this blog. It was blatant and unembarrassed. The offer to shill for money was couched in terms like “business models” and “revenue streams.” But it was pretty simple: if I would endorse products in my blog, they’d pay me. No, thank you.
Time magazine’s last issue included a story called Brought to You by Twitter, about tweeting for money:
A company called Izea, which made its name connecting bloggers with firms willing to compensate them for plugs on their blogs, has set up a similar service for the Twittersphere. 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.
I hope you see the problem with that: first, it’s dishonest, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, because it’s presented as conversation.
Back in the 1970s when I studied Journalism in grad school, the generally accepted ethics were pretty obvious on this. Disguising ads as editorial was clearly out of bounds. But that was way before Amazon.com revolutionized consumer reviews, and then there was the proliferation of blogs and now Twitter blurring the boundaries. But still, put it back onto the personal level: if a company pays you to pretend you’re giving a legitimate personal opinion, that just doesn’t feel good. Right?
(Photo: Sarah Heinman/Flickr)
4 thoughts on “FTC vs. Social Media Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing”
Insightful, informative and straight to the heart. You’ve done it again, Tim. I just love the way you closed this post (But still, put it back onto the personal level: if a company pays you to pretend you’re giving a legitimate personal opinion, that just doesn’t feel good). Wow.
Keep those articles coming!
While I agree with you in principle, I’m don’t think I do on a practical level. I recall reading (in a ZDNet blog, I think) that the FTC has already stated that it can’t possibly enforce these regulations simply because they don’t have the personnel to police the enormous number of blogs here on the Internets (tm Dubya).
If that’s truly the case, then it’s legislation that does little more than make consumers feel better, without giving them any real assurance that any blogger plugging a product isn’t being paid to do so.
My opinion is that the ethical bloggers /twitterers already disclose relationships because it’s the right thing to do; I doubt that this legislation will cause the unethical bloggers to do the same, and so I view it as cotton candy legislation: you can see that it’s there, but there’s no real substance.
Just my $.02. 🙂
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