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ON THE MEDIA / JAMES RAINEY

Truth in advertising meets the blogosphere

The FTC decides that money or gifts given in exchange for a good review would have to be disclosed.

October 07, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Does a moment pass when Kim Kardashian isn't selling? If she's not hyping her workout video, she's touting her online shoe club, her new book or her sisters' "reality" TV spinoff, a gripping look inside their high-end Miami boutique.

Shameless self-promotion is the stock in trade among the famous-for-being-famous crowd. But should the self-described "Armenian Princess" have to tell the world if she's getting paid for the endless stream of products -- Famous Cupcakes, Balenciaga shoes, Quick Trim weight loss capsules -- she touts seemingly round the clock as one of the most popular users of the micro-blog site Twitter?

The Federal Trade Commission would almost certainly answer "yes." Making its first pronouncement on testimonials and endorsements in nearly 30 years, the federal agency said Monday that bloggers and other new media types who tout products must disclose if they are getting cash or gifts in exchange for their kind words.

That has set off a furious reaction in the blogosphere, where many commentators decried what they called a government assault on free speech, to less common rebuttals from those who praised the government for applying truth-in-advertising standards to the Internet.

Although the exact enforcement targets and tactics that will be employed by the feds remain fuzzy, I think it's about time that someone tried to force greater transparency about the Web's often murky quid pro quos.

If nothing else, this moment allows us to remind the public what should be obvious -- that history's greatest vehicle for sharing information also provides the ultimate Trojan horse for all sorts of hucksterism.

Anyone who talks or e-mails regularly with the public knows that many otherwise semi-rational citizens all too readily gobble up bon mots from the most rancid corners of the Web.

So, as of Dec. 1, the overly credulous will get a hand from the FTC, which will require bloggers and users of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to make it clear when they are offering their opinions in exchange for some kind of payoff.

Richard Cleland, assistant director of the division of advertising practices at the FTC, stressed that the agency initially hopes to encourage greater transparency through education, not enforcement.

The feds made clear only that disclosures should be "clear and conspicuous" without setting specific guidelines.

The rules arrive at a time of mushrooming "sponsored" posts on the Internet. Businesses such as Orlando-based IZEA help advertisers plant their pitches with dozens, even thousands, of bloggers and Twitterers, who get paid for their comments.

Mom Central Consulting is just one of several outfits that put national brands in the hands of "mommy bloggers," who then post their own reviews, seldom negative, in exchange for gifts as small as a few coupons or as extravagant as a new dishwasher.

Mom Central Consulting's founder and chief executive, Stacy DeBroff, said she asks bloggers listed on her site to reveal any compensation. She doesn't have a problem, in concept, with the FTC guidelines.

But she worries how deep disclosure will have to go for mommy bloggers, whom she said have been somewhat "vilified" in the media despite the relatively modest compensation they receive.

"You don't see celebrities who appear in People magazine disclosing that they got the new, $5,000 dress they are wearing for free," DeBroff complains.

No you don't see that. But the new FTC rules will at least attempt to force such disclosures from celebrities too -- one of several revelations that should dispose of some of the red herrings that have been raised about the guidelines.

Not that the federal enforcers didn't exacerbate some of the initial anxiety over the announcement, particularly when one blog reported that Cleland made the silly suggestion that book critics might have to return every volume they received from a publisher. The regulator imagined a reviewer tainted by the big money earned reselling the free books.

Web champions such as Jeff Jarvis conjured other troubling scenarios. Would a blogger have to disclose, for example, if a company placed an advertisement adjacent a positive review, even if the author had no idea the ad was coming? "That's the level of absurdity this can reach," Jarvis said.

But those railing about the worst-case scenarios, and potential fines of up to $11,000, didn't pay much attention to the FTC's cautious ambitions for the guidelines.

Cleland made it clear that the agency will aim not at bedroom bloggers who've gotten a few free bottles of sports drink but at advertisers who shroud their true relationships with the reviewers.

Perhaps I underestimate government's capacity for stupidity. But not as much as I think others overestimate the self-regulating powers of the Internet.

Jarvis, for one, suggested that Google and its all-powerful algorithms should sift out the "boring, sycophantic drivel" that hidden business deals have wrought on the Internet.

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