Friday, October 09, 2009
BOB GARFIELD: This week, the Federal Trade Commission issued new guidelines for bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers and anyone else who regularly posts comments or reviews on the Internet. Beware, if you endorse a product and are in any way compensated for your kind words, you must, quote, “clearly and conspicuously” reveal the nature of your payment. In other words, tell everyone if you’re shilling. Sounds reasonable, but many online are crying foul, pointing out that these rules don't apply to traditional news organizations. So does the FTC, in effect, have a double standard? Is online speech now overly and unfairly regulated, as some claim? Andy Sernovitz is author of Word of Mouth Marketing and a blogger at DamnIWish.com. Andy, welcome back to the show.
ANDY SERNOVITZ: Thanks for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Before we get to the reservations some have voiced about the new regulation, let's talk about what’s good about it. It’s - kind of sleazy out there, is it not?
ANDY SERNOVITZ: There’s a lot of sleaze and there’s a lot of overeagerness. You know, everyone’s so excited to suddenly be writing and have an audience that we all want to be a part of the story. So when a company comes to us and says hey talk about my stuff, people do it. And we forget that there’s this, this trust. You know, someone’s reading your blog, your buddies are reading your Facebook page, and they're not expecting you to be getting corporate products and promotions and samples. And suddenly that gray area comes up. Is this a journalist? Is this your friend? Are they paid? Are they volunteering?
BOB GARFIELD: Kind of like being invited to dinner at a friend’s house and thinking it’s a social engagement and discovering after dessert they're getting out the easel and drawing circles and trying to get you in Amway.
ANDY SERNOVITZ: If you go into a friend’s house for a Tupperware party, you know you’re going for a commercial event. If you show up for fun and they start selling to you, this is very uncomfortable.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess in that sense you’re applauding these new regulations.
ANDY SERNOVITZ: Yeah, this is great news for consumers, this is great news for bloggers and this is great news for marketers because we finally understand what the rules are. The FDC gave us a simple checklist. If you take one free sample one time, no problem, but if you have a long-term relationship with a marketer so you’re taking samples from them all the time, you have to disclose. If you sign up for a word-of-mouth marketing program that’s purpose is to give you samples to talk about, you have to disclose. If you take money, you have to disclose. If you do these handful of things, you’re no longer just blogging for yourself, you’re now a paid endorser. So if you say, Sony sent me this stereo and here’s what I think about it, that phrase “Sony sent me the stereo,” you've done your job and everybody’s clear and everybody’s protected.
BOB GARFIELD: So here’s the problem. If you apply the same regulations against traditional media, a lot of what newspapers and other news organizations have been doing for so long would suddenly require disclosure. Like if you review a book, you've probably gotten the book in the mail from the publisher, same with CDs and movie reviews. Are newspapers now responsible to put the same disclaimers on their stories, as bloggers are now obliged to do?
ANDY SERNOVITZ: What they're saying is now bloggers are held to the same obligation as journalists always were held to. Now, with journalists you have less risk of confusion. If I'm a book reviewer for a newspaper or I'm the auto reporter for a newspaper, people know I didn't buy the books or the cars, and people understand that’s my job. But if it’s a personal blog, people assume you don't get free stuff from companies, and that’s where the danger of confusion is. So the FTC has said it’s a level playing field. If people want to write about products, they have to go by the same ethical obligations as a journalist. And the obligation isn't specifically disclosure it’s making sure nobody gets deceived. Does the average reader understand what’s going on? So when you read Walt Mossberg or David Pogue, you know it’s their job to review products.
BOB GARFIELD: Walt Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal, David Pogue in The New York Times, both gizmo columnists.
ANDY SERNOVITZ: There’s no chance of consumer confusion that Walt is running around buying computers all day, 20 a week. No confusion there. With a person, an individual who suddenly starts talking about a computer on their Facebook page, the average consumer would be deceived. So the simple standard that applies to everybody, which is if you are writing something and you’re working for a marketer, you’re getting something free, you’re getting paid, you've chosen to engage with a marketer, you have to be straight with folks.
BOB GARFIELD: Well I'll tell you, Andy, one nice bonus that might come of this is more disclosure from the traditional media for the car reviewer to say, by the way, I've been driving around in this Cadillac or Mercedes or Lexus for the last ten days at the car maker’s expense. That can't hurt, can it?
ANDY SERNOVITZ: It’s awesome. I mean, ten years ago, if a reporter started taking samples and freebies and trips, they'd be fired. We've forgotten how it used to be. We've forgotten what the most basic standard of journalistic ethics are regarding gifts and samples. And if this pushes us to have that conversation again, if this pushes us to raise the bar, we all win.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Andy. Thanks so much.
ANDY SERNOVITZ: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Andy Sernovitz is the author of Word of Mouth Marketing.