Why the FTC's guidance about blogging product reviews is wrong

Today, the Federal Trade Commission issued new guidance about product reviews on blogs and on testimonials in advertising. The rules are scheduled to go into effect Dec. 1, 2009, and they have disaster written all over them.

I’m going to be writing here as if I thought the FTC really had a role in this area, even though I largely don’t. But even if we accept the FTC’s role as proper, we’re left with some big questions [that apparently didn’t occur to the FTC]:

  • How is a blogging reviewer different from a print-publication reviewer?
  • Why is the FTC issuing guidance on a largely journalistic matter [blog reviews] in conjunction with guidance on an advertising matter [the use of endorsements/testimonials in ads]?
  • What happens when a newspaper or magazine writer wants to blog about a book or product the publication received?

Michael Hyatt posted this link on Twitter, and it’s a great summary of a lot that’s wrong with the FTC legislation.

My big complaint here is that [as I said recently about the privacy legislation rumored to be coming in Congress] the FTC doesn’t actually have a clue what it’s talking about. Check out the interview with the FTC’s Richard Cleland and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. The FTC is assuming that say, a book sent to a newspaper writer and a book sent to a blogger come to fundamentally different ends [both the physical book, and the review that results from it]. They seem to think that somehow, providing a review copy to a blogger will more predispose that person to writing a favorable review than would the same publisher providing a review copy to a printed publication.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.

Hey, FTC. Let me catch you up on a couple of realities. I’ve worked in both print and online media over the last 20 years, and I can explain this pretty easily.

1. Publisher sends a book, CD, whatever to publications and bloggers.
2. Sometimes, people in the mailroom, or the blogger, say, Hey, cool! A free book! That’s the end of that.
2a. Sometimes, the writer at the publication or the blogger looks at the book and says, What a waste of paper! and tosses it in the recycle bin. And that’s the end of that.
2b. Sometimes, the writer [print or blog] actually reads the book and writes up a review. I can assure you that at no time does the writer ever say, Well, that book sucked, but they did send it for free, so I’ll give it 3 stars instead of 1. Writers are a pretty cynical lot.
3. The book comes to one of two or three ends, generally: It gets donated in a large lot to the writer’s favorite charity, often after collecting dust for years on the writer’s shelf. Or maybe it gets sold on eBay. Or perhaps the print writer hands it to an assistant who, in turn, probably sells it on eBay.

Some serious outcomes here that I think are ripe for a court case — if not a favorable court decision. [Please, do not assume the courts are any savvier than the FTC or Congress.] Why is the FTC treating bloggers different from print journalists? I don’t think there’s sound reasoning behind that.

And if bloggers can be considered journalists, wouldn’t they be afforded the same First Amendment protections that presumably have kept the FTC from ever attempting to regulate printed product reviews?

I have more thoughts, but I’ll stop here for now. We’ll see what else happens over the next few days.

Critical guidance issued by the FTC

The Federal Trade Commission today announced that it’s issued revised guidance on a couple of issues critical to the online world:

  • Product reviews/endorsements by bloggers
  • Testimonials in advertising/Celebrity endorsements

These issues are tightly related in some ways. I’m still reading all in the info out there this morning, but I’ll have a much longer post up tonight or tomorrow.

My short thought: It’s not a good regulation or a fair one for several reasons.