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FTC announces new guidelines, says bloggers must reveal payments for reviews

October 5, 2009 |  5:48 pm
Gavel The Federal Trade Commission has made its first attempt to impose order on the largely unregulated world of blogging, announcing changes to its guidelines governing endorsements and testimonials. Beginning Dec. 1, bloggers will be required to disclose any "material connections" (i.e. payments or freebies) they receive from companies whose products they review. Revised for the first time since 1980, the new rules (view them here) carry fines up to $11,000 per violation.

What does that mean for food bloggers? Business as usual. Technically, you're supposed to disclose all comped meals. But if you don't, the FTC's not likely to do anything about it.

"My initial reaction to that scenario [comped meals] is that disclosure would be required," says Rich Cleland of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection. "Our primary concern relates to the fact that you received something of value and it's for the exchange of writing about the product."

But the FTC has a limited interest -- and ability -- in monitoring blog traffic. According to Cleland, the FTC is far more interested in pursuing advertisers, especially those who violate the rules after repeated warnings, than they are in dunning individual bloggers. Unless the FTC receives numerous complaints about a specific blog, it's unlikely to investigate. It's a matter of enforcement priorities.

"If we received complaints," Cleland says, "we'd look at how serious the representations are. Are there other possible violations? What kind of blog is it? We might be more concerned about a blogger who was writing a review of a medical device that’s used for a serious disease than we would be about someone who's writing a restaurant review."

The FTC also tightened its rules on testimonials. Ever noticed the words  "results not typical" flash across your screen in a tiny, almost unreadable font (usually after a tale of improbable weight loss)? Advertisers will no longer be able to get away with that meager disclaimer. They must now "clearly disclose" what kind of results consumers can typically expect. In addition, celebrity endorsers may now be liable for false or unsubstantiated claims made during the endorsement.

In the blogosphere, the most profound effect of the FTC's new guidelines may simply be an increased awareness of various issues around ethics and blogging. That could only be a good thing.

-- Elina Shatkin

Photo: Gary Cameron
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