I do a lot of book reviews, both here and at my own blog. In fact, Blogcritics is built in large part on reviews of products, books, CDs, movies, and the like. All of us who contribute get some of the items we review for free, whether from a publicist, the publisher or studio, or even the author or artist. Evidently, though, that now may subject us to regulation by the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC is considering changes in federal regulations regarding the "use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising." One of those regulations requires that there must be full disclosure of any connection between the endorser and seller of a product "which might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement."
The proposals don't change the content of the regulation itself. They do, though, propose adding an example dealing specifically with blogs. It deals with a college student with a reputation as a video game expert who also has a gaming blog. A manufacturer sends him a free copy of a new game system and asks him to write about it on the blog. After testing it, he posts a favorable review. According to the FTC, "The readers of his blog are unlikely to expect that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact would likely materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge."
Hmm, sounds a lot like what happens with most of the contributors to this site, myself included. Now I certainly don't want to speak for or cast aspersions on other Blogcritics, but I don't know how many of us have a reputation as an "expert" in any particular field. Likewise, the cost of any one book, CD or DVD is nowhere near the value of a video gaming system. I also know it certainly isn't because of a significant economic gain. After all, if you translated the value into an hourly wage for the time spent just writing a review, the minimum wage laws would be violated.
I certainly don't have a problem with transparency. What bothers me is that it seems the proposals treat bloggers differently than "the real world."
This point was made in comments by a variety of well-respected associations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Advertising Federation, jointly submitted to the FTC. Referring to the proposals as a whole as constituting a "drastic change" in current policy, they pointed out that marketers long have provided products for review at no price. Moreover, they ask, if a blogger must disclose they received something for free, "is every critic required to disclose that a reviewed item was provided for free? Reviewers in traditional media do not have to disclose this information; reviewers in nontraditional media platforms such as blogs, online discussion boards, and street teams should not be treated any differently."
These organizations also said that not only do reviews benefit consumers, but many critics "would not be able to review as many products and services as they do if they had to pay for them." They also asserted that consumers may expect that critics received an item for free or "generally assume that an independent, expert reviewer is providing his or her honest opinions regardless of whether the reviewer purchased the item or received it at no cost."
It's the last point that I think truly represents the position of any legitimate reviewer. I freely point out on my own blog that some of the material I review I get at no charge. At the same time, I have promised — and adhere to the promise — that it "shall never play a role in the evaluation of the work." That applies with equal force here.
The comment period for the proposed regulations is closed and the FTC will determine if they will be adopted and, if so, whether the proposals will be unchanged. I realize there's a variety of outfits and people out there who get paid or pay to push a book or other product, whether on a blog, Amazon or other sites. And adding a short disclaimer to a review isn't a huge inconvenience. Still, if it takes a federal regulation for someone to express an honest opinion, it's too late anyway.