Monday, October 05, 2009

The Feds - 'fess up if you blog for perks

Advertising has evolved.

In many ways, the period of passive' advertising - posters, radio spots and TV commercials - is over. Now, the new way to get your product or service noticed is to get bloggers -regular folk like you and I - talking about it.

It's called 'Content Marketing' and in many ways, it's the most effective form of advertising there is: Endorsements by regular people - who are recommending products to strangers in the same way friends and family recommend products to you.

It makes for a convincing, credible and authentic marketing message - far more so than slick, shiny advertising campaigns. That's why the Federal Trade Commission has now decided to stick their nose into it.

The FTC is is charge of all advertising in America - and are now requiring that all bloggers who review products they received 'for free' must disclose that fact clearly in their blog post - or face up to an $11,000 fine. That includes people who give 'honest' or even negative reviews of sample products. It doesn't matter whether you blog for money, or just for fun. The moment you get a perk out of blogging - even as little as an Amazon affiliate link within your copy - you turn from 'amateur blogger' to 'marketing professional' in the eyes of the FTC.

Although I can see the germ of logic in this policy, I still think it's bullshit.

For a start, why are blog reviews any different to written reviews?

The reviews I write for print magazines often involve an editor sending me a 'screener' copy of the DVD, or an advanced reading copy of a book. I don't need to 'disclose' that I was given a 'free' copy to review beforehand. It wasn't 'free' according to the standards of my publisher. If a business wants us to write a review of their stuff, they're expected to provide a free copy - and just because they did, it doesn't necessarily guarantee them a review (and certainly not a positive one.)

So why the double standard with people who review on the Internet? Just because they're not 'proper' writers, does that somehow mean they're unable to be impartial? How come the FTC view me, as an in-print writer, somehow able to be more impartial than a part-time blogger? Surely the opposite is true - instead of writing for fun, or for self-expression, I've already 'sold out' and scribble in the pursuit of cold, hard cash.

In that respect, a blogger seems more honest and impartial than I am.

But the new ruling is also bullshit because of the agency that enacted it.

The FTC, just like every federal agency, is bloated, corrupt and riddled with industry insiders. Lobbyist dollars are being spent in reams by old school advertisers- the National Advertising Bureau, for example - to preserve their outdated, inefficient business model by hammering the Internet innovators. Not because of any advertising ethics, but simply because these bloggers are perceived as 'stealing' business away from traditional advertising media.

...and that's true. Most companies, you see, have learned that their marketing budgets are better spent on courting Facebookers, Twitterers and bloggers - rather than plastering billboards or blasting commercials on FM radio like they used to.

This means radio stations and advertising agencies are steadily, inevitably, losing their income. The end is in sight for them - but they're going to go down kicking, screaming and spending in order to string that inevitable demise out as long as possible.

And one way of doing that is by gunning for bloggers. By reducing the effectiveness of blogging reviews - forcing them to disclose information which might undermine their impartiality - the industry insiders hope to reduce the amount of money companies invest in bloggers and convince them to invest it with them, like they used to.

I'm immensely disappointed that the FTC have decided to go down this path. There's simply nothing ethical in threatening unpaid, amateur bloggers with thousands of dollars of fines - and I don't feel that the realm of Internet advertising has been made 'better' with their bullying.

1 comment:

Occasional Professor Tom said...

"The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

- Ronald Reagan