Bloggers Must Give Full Disclosure
Written by: Paul Motter
The FTC ruled yesterday that bloggers who accept free gifts from product suppliers must disclose their relationship to the supplier if they write a review of the product.
I am sure many of you remember certain travel web sites having people in their message boards and reader-submitted reviews who appeared to be average, paying consumers extoling the virtues of certain cruise lines as if they were average customers. But in reality they were secretly being compensated by the cruise line with free samples and invitations to special events.
Well, we now know the FTC wasn’t happy when they saw this happening last year, and so they just changed the rules about relationships between product suppliers and Internet bloggers and other “word of mouth marketers” – for the first time in 30 years – since 1980.
Beginning December 1st, 2009, Internet “Bloggers and word of mouth marketers” who review products online must disclose any connection they have with the companies whose products they are writing about even if they only received a free sample or gift. If the blog is actually paid advertising that must be fully disclosed.
Most message board “champions” of certain products were hand-selected because they had already shown an affinity for the product. So the product supplier was pretty sure they were going to say positive things. Furthermore, most of these beneficiaries wrote mostly glowing reviews, even though the supplier used the excuse they did not know what they were going to say, because they believed that the longer they remained on the suppliers “friendly” list the more free stuff they would receive.
All that, last year excused by certain web sites as having “consumer focus groups” is now officially against FTC rules and rules breakers are subject to substantial fines. In fact, the FTC also added that whether or not the supplier knew what the bloggers planned to say about the product makes no difference, the full $11,000 fine still applies for failing to disclose the free gift.
Here at CruiseMates we say “bravo,” and we knew all along that this practice smelled fishy.
CruiseMates has always disclosed the fact that we will take a complimentary cruise to see certain ships, because there is literally no other way to create a full set of cruise line and ship reviews. The cost of planning, flying and taking these cruises would far outweigh the possible financial gains from creating such a folio.
We disclose this in our “About Us” section, and also in the “About our Cruise Reviews” area explaining our system of reviewing cruise ships. We have also taken note that we seem to be the only cruise review site that makes this disclosure, even though we know for a fact there are no other sources of cruise reviews anywhere that cover all of the main cruise lines like we do that do not take free cruises the vast majority of the time.
Furthermore, we are the only site to have taken an oath not to let our relationships with the cruise lines color our judgement of the cruise ships. To take that a step farther, we have deliberately designed our cruise ship reviews to focus on factual attributes of cruise ships; dress codes, stateroom sizes, tipping policies, extra costs, age and size of ships, number of passengers, passenger/space ratio, etc., instead of writing cruise reviews that focus on our own personal opinions about what we experienced.
We now challenge other cruise sites to also fully disclose their relationships to the cruise lines. If any site is taking free trips, we would like them to disclose that fact. We realize It isn’t up to us to enforce this ruling, but we don’t mind saying we are glad the FTC is watching.
I believe CruiseMates was the first web site to disclose we take complimentary trips supplied by the cruise lines, although the practice of disclosure is very common in newspapers. Perhaps that is why this ruling does not apply to “traditional media” such as magazines. We think that is wrong, and so do many of the other bloggers protesting this new ruling. But unlike most, we do agree with the ruling in principle, even if it is not being applied to all media.
After 10 years, we feel you know that we are not afraid to be critical when it is warranted, and we have plenty of examples. So, we applaud the FTC move because we truly believe it will improve the quality of travel reviews on the Internet. We are also very happy to be vindicated in our open disclosure policy and proud to be able to say we didn’t need a federal agency to threaten us with substantial fines before we knew the right thing to do.
To further clarify: First) giving away the free sample is not a violation, nor is taking the free sample. Even taking the free sample and writing about it positively is not a violation. Taking the free sample and writing positively about it without disclosing that you were compensated by the company is a violation.
Second) It does not matter that there is no specific contract – in other words even if the supplier does not know what the blogger is going to say when they give away the free product – if the blogger gets any compensation from the supplier at all the nature of the relationship with the supplier must be disclosed.
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