This week a lawyer for the FTC was unable to explain the crackdown on bloggers receiving freebies that began in 2009. The regulations state that bloggers must disclose to their readers when they're writing about free stuff, but, many bloggers wondered, why were print editors seemingly exempt from the regulations? "That's a very good question I don't think I have the answer to. I don't know," the lawyer told Racked's Danica Lo. Since we covered Racked's findings, the FTC's social-media expert e-mailed us the following:
As an FYI, I’ve been in contact with Danica since the article was released to clarify our Endorsement Guides. I’ve explained to her that the Endorsement Guides apply across the board. We’re not as concerned with the medium, rather, whether or not readers understand the relationship between the writer and the company. If there’s a blogger out there who gets freebies all the time and the readers understand that, then they wouldn’t necessarily have to disclose. Conversely, if there’s a print writer out there where the relationship isn’t obvious that they’re being compensated in some way, then they are required to disclose. As it is, in most cases people understand in print what the relationship is. That isn’t the same for blogs at this time.
Oh do they, we asked the social-media expert. Do they understand the vast amounts of free stuff fashion-magazine editors get, for instance? And why does the FTC assume that they know that about print magazines but not bloggers? The social-media expert said she could not answer this question, so she transferred us to a lawyer, Mary Engle.
"Where you have a movie critic or a book reviewer or a travel reviewer, those people are clearly employed by that media company, so of course they’re not paying for every movie they go see, or every book they receive or every computer gizmo they test," Engle explained. "Now it’s murkier because there are clearly bloggers who have review blogs and they’re reviewing things they get for free."
But why was the rule created only for bloggers? "It wasn’t! That was a big misunderstanding. What we did was update endorsement guidelines to include online and social media. So we weren’t trying to target bloggers, we were just trying to bring the guidelines into the 21st century," Engle said.
The FTC regulates advertising, which must be "truthful and not misleading," Engle continued. "So that’s all we’re getting at — is when a marketer is reaching out to consumers through reviews and that’s part of the marketing plan." As for fashion magazines borrowing clothes for shoots and not sending them back, or receiving iPad look books, "The FTC just doesn’t regulate that aspect of the media at all."
So if a magazine chooses to feature the clothes and it's not part of some covert marketing scheme by a label, that's fine, by FTC standards. We asked if it would be problematic, according to the FTC rulebook, if a magazine featured designers' clothing proportionate to the amount of money labels spent on ads. "If they made a statement about which designers they featured, that would be one thing," Engle said. If they said they featured clothes on an unbiased basis, the FTC wouldn't look twice, but if they admitted to biased clothing inclusion, it would have to fall under the context of a "commercial statement" for the FTC to maybe care. "Is that a statement they’re using to sell their magazine? That would become a commercial statement — or is it just a statement of editorial policy?" Engle clarified.
So, get it?