Tuesday, October 6, 2009

FTC Mandates Blogging Review Ethics

Things have been slow on the riding front and even slower on the blogging front. My work and travel schedule has limited my riding to short 20 mile rides every few days and left little time for writing. However, I was thankfully able to head out on a nice 30 mile ride yesterday as well as another 20 miler today. Although it's not directly related to cycling, I feel compelled to write about a news story which caught my eye yesterday that will affect this blog as well as every other one you read. Yesterday the FTC decided to finally address the disclosure of product reviews and advertisement in the new wave of social media (blogs, Facebook, and Twitter).

Previously, bloggers who received products for review had no obligation to disclose how the product was obtained or any compensations for a review. How do I know this? I have a closet full of golf clubs I received for review when I was writing for an online forum. In fact my driver, fairway woods, and irons came free as review models I could keep. Purchased from the store, they had a rough value of around $1,800 . Thankfully I had the backing of a company who dealt with obtaining these products for review, so I felt no pressure to give a glowing recommendation where there was none. However, I can imagine the pressures faced by individual bloggers who felt the need to write positive reviews to maintain a cordial relationship with a company. After all, what company would invest time and money sending products for review just to have Joe Blogger tear them down? It's a win / win situation. The bloggers get free product while the companies essentially get free advertising. This became such an effective strategy, I know of a few top-tier golf club companies which abstained from traditional print media reviews in favor of seeking out bloggers and online forums.

Those days have thankfully drawn to an end. As of December 1, 2009 all bloggers who review products will be held to the same standards of disclosure as print media. The FTC has stated that the disclosure must be "clear and conspicuous." While the intentions are great, I question the enforcement of these rules. There are no licenses required to be a blogger. There are no startup costs. A few clicks of a mouse and an e-mail address is all someone needs to claim their own piece of internet publishing. With literally millions of blogs on the interwebs, perusing the blogs to find violators is a literal needle in the haystack. Rich Cleland, assistant director of the FTC's advertising practices division mentioned targeting companies with misleading advertisements, such as unsubstantiated dramatic weight loss stories. Bloggers for the most part would be liable only if they have received pervious warnings and have substantial readership - blogs most likely to receive product and compensation for reviews.

So if bloggers won't be penalized for the most part, what is the point of the new rules? They place an onus on the reader to read blogs which fully disclose their ties to companies and products. Will the new rules stop the bias of bloggers who receive free products? I doubt it. However, anything which adds an extra layer of transparency and ethics to blogging will help many readers realize a bit of what goes on behind the scenes. I will say now that any product that appears or is reviewed on this blog is paid for in full by myself. I receive no compensation in any way for my writing on Life and Bikes; only the satisfaction of keeping my writing skills active and helping out a fellow cyclist on occasion.

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