The Business of Blogging

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Sudha Nagaraj

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Bloggers beware! You can no longer go berserk promoting this gizmo over that, vouching for X software over Y or push traffic on to a website through social marketing tools like tweets and Facebook posts.

 

The Federal Trade Commission in the US has decided to tweak the rules that govern endorsements and testimonials in advertising to bring new media under its ambit. From December 1, bloggers will have to disclose all links to advertisers, whether the product being promoted has been received gratis or if there has been any payment made for the blog.

 

Violations attract a whopping $ 11,000! So make sure there is a complete disclosure accompanying blogs, tweets and updates that eulogize any product or for that matter criticize something (it could well be a competitor’s product).  This applies to employees of a company who regularly post updates about the Company’s latest offer, event or business proposition. Ditto for corporate-sponsored research findings and sponsored talk-shows. Of course, if you are a consumer who is particularly happy with a product and choose to announce it to the world, you are not liable.

 

Another target of this campaign to clean up blogosphere and word-of-mouth advertising is celebrity endorsements. Celebrities should make a public disclosure that they are doing the endorsement for a consideration. On the other hand,   “atypical” attributes of a product highlighted by ads cannot get away with disclaimers in fine print. For instance, a testimonial that highlights dramatic results from the use of a product cannot merely mention that the attribute is atypical. Conversely, the “typical” results that can be expected should be underscored.

 

In short, if you are being paid to do a write-up about a Company, a new technology, or a software review which is positive, say so. If you are employed by the Company for whom you are doing the promotion, do not hide the fact. If you are trying to “educate” consumers by pointing out the negatives of a competitor’s product, be candid about your own antecedents. Now, it depends entirely on the strength of your arguments whether you are taken seriously or dismissed for painting an opponent with a tarred brush.

 

Though the guidelines prescribed are meant to usher in some credibility, the problem as always is obviously enforcement. How can you enforce norms on the Internet?

How do you trace a blogger half way across the globe and make him or her answerable to your laws? Should a book reviewer who accessed a free-e-version of some chapters, be taken for his word?

 

For consumers, the disclosures and disclaimers are normally confusing and either appear in fine print that is illegible or in a rapid-fire staccato voice-overs that merge with the background score. As for the 140-word limit tweets, how many of us have actually learnt to differentiate between tweets and updates that carry disclaimers like the Twittad badge and the “spon.in” which indicates the Twittad or sponsorship update and those that don't?

 

 

That said, the effort is a welcome move to sanitize the Internet of mindless marketing. Will it succeed? Let us hope so. Not because the Internet should be in fetters, but because the freedom it signifies should not be abused.

  
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