FTC, eat this
You remember how last October the Federal Trade Commission issued a new rule mandating that bloggers who review products have to reveal if they were paid to do so by the company that sent them the product.
The key phrase, from the FTC’s press release, was: …“material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers.
That sent a few shivers down the spine of the wine blogosphere. It meant, in effect — well, what exactly did it mean? Nobody was sure. “Material connections” — what the hell was that? “Payment” is easy enough to understand: If wine blogger “A” gets cash for reviewing a wine, that’s pay-to-play, and must be revealed. But what about the free wine itself? Is that “payment”? Probably not, but it is a “free product.” If I tell my readers repeatedly, over time, that this is the case, is that information consumers “would not accept”? If the wine blogger is reviewing wine on his website, does every single review have to include a disclaimer?
Note to readers: I received this wine for free and received no other benefits from the winery
What if the blogger tasted the wine on a junket that was paid for by a regional wine association of which the submitting winery was a dues-paying member? What if the blogger drives to wine country, then stays the night in a winery guest house? What if he let a winemaker buy him a danish yesterday, a coffee 8 years ago?
Note to readers: I accepted a free $3.25 cappuccino [low-fat, wet] from the winemaker
Does his wine get an extra two points? Is it perceived as being favored?
Bloggers have been waiting eagerly to see what the FTC would do next. Now, the agency has taken a step, and it seems to be one that will have the bloggers breathing more easily — at least, for now.
“No Fines Levied in FTC’s First Blogger-Advertiser Investigation” is the headline on this article from an online site, Mashable: The Social Media Guide. Seems that Ann Taylor, the clothing manufacturer, hosted an event early this year to which they invited bloggers. Ann Taylor promised the bloggers they would get a “special gift” and also be eligible for a gift-card drawing, worth up to $500. That seemed a clear violation of the new FTC rule. But the FTC decided not to fine anybody, although it’s hard to understand just why. There was some talk that the bloggers might not have clearly understood the rule, which is natural enough, given how opaque it is; also, they may not have seen a sign, posted at the event, advising them to disclose any gifts they received from the clothier. Maybe the FTC just got cold feet at the last minute. It’s one thing to issue a statement. It’s another to actually enforce it, especially when the “criminals” are underpaid bloggers who are probably just scraping by, trying to figure out how and if they can make a living in this new media.
California wineries seem to be largely ignoring this silly rule, but Rodney Strong recently sent an electronic email warning us critics they won’t send samples unless we comply with FTC guidelines. Here it is. [I have edited the email for length]:
In accordance with the Federal Trade Commission, below is Rodney Strong’s digital influencer agreement. To receive future releases of Rodney Strong Wine Estates wines for possible review, please review and reply YES to this email….
Please do not alter the subject line. Please know that I am sending this to all my media contacts, whether you blog or not. Everything seemingly gets online one way or another.
Please know that we greatly appreciate your voluntary participation with us and we do not require any influencer to blog or discuss Rodney Strong Wine Estates, its labels, products, initiatives or events related to the company regardless of any material compensation.
Because we believe true advocacy can never be purchased, we do not pay for editorial placement. However, we do provide free product, host regional meetings and sponsor Sonoma County wine education trips for qualifying journalists, bloggers and other digital influencers.
In order to remain compliant with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) blogger guidelines, Rodney Strong Wine Estates respectfully requests that you adhere to the below listed disclosures and best practices.
Standards of Conduct in Working with Rodney Strong Wine Estates:
· We ask that you disclose in each post if you received free product, a trip, or any other material compensation received from Rodney Strong Wine Estates.
Tips on compliance:
· Disclose in each post.
· Create a disclosure policy that is visible and easy to read on your website, blog or Twitter account.
· Include brand affiliation and /or your likelihood that you will receive compensation in the future in your bio.
If you are in agreement with the above guidelines, please reply YES to this email.
[This is Steve again] I don’t review wine on this site, so I suppose the FTC’s law, or Rod Strong’s threat, doesn’t apply to me. But I am a “digital influencer,” so maybe Rodney will sic the thought police on me. I hope and trust not. But this officious, troubling warning from a major California winery is troubling.
Look, the new FTC law is unenforceable. To support it, in any way, is stupid and cowardly. All self-respecting wine writers should oppose it. If there are bloggers out there who are flagrantly violating well-known ethical standards, the market will out them. We don’t need a new government rule mandating a new warning on the label nobody cares about except opposite legal counsel.