Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Listening to an FTC Lawyer: Clear as Mud, But it Covers the Ground

I recently sat in on a webinar given by the site "Blog with Integrity", with speaker Mary Engle.  Mary is the FTC's Associate Director of Consumer Protection.  I learned a lot about the new FTC guidelines, especially as it relates to blogging.  This is particularly timely, as the guidelines go into effect as of today, the day of this writing!

I came away from the webinar with a slightly more clear understanding of the concepts behind the new FTC guidelines, but I'm still a bit confused about how they want them to be implemented.  As I listened, I got the sense that they, too, haven't fully defined the details, and that they're still in the process of interpreting them.

FTC Guidelines for Existing Laws

The impetus behind the new guides is that a lot has changed and adapted since the '80s, when the laws were put into place.  The advent of blogging, social networking, and a vast landscape of interconnectedness has come along since then, and now they're trying to apply those existing laws and regulations to new circumstances.

That's OK.  A well-written law should be able to be applied fairly to new situations.  It does, however, make for some generalities that can be difficult to detail.  One thing that Engle mentioned is that these new FTC guidelines, by themselves, don't have the weight of law.  They are designed to show the application of the current laws.

Disclosure, Not Deception

The idea is that whenever someone writes or talks about a product or a company, the reader or viewer should be able to know if there's any connection between the writer/speaker, and the product or company being discussed. 

So, if I post to my Facebook page that I'm gonna hit McDonald's for lunch, do I have to add a disclosure statement?  Well, probably not, but it depends:  Did McD's pay me to say that?  Am I getting my meal for free in return for mentioning it on Facebook?  If so, I need to say so.  If nobody paid me anything, or gave me anything for free, I can say whatever I want.

What if I blog about my family life, and I put affiliate ads on the site?  Do I have to tell people that the affiliate links make me money?  Again, that depends.  If it's a big graphic ad off to one side of the blog, it's a pretty safe bet that everyone "gets it" that it's an ad, and that I'm getting compensated for it in some way.

On the other hand, what if I blog about a book, and put a link to that book over at Amazon?  In that case, it's a little less obvious and should probably be disclosed.

The overall focus, according to Engle, is to eliminate the deception.  If a blogger writes about something, the readers should be able to judge his/her fairness.  Did they get the product for free?  Were they paid to write?  Are they getting commissions for recommending a particular book?  The audience needs to know.

Linking to a Website.

Let's say that you blog primarily as an effort to promote an ecommerce website.  Let's say that you sell products at the site, and you want to blog about them.  You'd definitely want to disclose that, to be in compliance with these FTC guidelines.  Fortunately, that's not too hard.  "Come check out these products at our website! (link, link, link)"


Having testimonials on your website is a great way to build customer confidence.  If you get a spontaneous email about how good your product is, or how quickly you delivered it, then you've got gold, and you should post it on your website.  However, if you offer discounts or other premiums in return for testimonials, that has to be disclosed.

My Own Disclaimer!

The things I've said here are the things that I gathered as I was listening to the FTC presentation mentioned above.  I don't really know how the FTC is going to enforce these.  Frankly, I'm not convinced that they're too sure, either.  My best recommendation is to take some time and listen to the webinar and learn for yourself.  They can also be contacted via email with questions: endorsement@ftc.gov

Mark is currently in the curriculum Department of an internet and SEO training company. Mark also has other sites and blogs, including Mark's Black Pot - Dutch Oven Recipes, MarkHansenMusic.com and his MoBoy blog.

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