Why Social Media Needs the FTC

While some people might think that Ashton and Oprah on Twitter is the only news, the real social media story happening at the minute involves the FTC (the Federal Trade Commission).

Their announcement that they want to regulate social media advertising has been met pretty negatively by many in the social media field, particularly bloggers and advertisers. The feeling is bloggers will refuse to publish content that could see them being sued for false advertising, meaning a reduced social media-led advertising spend.

Now, call me naive, but personally I don’t see the FTC’s announcement being a problem. If you’re honest.

The Good, The Bad and the Sponsored

Friendly Donkey!!Think about the current discussions taking place about sponsored posts and the ethics behind them. The main argument against sponsored blog posts is that the blogger immediately loses credibility, since you can’t possibly be unbiased if you’re being paid for something.

While there’s some merit to this, I actually do believe you can remain both ethical and unbiased. Of course, it all boils down to the individual, but it can be done.

However, introduce the FTC into the equation, and it immediately lends authority and credence to both the blogger and the advertiser using them to promote their products. Immediate benefits include:

  1. Blogger and advertiser has to adhere to FTC standards
  2. Blog readers can read a product review and know it’s honest
  3. Builds trust between blogger and reader

On a long-term basis, the professional blogging industry gains more respect, advertisers see that social media is a field to take seriously, and consumers get the best of both worlds.

Yet still there are the complaints that it’s a bad move for social media.

Against the FTC

One critic is Richard O’Brien, vice-president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s). He claims, “Bloggers and other viral marketers will be discouraged from publishing content for fear of being held liable for any potentially misleading claim.”

Meanwhile, Nathania Johnson of SearchEngineWatch.com states, “The FTC should go back to elementary school. That’s when kids learn that opinions are not true or false – only facts are. They even have homework assignments about it.”

eyes openLet’s take both arguments at face value.

With regards Richard’s claim, surely the only people that will be discouraged by the new regulations will be the ones that were skirting around false advertising anyway?

Wouldn’t a claim only be misleading if any of the facts are distorted? Which would be the fault of both the blogger and the company using them.

Looking at Nathania’s position, it’s not opinion that’s being questioned – it’s false advertising. They’re two completely different things. Nathania herself points this out further in her piece (and, in a way, contradicts her opposition) when she asks, “When you see a celebrity endorse a consumer brand in traditional advertising, does anyone really believe that celebrity uses the brand?”

No. Most people don’t believe that the celebrity uses that product.

Because it is quite clearly a paid advertisement.

The difference with sponsored or paid blog posts is that it’s not always apparent that this is the case. While the blogger should disclose, not every one does. And this is where the false advertising argument comes into play.

Food for Thought

If I read someone and they say I should eat at Joe Average Burger Joint rather than Wendy’s or McDonald’s because they use healthier ingredients, and I then find out it’s not the case, I’m going to be angry. I’ve been lied to.

If I then find out that the blogger who reviewed and recommended Joe Average Burger Joint has never been there in their life, but instead was paid to write a positive review on their food blog because that’s Joe Average’s core audience… This is no longer opinion – this is paid advertising, and false advertising at that.

If anything, if social media is seen as being regulated properly it may actually encourage more businesses to become involved, knowing that the competition is fair.

The very fact that the FTC wants to step in and stop this kind of unethical and questionable consumer manipulation can only be a good thing. At least for the majority of those affected.

Otherwise, doesn’t it just raise the question of what are you hiding?

Creative Commons License photo credit: tricky ™
Creative Commons License photo credit: Yersinia

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