Way back in December 2009, the FTC finally launched its guidelines regarding the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising.
The goal was simple – with the increase in digital advertising and the rise in bloggers monetizing their blogs through advertorials and paid content (sponsored, affiliate or otherwise), the FTC wanted to ensure consumers were aware when something was being promoted for pay versus being a genuine recommendation.
The guidelines covered all forms of advertising, but it was the part about social media – and blogs in particular – that had a lot of people up in arms at the time, despite the fact that all the FTC guidelines were doing was encouraging honesty between blogger and reader.
The FTC made it clear what it expected of bloggers with an example regarding a video game blogger, summarized below:
A… video game expert maintains a blog where he posts about his gaming experiences. A manufacturer of a newly released game system sends…. a free unit and asks him to write a review. He… writes a favourable review [where his] relationship to the advertiser is not clear, [meaning] readers are unlikely to know that he has received the system free of charge.
The FTC continues that the blogger should “…clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the system free of charge”, and that the manufacturer should advise him that disclosure should be forthcoming.
Seems simple enough, right? Clearly not, as the last five years plus since the new guidelines came into play show.
If The Big Guys Don’t Care, Why Should You?
Recently, a well-known social media blogger wrote a review of Google’s Chromebook. The blogger shared his experience on how the features of a $200 Chromebook helped his business make 150x its cost in revenue for a course the blogger ran.
All good, all excellent stuff. Lots of good reasons why someone should buy this particular Chromebook.
If you look at the URL in the image above, you’ll see “Link ID” and then a number. This is your typical Amazon affiliate link, which means the blogger in question is making a percentage of every Chromebook sold through his link.
Nothing wrong with that – except nowhere in the blog post is it mentioned an affiliate link is being used for the Chromebook link. But that doesn’t matter, right, because the blogger has a disclosure sentence on his About page.
As far as disclosures go, this is a pretty good one – it makes it nice and clear that affiliate links are to be expected, and that the blogger uses the products he endorses as well, increasing the relevancy of the promotion.
The problem is, this isn’t enough.
While having a disclosure section on your About page is fine, it only works if people actually visit that page and are aware of your affiliate tendencies.
Which, as the FTC makes clear in its updated guidelines, isn’t enough.
As highlighted in the image above, the guidelines are very clear when it comes to how endorsement is presented.
In some instances, where the link is embedded in the product review, a single disclosure may be adequate. When the product review has a clear and conspicuous disclosure of your relationship – and the reader can see both the product review and the link at the same time – readers have the information they need. Putting disclosures in obscure places – for example, buried on an ABOUT US… page – isn’t good enough.
And it’s this failure to disclose on-page where so many bloggers are tripping up, either deliberately or through lack of awareness.
But that isn’t really an excuse.
Why It’s Not Just Your (Blogging) Pocket That Could Be Hit
The FTC has made it clear that it will penalize non-disclosure, and examples of bloggers and advertisers making a profit from false advertising. Not disclosing affiliate relationships falls within this, as does not being clear on what’s a sponsored post.
The fact that bloggers are still bypassing this important part of disclosure is surprising, given it’s been more than five years since the original guidelines were published, and two years since the last update.
Not exactly new guidelines to get your head around, are they?
Now for some, it may be that they genuinely think an About page disclosure is adequate.
For others, it may be they feel the FTC is being two-faced, and should go after celebrities and magazines that endorse products/run advertorials without disclosure (point is – there are laws already in place to prevent this).
But that’s neither here nor there.
If you’re a blogger, and you’re looking to make an extra few bucks through endorsements of any kind – paid, sponsored, affiliate – you need to disclose, simple as.
If you don’t, you run the risk of being fined by the FTC.
But, perhaps more importantly, if you don’t disclose, either knowingly or unknowingly, it suggests a couple of things:
- You’re deliberately misleading me, the reader
- You’re not up-to-date on the guidelines/laws that impact the industry you sell knowledge in
It doesn’t really matter which point you belong in, because they both mean the same thing – why should I trust your content if you either don’t care, or don’t know, about something that impacts the relationship with your readers?
For any blogger, the answer to that shouldn’t be a question they’re willing to pose.
Update April 8, 2015: Brian Hawkins made a good point in his comment about the FTC not making it clear where disclosure should be. This was addressed in their 2013 update, which you can find details of here, or download the full PDF version here.