FTC pondering new guidelines for bloggers who review products

Every time the mail arrives at CityMama blogger Stefania Pomponi Butler's house, it's a crazy scene. Boxes and boxes of goods from corporations arrive at her door, waiting for her to review them.

"It's like Christmas every day, every week," said Pomponi Butler, who has recently reviewed a car, yogurt, laundry detergent and bento boxes. Because she doesn't have ads on her review site, she gets to keep the stuff, although the car was on loan for four days.

Scenarios like this are prompting some changes at the agency charged with keeping track of such things. Almost 30 years after the Federal Trade Commission last updated its guidelines for marketers and advertisers, the agency is looking at revising the guidelines so that bloggers and others who promote or review products follow the laws governing truth in advertising.

One of the FTC's proposals is that product testimonials by bloggers must contain full disclosure of the results that consumers can generally expect to get from the product. Bloggers would also have to clearly say that they're either getting paid for the review or that they received a free product.

The goal is to disclose the relationship between blogger and product maker. Most credible newspapers and magazines bend over backwards to reveal that relationship, mostly so readers understand what kind of information on a product they're reading: a product review by an impartial party...or the glowing praise of a paid shill.

Parent blogs, which review thousands of products, may be the most affected.

At CityMama, that disclosure is very apparent, with Pomponi Butler writing in every post that the item she's reviewing was given to her for free.

"I feel to be transparent is the only way to protect myself," she said.

Without the notice and without audiences knowing about the relationship between blogger and advertiser, then the bloggers could be seen as shills for the companies.

One way to deal with the issue is to join the BlogHer ad network, which has a policy that its members must either give away or send back any item worth $40 or more after reviewing it. Pomponi Butler is a member of the group, but elects not to have ads on her product review page, so she keeps everything she reviews.

With more than a month's worth of items sitting in her home waiting to be reviewed, it will be awhile before the companies will see their products written about on her web site, if at all. But for the ones she does get to, she'll only posts a review if she likes something.

"If I really hate something, I won't review it," she said in a telephone interview.

"I feel that if someone's going to send me a $300 printer, then they deserve a fair shake," she said, adding that she doesn't review the same type of product multiple times, or sends things back that she expects she won't like.

The FTC proposed guidelines are scheduled to be discussed further by the commission this summer. While labeled as guidelines, the FTC has the power to investigate, and any violations could result in civil penalties.

According to an e-mail exchange I had with an FTC spokeswoman, "People who receive direct payment would be subject to the guidelines. The FTC is still considering whether to and to what extent free samples would be considered compensation (i.e. whether and to what extent people receiving free samples would be subjected to the guidelines).

Someone who doesn't get paid in any way by the advertiser and doesn't have a relationship with the advertiser that needs to be disclosed, such as business or marital, wouldn't be subject to the guidelines, according to the FTC spokeswoman.

Sassafrass website owner Jessica Ashley is part of the BlogHer ad network and its $40 limit on product samples. Ashley said she tries to be subtle in her reviews about how she is paid, but now with the FTC proposals being discussed, she plans to be more clear.

"I haven't been as blatant as is being called for," she said.

"I don't necessarily think the FTC needs to have regulations about the liability of it," Ashley said in a telephone interview from her Chicago home. "I think the conversation is important, but I don't think the regulations are needed," she said.

Besides the technical aspects, part of the issue seems like an ethical dilemma discussed in every journalism ethics class in the country. How can readers trust what you're writing if you have a potential conflict of interest? If you get to keep something given to you after reviewing it, does that affect your opinion of it?

Colleen Padilla, who writes product reviews at classymommy.com of things her children, ages 1 and 3, might enjoy, says that the blanket disclosure on her site should be enough and that she's very transparent when she writes about products.

"I feel confident that if we are all transparent and have disclosures and disclaimers, then we'll all be OK," she told me in a phone interview from her home outside Philadelphia.

She has sponsored posts, such as for Energizer rechargeable batteries, and has started identifying that she's paid for them. Giving her opinion in a blog shouldn't be held to the same standards as newspapers and other professional publications.

"I'm not Consumer Reports," Padilla said. "I'm a mom with two kids writing about a product."

Aaron Crowe is an unemployed journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read about his job search at www.AaronCrowe.net
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