Mommies vs. the FTC: Fear and cringing in the pay-to-praise blogosphere

mommies-vs-the-ftc-fear-and-cringing-in-the-pay-to-praise-blogosphereEven for someone who gets blessed with free washers and dryers, semiannual boondoggle trips to Los Angeles, New York and Florida, and all the organic yogurt drinks she can consume, $11,000 is a lot of money. For mommy bloggers, Tweeters and Facebookers who post opinions about consumer products, $11,000 is the size of the fine they allegedly might incur for failing to follow the government's disclosure rules on advertising and endorsing.

According to recently revised Federal Trade Commission guidelines, bloggers and other word-of-mouth advertisers are now subject to FTC rules for advertisers and "endorsers" -- anyone who recommends a commercial product or service. Repeated violations of those rules could result in court-ordered monetary penalties. These new additions to the FTC Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising went into effect Dec. 1, and for many participants in the sometimes-lucrative world of social-media-for-pay, the fear is in the air.
Many social-media thought leaders, including famously pseudonymistic Dooce, have spoken out against the fines. In response, FTC representative Richard Cleland told Fast Company, "That $11,000 fine is not true. Worst-case scenario, someone receives a warning, refuses to comply, followed by a serious product defect; we would institute a proceeding with a cease-and-desist order and mandate compliance with the law ... There's no monetary penalty, in terms of the first violation, even in the worst case. Our approach is going to be educational, particularly with bloggers. We're focusing on the advertisers: What kind of education are you providing them, are you monitoring the bloggers and whether what they're saying is true?"

So, according to Cleland's statement and word from other agency representatives, the FTC won't fine a blogger who fails to disclose he or she is receiving some compensation to recommend a product or service on the first offense. However, Cleland himself points out that, were an advertiser or blogger to continue to fail to disclose pay-for-recommendation situations after that warning and the cease-and-desist order, then the agency would "mandate compliance with the law"; likely resulting in one or several fines for violation of trade regulation laws. And the actual fine for that these days isn't $11,000 -- it's $16,000.

Easy Targets for Mockery, but Not the Targets of the FTC

Mom bloggers are in the spotlight due to these new guidelines, perhaps because they are the most fun to caricature, but also because many of them are naive and eager to make extra cash through their friends. (See: Avon, Tupperware, Quixtar, Creative Memories, and an inexhaustible list of other MLM companies targeted toward at-home moms.) And while bloggers are the ones most visible for their work touting brands, the FTC is not just monitoring fawning blog posts, but all sorts of word-of-mouth advertising. The new rules could apply not just to Twitter and Facebook, but a variety of other means of communication, electronic and not-so-much, from Flickr to e-mail to inviting your preschooler's classmates for a Quaker-sponsored oatmeal party.

I went to a Quaker party, and the family which invited me disclosed the tie-in, up to and including the funny quotes from the company's emails and Tweets. Even if the new guidelines had been in effect, the FTC wouldn't have flagged that party. And the FTC has said that its target during the "educational phase" of the new guidelines' campaign are corporations like PepsiCo (PEP), which owns Quaker Oats, by the way. It's the companies that are obligated to help the party hosts and bloggers to whom they reach out understand what to disclose and how to disclose it.

But many of the perks offered to mommy bloggers today aren't quite so clear-cut. Sure, it's obvious that when Andrea Deckard, subject of a recent L.A. Times article on the FTC requirements, is flown to Los Angeles by Frito-Lay to meet Brooke Burke and other celebrities, she isn't doing it on her own dime. She discusses her sponsor frankly on her Mommy Snacks blog. But does this color her future handling of Frito-Lay news? Well, she's certainly not one to take the snack company to task for selling unhealthy snacks in school vending machines, or taking advantage of the locavore movement by positioning its chips as farm-direct. A critic, she's not. In a sample post from her blog on printable online coupons: "$.50 Lunchables. These will likely be FREE with coupon with doubling!"

Uncritical Reviews, Lots of Exclamation Points!!!

Bloggers like her -- full of exclamation points, coupons, giveaways, and rarely ever a critical word; eager to accept whatever trips or free products manufacturers dole out -- are the sort that have me wincing in pain. Blogger Liz Gumbinner, who's worked for many years in advertising, used the word "cringe." On her Mom-101 blog, she pointed out she had cringed in response to another source for The Los Angeles Times story who said, thanks to marketers' lavish ways, "there has never been a better time to be a mom with a computer." She wasn't cringing at the moms and their exclamation points so much as at the media coverage of the moms and their exclamation points.

This is, for example, a real tweet by a real mom: "my Nikon D5000 SLR Outfit w/ 18-55MM arrived today!!!! I feel some GREAT photog. reviews coming soon !!!!"

But even the mommy-bloggers-who-cringe feel uncomfortable issuing bad reviews. They're more likely to put the products they don't like in a closet, give them to charity, keep silent. As Boston Mamas founder Christine Koh writes, "
every now and then there are products that don't work out for whatever reason (e.g., bad smell, breaks immediately) and I do not feature these items just because they were submitted." Koh is what I consider a real journalist who, on her mom blog, writes about products in a way that does not make me recoil. But even she won't enter into negative opinions (and didn't name the bad-smelling body product to which she referred, even in the comments of her post).

The Blog With Integrity pledge, created by Gumbinner and a few other women, doesn't say bloggers should tell the truth about even the smelly body products. It is Utopian in concept, and includes promises to "disclose material relationships," to site sources and to credit inspiration, to "
treat others respectfully, attacking ideas and not people" and "handle myself professionally and abide by basic journalistic standards."

It's all laudable, but exaggerates the point no one is quite making: The moms are cringing, and nearly all of them are still nervous to call companies out for selling bad products. Perhaps they are shrinking in discomfort at one another's behavior; perhaps they're wrinkling their noses as mainstream media focuses just on them and not, say, on personal finance experts shilling for credit cards. I'm over here writhing in pain because many moms in social media, whether directly paid for their blog posts or simply showered with free DVDs and granola bars, are gushing over everything with an enthusiasm that makes my head spin.

My guess is that few if any mom bloggers will ever end up on the wrong end of a court-ordered cease-and-desist notice, stuck paying $16,000 because they wouldn't say up front that they'd received a free camera/car trip/box of body products even after repeated warnings. What they will do? Report enthusiastically about all cameras/cars/body products into which they come into contact, just in case.
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