New FTC Regulations

The Federal Trade Commission (U.S. agency for my non-American readers) released its official guide to those receiving goods or services in exchange for endorsements. According to the official title, it affects advertisers, bloggers, and celebrities endorsing a product (click here for the full report). The guidelines include, among other things, that the person making the endorsement disclose that they are being compensated for what they write. The details are a bit vague, but we can be sure that over time, the FTC will continue to refine this guide until it is a full-fledged regulation.

There are multiple potential impacts to this, some for good, others, not so much.

First, I held a debate a while back over whether or not bloggers should be disclosing that they are being compensated for the reviews they give (which is the basis of the FTC guidelines). The conclusion we reached was that while bloggers should be pointing out somewhere that they receive compensation for their reviews, they should not need to disclose this on each individual review they write. This lets their readers be aware that they may be biased on this account, and to value the review accordingly.

Second, there are tax considerations – when you receive compensation for work done, you have to report that as income. Robb Sutton pointed out to me in his article, published yesterday, that in the U.S. this reporting is only required if the paying company provides the appropriate paperwork. I find this to be a little odd, since in general, you have to report income regardless of whether or not the employer is filing his paperwork correctly, and I therefore suspect that it is only a matter of time before this ruling is changed to match.

Jeremy Schoemaker writes about this as well, and points out who was the cause of such regulation. The regulation is aimed to prevent a company from creating a fake blog where they review their own products. Since they would now have to report the compensation taking place, readers would then be aware that the site is merely a front for the company itself.

Except the regulation doesn’t quite pull that off. The company can now pay someone to set up a blog for them where they review the product and admit that the writer was paid for the review. This will cost them a small amount per review. Alternatively, they can risk running afoul of the FTC regulation by not admitting the bias, and be fined $10,000.00 [per violation]. However, this sum is not enough to stop a company from using fake blogs to advertise their products – such a site could easily generate $100,000.00 in profits from sales to its readers. Combined with the fact that the FTC will be unable to catch every violator makes this risk acceptable to some.

In summary, while the regulation in general is a good thing, it is not clear that the FTC has a road to its goal (namely, getting rid of fake blogs reviewing products and making outrageous claims). As the regulations and guidelines are refined, we’ll see if the FTC can figure out how to get where it’s going.