FTC Regulates Blogger, Viral Marketing Relationships: Analysis and compliance tips
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is regulating the use of blogs and other consumer-generated new media content in marketing. Revised advertising rules issued by the agency broadly extend the concept of endorsements and testimonials to include as sponsored advertising all sorts of loose new media relationships that are increasingly used in place of traditional radio and television advertising and paid endorsements.Â These rules fundamentally change the legal and regulatory landscape for Web 2.0 marketing and should be studied carefully by bloggers, marketers and online advertising agencies, all of whom will now have to contend with new compliance obligations.
On October 5, the FTC issued its final revised Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, the first rewrite of the Guides since 1980.Â Under the revised rules, which go into effect on December 1, companies that make payments or give free products to bloggers and other online commentators in order to generate positive buzz or favorable reviews for their products will now have to monitor closely the statements and claims made about the products and ensure that these relationships, if material, are clearly and conspicuously disclosed.Â Otherwise, they will face liability for unfair or deceptive advertising practices under Section 5 of the FTC Act, even if they do not control what the bloggers say (or, indeed, whether they say anything).Â The bloggers themselves will face similar liability for false or misleading statements and non-disclosure of material connections.Â Marketers are also responsible for advising bloggers of their responsibilities.
While not actually binding law, the Guides serve as administrative interpretations of the law, issued to provide guidance on what the FTC considers to be deceptive behavior.Â However, this does not mean compliance is optional.Â Violations are punishable by civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation. In addition to the regulation of Web 2.0 marketing which is the focus of this article, the Guides also include other significant changes, such as a new requirement that testimonials which do not describe typical consumer experiences must include clear and conspicuous disclosures of the results consumers can generally expect to achieve by using an advertised product.
By its very nature Web 2.0 marketing encompasses a variety of informal and fuzzy relationships which fall within the purview of the FTCâ€™s new rules even though they are qualitatively different from traditional uses of endorsements in advertising.Â For example, a marketer may provide unsolicited samples of its products to members of a blogger network who sign up for the network so that they can review the products on their sites.Â Or a marketer may supply a product, such as a video game, to one particularly well-read blogger known as an expert or authority in his area in the hope of gaining a positive review.Â Or the marketer may institute a word-of-mouth or viral marketing scheme where participants receive something of value (such as a payment or an entry in a sweepstakes) to e-mail their friends or send out tweets about the marketerâ€™s product.Â All of these relationships may now be characterized by the FTC as endorser-advertiser relationships, wherein both the â€œendorserâ€ (i.e., the person generating the content about the product) and the â€œadvertiserâ€ (the marketer) must ensure the absence of false or misleading statements and the â€œclear and conspicuousâ€ disclosure of connections that are not reasonably expected by the target audience and are likely to influence purchasersâ€™ assessment of the credibility of the statements.
When is a Favorable Post an â€œEndorsementâ€?
The Guides define an â€œendorsementâ€ as an advertising message that consumers will likely believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings or experience of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser, whether the endorserâ€™s statements are the same as or different from the sponsoring advertiserâ€™s.Â Knowing the level of incentive that turns blogger commentary into a compensated â€œendorsement,â€ thereby rendering both the blogger and the advertiser potentially liable for failure to disclose material connections and for deceptive statements, is critical.Â The FTC notes on page 10:
â€œ[A] blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an â€œendorsementâ€ within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturersâ€™ target market, the bloggerâ€™s statements are likely to be deemed to be â€œendorsements,â€ as are postings by participants in network marketing programs. Similarly, consumers who join word of mouth marketing programs that periodically provide them products to review publicly (as opposed to simply giving feedback to the advertiser) will also likely be viewed as giving sponsored messages.â€
The Guides cite as an example a consumer who purchases a new brand of dog food and reviews its favorably on her personal blog.Â If she purchases the dog food with her own money or gets it for free because the store routinely tracks her purchases and generates a coupon for a free trial bag of the new dog food, there is no endorsement.Â However, if the consumer gets the dog food as a result of joining a network marketing program under which she periodically receives various products about which she can write reviews if she wants to, her positive review will be considered an endorsement.Â As another example, a college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert receives (as he has in the past) a copy of a newly released video gaming system along with a request from the manufacturer to write about it on his blog.Â Â He tests it out and gives it a favorable review.Â This is also an endorsement, and the FTC comments that because the review is disseminated via a form of consumer-generated media in which his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious, and given the value of the gaming system, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received it free of charge.Â Furthermore, â€œ[t]he manufacturer should advise him at the time it provides the gaming system that this connection should be disclosed, and it should have procedures in place to try to monitor his postings for compliance.â€Â (Here the blogger would also have to comply with the FTCâ€™s rules on the use of expert statements in advertising.)
In one of the Guidesâ€™ most controversial examples, a skin care product manufacturer participates in a blog advertising service that matches up advertisers with reviewers.Â The marketer requests that the blogger try out its new body lotion and write a review.Â The blogger, totally on her own initiative and without any direction from the manufacturer, makes an unsubstantiated recommendation that the product cures eczema.Â Both the manufacturer and the blogger will be liable for the unsubstantiated claim and any failure to disclose that the blogger is being paid.
The FTC has explained that the purpose of the new rules is to treat new media in the same manner as traditional journalistic and advertising outlets.Â However, as a practical matter, many businesses treat these channels differently and will have to scramble to implement the necessary monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.Â When a business buys a conference sponsorship, for example, in the hope of generating some positive online buzz, is anyone at the sponsor giving the conference organizerâ€™s blog and Twitter emissions at compliance review?Â Indeed, the whole point of marketing to bloggers and through social media is to support a spontaneous and unforced style of commentary that has greater authenticity for cynical, tech-savvy consumers.Â Â Of course, in response to such comments the FTC has countered that its rules are designed precisely to protect consumersâ€™ ability to rely on this quality of the blogosphere in making purchasing decisions.Â Â Controlling what bloggers say is not relevant; what matters for liability purposes is whether â€œthe advertiser initiated the process that led to [the] endorsements being made â€“ e.g., by providing products to well-known bloggers or to endorsers enrolled in word of mouth marketing programs â€¦.â€
Playing the Compliance Game
Unfortunately, corporate legal departments will now have to extend the long arm of compliance over a whole host of Web 2.0 marketing activities that until now may have been loosely policed, if at all.Â Â â€œIn employing this means of marketing,â€ the FTC dryly observes, â€œthe advertiser has assumed the risk that an endorser may fail to disclose a material connection or misrepresent a product, and the potential liability that accompanies that risk.â€Â However, it also states that in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion it will consider â€œthe advertiserâ€™s efforts to advise these endorsers of their responsibilities and to monitor their online behavior â€¦.â€
What this means for companies is that they will have to design a compliance and monitoring program.Â What it means for online advertising agencies is that they can expect new restrictions and levels of review from clients over their Web 2.0 marketing activities and should also expect to assume a role in their clientsâ€™ compliance and monitoring programs.Â Companies will want to get a handle on what their marketing departments are doing to curry favor with bloggers and create buzz through viral online marketing and will be especially anxious to herd advertising and PR agencies into the corral, since the companies are legally responsible for the actions of these third-party agents.
If compensation, free products or other valuable incentives (such as sponsorships) are being offered in the hope of stimulating positive reviews, then the company will need to institute and document a process of advising bloggers and other new media commenters about their duty to disclose material connections and the limits on the factual claims they can make about a products and its beneficial effects.Â Â There should also be periodic monitoring of the resulting posts, with documented follow-up action if necessary, to make sure they comply with the FTCâ€™s endorsement guidelines.
If blogger relationships are managed through an advertising or PR agency, then the agency will likely have to provide detailed information for each campaign about its contacts with bloggers and will have to share in the responsibility of conveying the advertiserâ€™s guidelines to them and monitoring their compliance.Â Â Companies should include a specific allocation of responsibilities with respect to these issues in written contracts with their agencies.Â At the very least, a company should reserve the right to audit and pre-approve an agencyâ€™s solicitation of bloggers so that the company knows which bloggers the agency is dealing with and whether the relationships are of a type that could lead to advertiser-endorser liability and can monitor the bloggersâ€™ posts about the companyâ€™s products.
If this compliance burden is too onerous for companies and their online advertising agencies, the alternative is to implement policies that prohibit the payment of compensation or giving away of valuable products in the hope of generating positive online buzz.Â Â Favorable reviews are not â€œendorsementsâ€ within the meaning of the Guides unless they have been incentivized in some way.
Tips for Bloggers
As for bloggers and other online commenters, they should be sure to disclose any compensation or benefits they receive to comment on products and, if they do have such a connection to an advertiser, should be very careful to follow the guidelines furnished by the advertiser or its advertising agency (which the advertiser is required to provide) and not make general or sweeping factual claims about the product or any claim that canâ€™t be easily substantiated.Â If a blogger chafes at submitting to this degree of oversight and control, he always has the option of buying the product himself, for example, rather than receiving it as a freebie.Â The FTC has indicated that advertisers and not bloggers will be its main enforcement target.Â However, a blogger who runs a â€œsubstantial operationâ€ that violates the rules and who receives a warning will still be at risk.Â Moreover, the FTC can adopt a more aggressive enforcement stance at any time.
The FTCâ€™s rulemaking will heavily influence the way marketers generate buzz on the Internet and warrants close scrutiny of participation in blogger and viral incentive programs by all parties involved.