The Hypocrisy of Affiliate Disclosure Rules

Editor’s Note: There has been a lot of discussion this week about disclosure. One particular high profile incident was sparked by Chris Brogan who sent out a tweet with a link about StudioPress. The link lacked disclosure within the tweet and Danny Brown, Co-Founder and Partner at Bonsai Interactive Marketing, called Chris out. Now Chris is quite clear about his relationship with StudioPress on his blog, but with his elevated profile what Chris does attracts a lot of scrutiny. He gets called out pretty frequently for slights both real and imagined.

It’s at this point Jason Falls, Founder of Social Media Explorer, entered a brief but spirited debate with Danny on Chris’s behalf stating that if a business relationship is clearly and publicly disclosed somewhere it doesn’t need to be disclosed everywhere (aka buyer beware). Jason added the well taken point, “Let’s be reasonable. This is Twitter.”

Danny strenuously argued the point that many, especially in social media, agree with that all instances of affiliate links should be disclosed. Unfortunately I am pretty sure the FTC would agree with him in principal.

Which leads us to today’s guest post by Daniel M. Clark, Founder of QAQN, and reprinted here in it’s entirety with his permission. Daniel brings up a very interesting point about affiliate links in particular and how disclosure of affiliate relationships is held to a more stringent standard then other forms of sponsorship. It could be just the taint of affiliate marketing, as if somehow affiliate advertising is “seedier” than other forms of advertising. What Daniel doesn’t point out is that only white hat marketers (affiliate or otherwise) would have any moral pangs about disclosing. Black hat marketers would just keep distributing links.

I hope you enjoy the article and take part in the debate in the comments. (BTW in the spirit of this topic the links Daniel included in his original post are kept intact. They are all affiliate links and they are all his.) Enjoy.

The Hypocrisy of Affiliate Disclosure Rules

I might end up doing a show about this down the road, but as I was running around the internet this morning, something occurred to me. I came across some articles about the disclosure of affiliate links, and how we’re supposed to disclose everything now, everywhere we are. Post an affiliate link on your site? Disclose. Tweet an affiliate link on Twitter? Disclose. Facebook? Disclose. No matter what the context, we’re supposed to disclose.

Well, let me ask you two questions, and I’m genuinely curious what you think.

First, why is it that other forms of media are not subject to such stringent rules?

Television and radio are not required to disclose every single relationship they have. Movies? Product placement is the norm. There’s never been a requirement that says “If you show a product in your movie, you must disclose that you were paid to put it there.”

Second, what about situations where there’s money on the line, but it’s not an affiliate relationship?

Here’s an example: Chris Pearson created the Thesis framework for WordPress. (Wanna make a guess about whether or not that link was an affiliate link?) Chris is very active on Twitter. He promotes Thesis pretty regularly. He potentially benefits from every link back to Thesis because he’s its creator! So… should Chris be required to “disclose” that he potentially makes money when people click his links? Remember, affiliate links are not guaranteed compensation – only if someone makes a purchase does an affiliate get paid. Maybe someone clicks one of Chris’ links and buys Thesis, maybe not.

I could be another example. I’m launching a podcast consulting gig. Do I need to disclose when I link to my pages that I’m going to make money if you hire me? Technically, according to the concepts and the spirit behind what we are required to do with affiliate links, Chris and I should both be disclosing on each and every link we put out there.

I’d like to know what you think about this.

12 Responses to The Hypocrisy of Affiliate Disclosure Rules

  1. Maybe we should all just call ourselves journalists, then we would have nothing to worry about, right?

    I remember when the FTC came out with their horrendous guidelines 2 years ago. I read every document involved in it. The document where challenges to their guidelines were presented and responded summed everything up clearly – the FTC has no idea what to do about this, so they came up with unmeasurable loose guidelines you better follow to the letter or you’re screwed. Granted, I am not a lawyer, but a similar opinion has been told to me by them.

    Do we have to have URL shorteners which redirect to a link but with a DIV at the top which says this is an affiliate link? What happens if someone doesn’t notice that DIV or any other blatently obviously messages that people like Chris Brogan, Christopher S. Penn or myself put on our blogs which say these are affiliate links?

    Do we come a police state where every tweet is filtered? Or do we realize that mankind, since the beginning of time, will always communicate with their best, self-promoting interests in mind?

    When the FTC abomination came down and I explained it to a journalism, he laughed, saying how he has traveled the world and participated in events for the purpose of reporting on them in the news and he never had to disclose it, as that’s just the way it has always been.

    Does a Congress, who was smart enough to repeal the 1099 requirement, have any say over this?

    mp/m

    • “Or do we realize that mankind, since the beginning of time, will always communicate with their best, self-promoting interests in mind?”

      I learned when I was a teenager that anytime anyone mentions a product or service, the odds that that person is being paid to talk about it are pretty good. Chances are, in all likelihood, if someone on TV or in a movie, or on the radio is talking about a product, there’s money changing hands.

      A few years later, 1992, I went online for the first time with Usenet, and a few years after that, 1996, AOL. It was at this point that I started seeing a few ads for things, and then a few years after that – roundabout 1998/1999, it all blew up and we started seeing true affiliate programs, online marketing, and the evolution of everything we know today.

      And I never – not *once* – thought that the internet was any different than TV, radio or movies. I always knew that if a site linked out to a product or service, that the site was likely being compensated for it. I didn’t need the FTC to force the sites to tell me so.

  2. It’s the old Animal Farm thing where all marketing is equal, but some is more equal.

    Where are the hysterical marketing nannies when it comes to the undisclosed product placement in the new Britney Spears video at http://www.vevo.com/watch/britney-spears/hold-it-against-me/USZM21100010

    I’d say she’s promoting Make Up Forever, PlentyOfFish, and Sony without disclosure.

    More about this at Wicked Fire:
    http://www.wickedfire.com/shooting-shit/116878-pof-britney-spears-new-music-vid.html

  3. Agreed. “Television and radio are not required to disclose every relationship they have.” (Do I need to source this quote even if it’s from you?) For example look at the performance based DRTV and DRRadio space. The leadership companies in the space (I’ve grown both) don’t disclose to their advertising partners their media affiliate partners which comprise their networks. This non-disclosed model is both accepted and understood. And I for one, cannot see this changing. Why should it? The media affiliates don’t even want it disclosed to advertisers and agencies that they are participating in a performance relationship that generates for them a steady second source revenue stream for the undervalued and unsold inventory. While we all understand that there are no absolutes and that this issue is not a binary one still the validity of non-disclosure within the above model should be taken into consideration when assigning position values to this issue. One last question here, do I need to establish and declare my IP rights here?

    • Well said. I’m reminded of the scene in Wayne’s World when he’s holding up the bag of Doritos and other items in a parody of product placement. How is it that the FTC ignores relationships in other media, but they feel the need to regulate the internet to death? Do they really have that little faith in the American consumer? It’s like they’re saying we’re all stupid.

  4. Pat Grady says:

    political orgs are lazy by nature, misguided in direction, and lack innovation and technological sophistication, so the ease of being able to force something, is a real factor in their decision whether to implement it (shouldn’t danger / damage be the driver). further, these same orgs don’t disclose their own ties, nor their records of not achieving their stated goals, nor their failures, nor their political favors. they know the guy writing the rules is generally regarded as having elevated principles without having to provide proof. journalists used to be our primary protector against bad business AND bad govt, those days are long gone. who will be our new hero? ironic part is that journalists voluntarily abrogated their past ‘value’ as truth champions, to chase the almighty dollar – and they didn’t disclose how they were making their money – now, they aren’t making any money because of that very choice. so twisted and tragic that it’s funny.

    • Very good point, Pat. Indeed, who will be the new hero? Bloggers? Not likely. Can the journalists reclaim their position? That, I think, is the big question… because if you look at history, it’s the journalists that have kept the governments and the corporations honest (so to speak). With that lost over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen the result – both the government (both parties) and the corporations (especially) have run amok.

      • Pat Grady says:

        we differ a little DMC, but only on degree of who has run further amok. imo, those with guns and force are never as scary as those without.

  5. Cookiejarmoney says:

    Don’t you just love people who scream “fire, fire” to get attention?
    Here’s the scoop from the current FTC Guidelines, page 2: I’ve read that bloggers who don’t comply with the Guides can be fined $11,000? Is that true?
    I’ve read that bloggers who don’t comply with the Guides can be fined $11,000? Is that true?
    No. The press reports that said that were wrong. There is no fine for not complying with an FTC guide. Are you monitoring bloggers?We’re not monitoring bloggers and we have no plans to. After reading the entire set of Guidelines, I read it as they are interested in stopping blatent deceptive advertising – if you’re open and not misleading or deceptive to your customers or promoting questionable products, I can’t see them botherering you.

  6. [...] Of course there are two sides to everything with those that are all for disclosure and those that don't really see the point; some calling it outright the  hypocrisy of affiliate disclosure rules. [...]

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