Review Disclosure: Separate Treatment for Bloggers and Traditional Media

The FTC recently produced new rules governing disclosure for bloggers and other “word-of-mouth-advertisers.” Basically, the take-away is that a blog, Tweet, Facebook, Amazon review, etc. is now viewed as a paid endorsement if you receive the product from the manufacturer for free. Okay, fair enough. But the FTC “does not consider reviews published in traditional media…to be sponsored advertising messages.” The Commission believes that “knowing whether the [traditional] media entity that published the review paid for the item in question would not affect the weight the consumers give to the reviewer’s statements.”

As a guy who makes maybe a grand a year reviewing stuff for traditional media, this strikes me as wrong (and unfair). There is an enormous disparity in the review policies of traditional media. At one extreme you have Consumer Reports, with a famously rigorous policy of avoiding vendor influence, at the other you have, say, dive travel magazines where you can find “reviews” written by advertising representatives! Such policies are not obvious to readers and are relevant to their judgment. On the matter of fairness, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: drawing lines between “old” and “new” media is a sucker’s game.

It doesn’t make sense to me that in a review published in this blog, I am legally obligated to add a line that reads, say, “I received a free copy of this book” but that very same line doesn’t have to appear if I write the review for my column in SD Times. It’s not the obligation to “clearly and conspicuously” disclose in the blog that I object to, it’s that traditional media are exempt from disclosing the exact same “material relationship” between the manufacturer and the reviewer.

I plan on writing a little “standard disclosure” page that reveals the (I hope not surprising) fact that I receive a lot of books, software, and conference registrations for free. I’ll link to that when I write reviews in my blog. I don’t see why a similar disclosure of review policies is a burden for traditional media.

But you tell me: when you read or view a review in traditional media, does the knowledge of whether the product was paid for affect the weight you give the review?

4 thoughts on “Review Disclosure: Separate Treatment for Bloggers and Traditional Media

  1. These days I assume that most product reviews in “traditional media” such as magazines are for free products, or slightly altered press releases. But that is something I learned only a few years ago. It is also dependent on the magazine, when there was a scandal in my hometown regarding the travel section of our newspaper. Subsequently that newspaper now also mentions at the end of the article that “John Smith’s accommodation was supplied free of charge by Hotel X”

  2. Pingback: Review Disclosure: Separate Treatment for Bloggers and Traditional Media « From Big Island (FBI)

  3. To me, there’s a difference between a book reviewer who receives a $10-30 book for free and then writes a review and a hotel reviewer who receives a $2000 vacation for free and then writes a review. The former I would assume can keep an objective mind about the book but the latter I would not.

    Is this fair? I don’t know. Where do I draw the line? Does getting a $100 piece of software for free imply-in-my-mind bias? I don’t know. There’s a big grey area in there and a lot of it depends on trust (or lack thereof) built up over time reading reviews from the same author.

    All that said: I agree 100% that there should not be a distinction between old and new media. And it helps credibility on both sides when the author discloses whether or not they paid for the product being reviewed.

  4. Larry:

    I agree with you: I think the burden of asking “traditional media” to make these disclosures is quite small, and probably worthwhile; I think particularly “good” publishers will already be doing this. But I DO think that there is a difference between the “traditional” review and *many* bloggers (not all!) which makes this sort of disclosure more important in the case of the blogger.

    The distinction is the size of other sorts of compensation. If a technical writer is paid by the word for a regular column and earns around $20,000 annually from her writing, then I don’t really think that her opinion was swayed by the free book or free tech gadget (street value of several hundred dollars) she received to review it. On the other hand, if a blogger receives $800/year from running Google ads then I am a little less sure. The value of the swag isn’t overwhelmed by their regular salary or by the value of their professional reputation, because they’re not getting much of either. It *is* probably overwhelmed by their personal integrity: few bloggers I know would sell out for the price of a book or gadget. But since there is less at risk for bloggers who allow their opinion to be swayed in the direction that gets one more books and gadgets than there is at risk for “professional” journalists who do the same, I think the importance of the disclosure is greater for bloggers.

    Of course, the “professional” should be even more strongly motivated to disclose any such compensation. Readers are smart enough to tell when a free book or gadget influenced a review and when it didn’t.

    Larry: Excellent point re. relative compensations. Additionally, it seems relevant that a professional writer is paid an upfront fee while a blogger’s compensation (in addition to the free product) might consist of incremental ad revenue or associate fees made over a long period.

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