I remember the big “payola” scandals in the record industry in the 60’s. Record companies gave “promotional” payments to radio disc jockeys to play specific songs and give them ample air time in order to popularize them.
Alan Freed, the number one New York City disc jockey at the time, and early supporter of rock and roll, had his career shattered by a payola scandal.
In its new Guides, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) expresses their concern about possible payola to bloggers from manufacturers, distributors and service providers in exchange for positive reviews of their products. To combat the problem, the FTC has developed a new set of rules to require some reviewers to reveal if they have received compensation which might taint their product reviews; FTC 16 CFR Part 255, Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
There are so many difficulties and troubles with the new regulations, I hardly no where to begin, so I’ll start with what I do in my reviews and product suggestions here at Consumer Traveler and in my blog.
I disclose any financial and/or commercial relationships between me and the company(s) producing or selling the products or services I review. I abhor “stealth marketing.” It’s inappropriate, unfair, and unethical journalism.
Often, manufacturers or distributors lend me products to test and review. Once reviewed, I return all loaned products. If it’s a service being reviewed, there is nothing to return, however, once testing of the service is complete, I discontinue it. If I like the product or service enough, I later purchase it at typical street or retail pricing.
Over the years I’ve received a few trinkets like key rings, T-shirts, and low capacity memory sticks, from manufacturers and distributors, but I accept nothing of any real value. I even purchased the Nikon baseball cap I’ve been wearing this year.
I’ve reviewed all 81 pages of the new FTC regulations. I see two major problems with them.
First, the FTC has differentiated between reviews of “traditional” media, such as magazines, newspapers, television and radio, even when published to the Internet, versus reviews offered by “non-traditional” outlets such as blogs (I can find no actual definition of what the FTC considers a “blog” in the new regulations.) infomercials, celebrity or professional endorsements and such.
The problem is, in the real world, the difference between reviews in “traditional” media and blogs is wholly an invention of the FTC. The difference doesn’t exist, in my opinion.
This begs the question, “Shouldn’t the FTC be protecting consumers regardless of reviews’ sources.”
You tell me. What’s the real difference if Skooba sends me, or Conde Nast Traveler magazine, a sample of their “Checkthrough Brief” for review?
I’ll tell you what the difference is. I probably have to tell you that I received a free bag to review, yet Conde Nast Traveler magazine definitely doesn’t have to tell you a thing about how they got the product, even if their reviewer takes the bag home for personal use.
Of course, if I return the bag after I test and review it, it appears as though I don’t have to reveal that I got it on loan for testing.
Second, the FTC regulations are poorly-written, poorly thought-out and very hard to understand. In part, this comes from the way they are written. They are not traditional regulations which clearly state what you may or may not do, and how you have to do it. They only thing that they state clearly is, that if you are subject to the regulations, and don’t fulfill them, you will be subject to an $11,000 fine per violation.
I would characterize the regulations as a collection of anecdotal examples from which we are to glean whether or not we are subject to the regulations, what the FTC wants us to do, and how we are to conduct ourselves under them.
Specific definitions in the examples are almost non-existent, and clarity is most definitely non-existent.
If I receive a product for free to review, then return it once the review is complete, in my opinion, I’ve received no material value from the loan of the product, but the FTC regulations are unclear whether or not that’s true.
Moreover, the regulations are unclear what, when, where, and how my disclosure to the public is to be made about any financial or business relationship between me and the company providing the product or service for review.
I think my readers are pretty smart people. I think that after reading my reviews they are able to discern whether or not I deserve their trust. If readers don’t find my reviews or suggestions trustworthy, they’re going to go elsewhere for them.
If the FTC wants to legislate reviewer ethics, they should at least be doing that for everyone, not just some reviewers. Regardless, the FTC should leave ethical judgments to the public. The public quickly leaves reviewers in the dust, who aren’t honest, candid and accurate.