I’m a freak for car magazines. I read the British monthly Car (at 10 bucks a pop no less), Automobile, even Motor Trend - a title that never fails to raise a giggle from my wife for it’s retro specificity. They all feature monthly road tests of cars, all of which are provided for testing gratis by the manufacturers.
In fact, Car used to have a wonderful columnist named George Bishop (who is sadly now in the great beyond) who would fill his column with the intimate behind the scenes details of the lavish car launch junkets manufacturers would throw for journalists – often involving trips to exotic locales, free lodging and meals, and copious behind the wheel boozing. All the other journalists were taking part in the fun too, it’s just that Bishop saw fit to weave the freebies into his articles.
While these events have been toned-down considerably for the auto industry some version of these launch junkets still exist in other industries and free samples or products are a matter of course for any company seeking to see their product in print.
It’s interesting then that the FTC has decided to clamp down on bloggers who review products for money in a way that seems to be more onerous than the standard that journalists are held to.
Make no mistake, the meat of the ruling codifies the best practices I tell our clients about every day: transparency and authenticity. Paying bloggers for coverage should always merit disclosure.
Where it gets a bit tricky is what exactly constitutes payment. While Spin magazine writers get free CDs in order to write reviews, they are under no expectation to disclose this in every article. Yet, under the FTC regs it appears that bloggers who do the same could be seen as receiving an in-kind payment and be liable for an $11,000 fine.
While I applaud the FTC for rightfully cracking down on the practice of blogger payola, the wiggle room in the rules actually reinforces a divide between mainstream journalism and blogging that is becoming more arbitrary with each passing day.
While this will have little effect on the social media campaigns we run for our clients, it fosters confusion as to the role bloggers can play in promoting brands and products. Are they paid shills, journalists without advertising dollars, adversaries, allies? We get asked all of these questions.
They can be any of these things but in my experience as both a blogger and a marketer the most valuable blogs for most brands appreciate being treated with the same care and deference that any top media outlet or journalist would be treated with. That means a personal touch, no spam, a recognition of what they prefer to cover and write about and who their audience is.
It’s a shame the FTC didn’t take the same approach in writing their new rules.