Disclosure Time

Today is the first day the Federal Trade Commission’s new guidelines on endorsements go into effect.  These legal interpretations let advertisers know what’s permissible and what’s unacceptably misleading in product testimonials by consumers, celebrities, journalists, and of recent import, bloggers and other “word-of-mouth” consumer-level marketers.  (Here’s the FTC’s summary page on the change, and the 75 page full text is here for the ambitious.)

The more explicit rules for celebrity and non-typical testimonials were very striking, albeit irrelevant here.  For example, the tiny disclaimer “results not typical” is now deemed to be insufficient, and “typical” results will have to be supplied instead.  It is staggering to imagine that shifty infomercials will actually be forced by the government to abandon some of their ubiquitous methods of guile, and adopt other, unforeseen ones.

The relevant change for bloggers is that free gifts from retailers or their third-party marketers (in many circumstances) now render a blogger’s review a “paid” endorsement, and it must be labeled as such.  From the text of the guidelines:

“For example, an individual who regularly receives free samples of products for families with young children and discusses those products on his or her blog would likely have to disclose that he or she received for free the items being recommended.  Although the monetary value of any particular product might not be exorbitant, knowledge of the blogger’s receipt of a stream of free merchandise could affect the weight or credibility of his or her endorsement – the standard for disclosure in Section 255.5 – if that connection is not reasonably expected by readers of the blog.  Similarly, receipt of a single high-priced item could also constitute a material connection between an advertiser and a ‘sponsored’ endorser.”

“[I]f that consumer receives a single, unsolicited item from one manufacturer and writes positively about it on a personal blog or on a public message board, the review is not likely to be deemed an endorsement, given the absence of a course of dealing with that advertiser (or others) that would suggest that the consumer is disseminating a ‘sponsored’ advertising message.”

Unless I otherwise state, you can assume that any product I mention was NOT provided free of charge by its manufacturer, retailer, or any third party on their behalf.  This is currently because I am small potatoes, and no manufacturer, retailer, or any third party on their behalf has found it worth their while to send me anything so far.

I will mention that the chemicals I imbibed and described were sent to me free of charge by the company that produced them.  I called and asked how I could procure some, and would have been willing to pay.  I was surprised to receive several free samples, along with several brochures and a handsome tea book (which I would not likely use as a primary source of factual information).  At the time, I did not have a tea blog, and solicited these products for my own edification.  I imagine that all this was sent to me because I presented as a pitiable aspirant to the tea industry, and because this was likely a pre-assembled sample kit that might be sent to a major beverage company that was considering using these products as nutritional additives.  I was purposefully vague about the chemicals’ provenance because I did not want to repay the company’s generosity with a flood of tea geeks asking for a similar handout.  (Tea geeks, contact me instead.  I still have plenty of chemicals left over.)

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