by Cassie, Associate Publicist
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. In this post, also posted on Baron’s personal blog The Web of Language, he looks at the new FTC regulations concerning bloggers.
The Federal Trade Commission has issued new rules requiring bloggers to disclose any compensation they may receive for product placements, endorsements, and testimonials.
According to the FTC rules, after December 1, “the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.”
Since it’s only October, I don’t have to tell you yet that I am an Oxford University Press author as well as a regular user of such fine OUP products as The Oxford English Dictionary (online subscription paid for by my university library) and the second edition of Jesse Sheidlower’s fine book, The F-word (Jesse, I haven’t got my free copy yet. If you don’t send it soon, I’ll have to delete this mention from my post – imagine what that will do to your Amazon Sales Rank). I’m telling you this anyway, not because the law requires it, but because I’m a stand-up guy.
Plus the FTC’s ban on endorsements won’t affect me directly, because most of my blogging is satirical, and the makers of the things that I satirize – fans of official English, conservative politicians, researchers who use fMRIs to tell what part of my brain lights up when I blog, and people who are zealous about correct grammar, still refuse to pay me for making fun of them.
But the few bloggers who are actually making money or getting free stuff are worried that they’ll have to disclose the goodies they receive from sponsors for a positive mention online. Book bloggers will have to say, “I love this book and you will too, although you’ll have to pay for your copy and I got mine for free,” which is causing many of them to give up reviewing, or to use the f-word a lot more frequently, hoping they’ll get a mention in the third edition of Jesse Sheidlower’s marvelous book. Did I tell you that it’s called The F-word?
All of this stems from the fact that online product reviews are a booming new phenomenon, a growing genre of literary expression made possible by the existence of Web 2.0 (available in fine stores everywhere). For example, when I go shoe shopping at zappos.com, I can see how many people gave the sneakers I’m looking at how many stars. And I can read comments like “I have been very pleased with the comfort, cushion, and fit,” which prompts me to respond, “That would be great if only I had your feet.” But another reviewer of the same item says, “I hate these shoes,” which doesn’t help either considering that the reviewer has given them a full three stars out of a possible five, which is the online equivalent of grade inflation.
Online reviewers are often anonymous, so I don’t know if the reviewer is a company shill or someone who works for the competition. But this is nothing new – eighteenth-century reviewers writing under pen names routinely plumped their books in newspapers or magazines, or attacked their rivals, and editors, many of whom were already scrounging to find copy for their journals, were only too happy to print whatever came their way. Why should Zappos or Amazon, sites where I frequently shop, be any different today?
As for impartial reviews, and there are certainly a lot of these, my sense is that more people will go online to complain than to praise a product. If your new clothes washer is broken, you have lots of free time to grouse in the blogosphere while connected to wi-fi at the laundromat. If it’s working just fine, you’re too busy throwing in another load of laundry and sipping chablis to bother logging on. That makes it hard to know if a preponderance of negative comments is a true warning sign or just a statistical anomaly.
So far as blog-for-pay goes, though, truth in advertising requires that I tell you I work in and for the state of Illinois, a state whose former governor, after instituting a requirement that all state employees pass an annual ethics test, was impeached for attempting to sell Pres. Barack Obama’s newly-vacated senate seat to the highest bidder. The governor before him was convicted of selling drivers licenses while he was Secretary of State. I just completed my annual ethics training, but in contrast to these big players, anything that I have to sell on my blog is small potatoes, which probably explains why advertisers aren’t knocking each other down to get to me, and why I’m not required to report my blogging income, which is ZERO in case you haven’t been paying attention and would like to remedy that situation, to my employer or to the IRS.