Wed 7 Oct 2009
There are two problems with the new guidelines issued this week by the Federal Trade Commission that stipulate that bloggers and other new media writers disclose the sources of the products they review, i.e. if they were free samples. And no, that particular rule isn’t one of the problems. Many wine bloggers already post disclaimers so that readers know that wines being reviewed were sent from wineries or importers or their representatives in hopes of a mention of some kind, preferably positive. And many wine bloggers make it clear that wineries from which they receive samples should have no expectation as to whether a review will be positive or negative or even if the wine will be reviewed at all; that’s exactly as it should be.
No, the first problem, as Tom Wark pointed out eloquently on his blog Fermentation yesterday, is that the FTC’s new disclosure rules do not apply to “traditional” print media because they, presumably, exercise more editorial control over their material and coverage than the rank amateurs of the blogosphere. So publications like Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits, which receive untold thousands of bottles of wine free every year, do not need to disclose that fact to their readers, while a first-time wine blogger, who might feel grateful for a few review samples, must do so. This is a situation for which the phrase “The Double Standard Stinks” was invented.
The second problem is that the drafters of the new FTC guidelines don’t seem to know a hawk from a handsaw when it comes to the difference between a review and an endorsement. The report expresses the principle this way:
“For example, a blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an ‘endorsement’ within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be ‘endorsements,’ as are postings by participants in network marketing programs.”
Obviously the FTC equates positive reviews with “endorsements,” as if bloggers were celebrity basketball players on billboards being paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to put the force of their internationally known, outsize personalities at the service of athletic shoes and energy drinks. (If only, right?)
A review or critique of anything — book, musical recording, an art exhibition or theatrical performance, a product such as an automobile or a dishwasher, or a bottle of wine — is (or should be) an assessment and evaluation based on knowledge, experience and judgment. For the reader, the benefit lies in the information and analysis upon which to base a decision, to go see that play, to read that book, to purchase that bottle of wine. This result is not the same as an endorsement, in which a celebrity is paid to mouth words conceived by a copy-writer from a marketing or public relations firm. A review is not an advertisement or press release for the object or performance or entity in question.
Yet, annoyingly, the new FTC guidelines refer, again and again, to reviews on blogs as endorsements and to companies that supply products to bloggers for review as advertisers. The case seems devastatingly clear: If I were sent a review copy of a book by a publisher and wrote a review that was published in a print journal or newspaper, the FTC would regard it as a review; if I wrote that review, however, and placed it on my blog, it would be regarded by the FTC as an endorsement for the book, going on the supposition that my blog lacks traditional “editorial responsibility.” And notice, in the quotation from the guidelines above, that the bigger the audience for the blog, the more likely that a review will be considered an endorsement. This is the sort of obtuse reasoning from which Circles of Hell are fashioned.
It’s possible that these guidelines — only a small portion of the 81-page document that focuses primarily on television and magazine advertising — were deemed necessary by the FTC because of the bloggers who review a variety of mainly household products only in a positive manner. Well-known examples of these are the “mommy bloggers” Katja Presnal at skimbacolifestyle.com and Christine Young of FromDatestoDiapers.com. As Tim Arango wrote yesterday in The New York Times about Christine Young, “If she doesn’t like a product, she simply won’t write about it.”
Now I’m not telling my Fellow Wine-Bloggers to pick out a bottle of wine and kick it in the teeth just for fun, but I will say that giving only positive reviews does not build credibility or a reputation for objectivity. In fact, writing only positive reviews creates the impression that all you’re doing is, yes, endorsing products without engaging a balancing critical sensibility. And providing negative or even not wholly positive reviews is a boon for your readers; doesn’t it make as much sense to warn them away from mediocrity as to extol what is superior?
The FTC guidelines for bloggers take effect on Dec. 1, though the enterprise is fraught with ambiguity. If I write a post in which I review 12 wines, must I include a disclaimer for each wine or a blanket disclaimer for the post? Or is it all right to include a permanent disclaimer for the blog that covers all posts and all wines? The FTC hasn’t made that clear. What is clear is that in the next few months the sort of confusion and consternation that leads to lawsuits will reign.