Blogosphere vs the FTC

This being the blogosphere and all, there was lots o’ reax yesterday to the announcement that the FTC will fine bloggers $11,000 if they “endorse” products they received for free. According to the FTC, an endorsement is the same thing as a review, which is nonsensical, but these are wonks we’re dealing with.

In theory, the practice is meant to discourage things like “mommy bloggers” who get literally thousands of dollars worth of products which they then plug. Also corporate blogging disguised as independent reporting and so on.

The whole thing seems murky and draconian to us, but you know, in theory review copies are also taxable income, so the bottom line is that journalists — who are raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars just for getting out of bed every day because their services are so much in demand — need to report all those perks. Amazon listings are also being looked at, so even that tiny pittance someone is making might be a problem of some kind.

Some reax: Johanna has the willpower not to title her post “TOLJA!”.

Chris Butcher

Non comics bloggers (apparently this is going to have a huge effect on Video Game blogs which are cesspools of graft and licentiousness.)
Ron Workman
Edward Champion

Caroline McCarthy, who reports that even Twitterers must make disclosure statements in 140-character tweets. Nor is Facebook exempt.

This doesn’t actually affect us at all because a) we don’t run many reviews of comics, anyway. (Mops and soda, yes, but we buy those.) and b) Since we’re hosted on the PW site, we’re presumed to be professional and ethical and all that. As we wrote long ago, we detest those “complimentary copy” disclosures, but apparently everyone is assumed to be an amateur now.

Comments

  1. I automatically assume that all reviewers get their materials free, as part of the job. Or the company that hires them purchases the material for them, whatever.

    I don’t really care about that, but I dislike reading overly gushy reviews, especially when it it obvious that the reviewer is fawning over, say, Ergot, or other expensive objects, as a way of showing appreciation for having received a free issue/dvd/meal/goodiebag.

    Should they reveal that they have received these products for free? >Yawn

  2. …oops, the rest of that post is missing. Maybe I used a bracket or something that was interpreted as code.

    Anyway, it ended something like this:

    What’s next, do CEOs need to reveal that they have struck up business friendships over free drinks at the golf course, and these discussions have led them to alter their business goals on a subconscious level?

  3. Tom Spurgeon says:

    I just know that all of this ends with my having to disclose details of that extended series of erotic dreams about the Marvel Bullpen circa 1974.

  4. The funny thing about the idea that this vindicated Johanna is that everyone’s rejoinder to her originally was that that’s an amateur-hour thing to do–the FTC decision is nothing more or less than the government officially labeling all blogs as amateur hour. Thank goodness my Maxim gig provides me with the imprimatur of professionalism that my hundreds of comics reviews online obviously lack!

  5. 1) Bloggers have to disclose if they got something for free. Big Deal. What’s that journalism thingee… full disclosure? Where CBS does a report about Viacom and then adds the disclaimer that they are owned by Viacom? So you come clean and say you got a free copy.

    Myself, I think it carries more weight if the reviewer was actually looking forward to a book and bought it sight unseen. And then raved about it.

    So you’ve got to be truthful on your blog. You should be doing that anyway. Even opinions and editorials are better if you disclose your reasons why.

    2) Will we see bloggers be absorbed by established media outlets to avoid any FTC gaffes? Will this improve the general content of the blog-o-sphere?

    3) Will the FTC approve boilerplate texts for bloggers? Something like “A free copy blah blah yadda…” Or “The author of this review purchased blah yakkity yakkity…”

    4) Is it wrong to set up a review blog with the ulterior motive of getting free comics, books, DVDs, drinks, small farmland animals?

  6. Anyone who gets into reviewing comics simply to get free stuff will find it’s more trouble than it’s worth; the crap you get outweighs the gems by a 100 to 1 margin at best.

    Not to mention that virtually every publisher I am aware of has severely cut back on (or eliminated) the availability of review copies other than PDFs.

  7. I think this is one of those situations that regulates itself. If someone writes nothing but positive reviews, then no one will continue to read that reviewer, because they will seem unreliable. Also, a good reviewer should always give time to point out the strengths of a book they didn’t like, the weaknesses of a book they did, and suggest an audience that might like it regardless of their own views. Again, without those elements, people will stop reading that critic’s reviews for being unhelpful.

  8. This is really funny timing, as I just got my first Big Expensive Book to review late last week.

    And Tom’s image is going to haunt my nightmares forever. Thanks for that, Tom!

  9. I’d like to see the FTC expand this to places like The New York Times Book Review and TV shows such as Today or Good Morning America, making them tell people that the items they are reviewing are given to them for free. Such a ruling should apply to all media, not just bloggers.

    Oh, and don’t forget Amazon’s “reviews” of products, too. Let’s put them through the same scrutiny.

  10. I’d like to know how FTC is going to enforce this. Will they be hiring people to read blogs that review stuff all day looking for the disclosures?

  11. Synsidar says:

    Some background: The FTC reportedly didn’t act entirely on its own; there was prodding by consumer groups:

    Consumer interest groups have complained that the links between some bloggers and corporations were fuzzy at best. They say consumers often have no way to telling what sort of payments have been made to bloggers writing on parenting, fitness, dieting, and financial service sites.

    And, while the maximum penalty is an $11,000 fine, there are also lesser penalties:

    The agency, charged with protecting consumer interests, has not updated its policy on endorsements in nearly three decades. The guidelines are meant to be interpretations of the Federal Trade Commission Act and will be enforced on a case-by-case basis. Punishments for violations will range from a warning letter to a fine of up to $11,000 per act, the agency said.

    The consumer groups could easily have ripped the FTC for not modernizing its endorsement policies.

    Books are costly enough that receiving free copies could be considered small bribes, even if the reviewer thinks of bad ones as doorstops or cockroach swatters.

    For an example of how receiving free copies of comics can influence reviews, see Kirk Warren’s reviews of issues of NEW AVENGERS: THE REUNION. Warren received free PDFs, possibly sent out by McCann, while McCann touted reviews on his Web site.

    Warren on REUNION #1 and #2
    McCann on reviews of #1 and #2

    Amateur reviewers can easily be taken advantage of, whether they’re easily influenced, flattered by the attention, or are just naive. In such cases, the FTC regulations benefit them. The regulations can be seen as a natural consequence of a Democrat being president. Republicans would have told the consumer groups to get lost.

    SRS

  12. Thanks for the link. I really had nothing constructive to add, though. :)

    - Chris

  13. How does this ruling apply to other forms of media and websites?

    Will Ain’t It Cool News and film review sites have to disclose that they got to see their reviewed films for free?

    What about groups like car review magazines that have journalists flown out to fancy debut events. Will they have to disclose that they were flown out for press junkets, were put up in nice hotels, were fed fine foods and wine, etc?

    Where is the line? Is it just bloggers? Is it all websites? Does this apply to established media and their websites? Heck, most newspapers now have their own blogs. Do the blogs of the NYT have to follow the same rules as the amateur bloggers?

  14. It does not apply to traditional media like TV, print, etc. Although I think it should.

    The counter-argument is that traditional media often have editors and other layers to shield reviewers from dealing directly with companies that want promotion, thus insulating the reviewers from undue influence and/or bias. Bloggers most often do not.

  15. I love how sanguine everyone is about this. If Bush were still president everyone would be screaming “Hitler” and “Nazi” at the top of their lungs.

  16. “O HAI! WE FROM DA GUMMINT AND WE HERE TO HUMP YOU.”

    I’m wondering how this will affect self- and small publishers like me, who pretty much HAVE to send out review copies in order to even get noticed by reviewers. I certainly don’t expect a positive review just because I sent the copies — I just hope for any kind of review, and usually get one for every 20 copies I send out.

  17. @Synsidar – “For an example of how receiving free copies of comics can influence reviews, see Kirk Warren’s reviews of issues of NEW AVENGERS: THE REUNION. Warren received free PDFs, possibly sent out by McCann, while McCann touted reviews on his Web site.”

    I’m not sure how to take that comment. Are you implying the fact I told people I received them for free is the reason I gave the book the equivilent of a 3 out 5 stars or that McCann posting something on an internet forum I don’t frequent is the same as receiving some kind of traffic consideration for reviewing a pdf file? I recently ran a Necrosha primer that Chris Yost linked to on his blog. I assume that means I was somehow bribed into doing that by your logic?

    I actually liked Reunion enough to go out and buy the issues, despite receiving digital review copies. I never proclaimed it was a fantastic comic that everyone should run out and buy. I preface all reviews where I receive a review copy for free with a basic disclaimer for the simple reason people deserve to know I could be biased because of it.

    I’ve reviewed over a 1000 comics on my blog since launching it a few years back and being open and honest with my readers is just a practice I employ when I receive complimentary copies. I don’t pretend to be an actual journalist or flaunt the fact I get the odd review copy. I just review comics I buy every week and throw out the odd article. I don’t particularly enjoy being used as your example of an amateur reviewer being influenced by free review copies when there’s no evidence that I was actually being influenced.

  18. The Beat says:

    BTW people, if you’re all about transparency, can you stop using the odious term “complimentary copies”? Makes it sound like a breath mint. They are “review copies.” They are not sent out just because people like you and are offering free comics, they are sent out in hopes of garnering reviews.

    I can guarantee you when publicists are sending out books to reviewers they say “Did you send out the review copies?” not “Did you send out the complimentary copies?”

  19. Synsidar says:

    I don’t pretend to be an actual journalist or flaunt the fact I get the odd review copy. I just review comics I buy every week and throw out the odd article.

    You could have lumped in reviews of REUNION with the other reviews for the week. Doing single entries for REUNION as the issues were received gave the reviews unnecessary prominence. Of course, many reviewers wouldn’t have done reviews; the content didn’t deserve them.

    McCann came off worse, IMO. In his quest for favorable reviews and publicity, he looked like a fan fiction writer seeking compliments for his epic.

    SRS

  20. I’m fine calling them “complimentary copies” as long as the books are accompanied with a note: “My, you look lovely today.”

  21. Television commercials will now require disclaimers stating how much the actors were paid. I wanna know how much Sam Waterston is getting for those Ameritrade ads!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] There has been several posts over the last day or so (including PW’s The Beat, Geek.com, PCWorld and many more) about what this means for review copies and the folks who write reviews on blogs and other websites. [...]

  2. [...] Some have raised the spectre of paying tax on review copies and Amazon link revenue. Small businesses, which include blogs and websites as soon as the owner demonstrates a profit motive, should already be paying tax on income from advertising and Amazon payments. I look forward to seeing official guidelines, if released, on how to treat review copies, although I think they most likely fall under “gifts”, not income. (Disclaimer: I am not an accountant.) [...]

  3. [...] Due to the new necessity for full disclosure as discussed here and here and here, I will be candid about my resources. [...]

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