New Disclosure Law for Bloggers: $11,000 Fine

imagesAs mentioned in a previous (and my most popular) post on accepting freebies, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) now targets bloggers in its updated guides on endorsements and testimonials. If you write about a product or service, and don’t disclose that you got something for free, you risk a fine of $11,000.

Before you freak out, let’s review the categories that might require disclosure if you choose to write favorably about them:

1. Free products or services (also called product-in-kind) including:

  • books from publishers meant for review, even if you’re given a book at an event
  • a goodie bag you get at an event
  • kitchen equipment sent for possible review
  • prepared foods sent for review or mention
  • free service, such as Sur La Table sharpening your kitchen knives.

If you’re involved in a viral marketing program, such as General Mills MyBlogSpark program, you must say so. (If you don’t know about this kind of program, welcome to the new world of inexpensive marketing. According to an article in AdWeek, “General Mills contacted 100 mom and food bloggers in conjunction with the launch of a new blueberry acai flavor of its Yoplait Yo-Plus yogurt. It provided coupons to try the product as well as tote bags and other swag to give to readers. General Mills also sent out key product messages touting the yogurt’s health benefits…Overall, the program resulted in 5 million total impressions and over 8,000 comments with no media costs. [General Mills does not buy ads on blogs, Witt said.]”

2. Free trips or free meals at restaurants or events.

3. Nice blogging gigs for pay, such as Shauna James Ahern’s blog for the National Pork Board, Pork, Knife & Spoon. (Are there other examples? I’d love to hear about them.)

4. Independent reviews in exchange for cash. I’m sure none of you do this, where you get paid to endorse a product by writing positive comments on blogs and websites. Plenty of unethical people are willing even if you aren’t, and I hope  the FTC fines them all. Still, if you get a book for free and write a positive review on Amazon without disclosing, that could be a problem.

Now, let’s get to the wording. I suspect saying “ScharffenBerger sent me this new baking chocolate”  or “a sponsor gave me this” is not specific enough. The FTC rule says “bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.” You have to say you got it for free, or that you were compensated. Conversely, if you bought the item, it seems more important than ever to say so, to cover yourself. And if you don’t have a policy on your blog about receiving free products and services, now’s a good time to write one. Of course, if you don’t review items you receive, or if you return them, these rules don’t apply.

The good news is that individual bloggers are not the target of this ruling, according to an interview with Richard Cleland of the Bureau of Consumer Protection. It’s more about going after advertisers, he says. Still, the best practice is transparency in writing, and being held accountable to your readers, who trust you. I hope this new ruling results in fewer positive reviews now that bloggers might feel less beholden, or more honesty about personal reasons for trashing or praising.

Thanks to Mary Margaret Pack, Carole Bidnick and Faith Kramer for sending me links for this post. They were free and I did use them.

So, are you ready for this new law? Do you already have a process in place? Let me know how your food blogging will or will not change.