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October 12, 2009

Hey Bloggers! Let’s Hear It For Government Regulation!

There was a certain air of inevitability to the Federal Trade Commission’s edict earlier this week that bloggers have to disclose when they have a relationship with advertisers. And, even though there are those who would prefer that the industry self-police, I’m with the FTC on this one: Just as ads dolled up to look like editorial or infomercials dolled up with sets to make them look like “The Larry King Show” have to disclose their true nature, bloggers need to account. Many do, many don’t, and thus, the FTC needs to be involved.

I know that’s not what everyone wants to hear, but we’re now living in a world where we are all, prospectively, endorsers, and where industry self-regulation starts to get much more complex than it was when there were a limited number of media outlets. (I’ll leave to one side, for the purposes of this column, how the FTC will actually pull this off from a logistical point of view – although no doubt a few good algorithms will help.)

If self-regulating were entirely up to advertisers, that would be one thing – I’m normally a supporter of self-regulation. But in social media, as we’ve learned time and time again, the message is essentially out of advertisers’ control, and while one would hope, via self-regulation, advertisers would monitor those with whom they have a relationship and what they are saying about a product or service – indeed that’s the point of having such a relationship in the first place – the actual endorsement is out of their control. Can an advertiser actually reach into someone’s blog post and add in disclosure where it doesn’t exist? With the exception of adding a comment into the discussion thread, the answer is no, unless I’m missing something.

The onus has to be put on bloggers to an extent, and with the advent of these new endorsement guidelines, it is. (While, we’re on the subject of disclosure, I admit I didn’t wade through all 81 pages of the FTC document, but you can right here if you want to.)

People I know, and like, don’t necessarily agree with me on this, but I don’t view the guidelines as really being about what we generally consider to be the marketing/social media/advertising industry. To us, the fact that bloggers should disclose that they are paid by an advertiser, or gets free product from one, is obvious. To not do so shoots down one’s credibility, which is the coin of the realm in social media.

But the people who read this column have all grown up being schooled in this tradition. As social media tools come into broader use, more and more people without that grounding are going to become part of the conversation. If the history of so-called “mommy bloggers” is any guide, advertisers will reach out to them.

That said, I still think there’s ample room for some of the initiatives already out there to help develop a code of conduct for blogging, such as Blog with Integrity. (I tried to get in touch with Liz Gumbinner, who is one of the bloggers behind it, to get a few thoughts, but she is currently out of the email sphere.)

There’s still a need for bloggers to let it be known that not only do they play by the FTC’s rules but also are being honest and transparent, no matter what the topic. Thankfully, that’s something no government organization can regulate.

Catharine P. Taylor has been covering digital media and advertising for almost 15 years. Contact her here.