FTC guidelines on blogger disclosure seem toothless

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ftc_smallADOTAS – Chest puffed up, the Federal Trade Commission issued 81 pages of guidelines aimed at increasing disclosure from bloggers and celebrities about their relationships with companies whose products they endorse. However, without any real penalties for violators or a team to monitor malfeasance, the guidelines seem like little more than hot air.

The current FTC rules regarding endorsements and testimonials have been in place since 1980, but last November the commission announced it would attempt to place the same amount of scrutiny on Internet stumping as other forms of media.

Beginning Dec. 1, bloggers must disclose relationships they have with companies whose products they endorse, including whether they were paid or received other compensation (e.g., product giveaways). These rules will also apply to celebrities giving shout-outs on Twitter or other social media sites. Also online advertising testimonials are forbidden to use atypical results (“I lost 140 pounds using this pill!”) to promote products.

However, these guidelines don’t have the weight of requirements.  FTC Assistant Director of Advertising Practices Richard Cleland admitted to CNN that there will be no group actually enforcing the guidelines. There is also no standardization regarding how the disclosure should appear other than that it should be clearly visible.

Also no penalties for violators were illuminated in the guidelines — sanctions and lawsuits are vaguely threatened. Cleland suggested that circumstances will be judged on a case-by-case basis.

The new FTC guidelines apparently are aimed more at advertisers than bloggers. But Cleland suggested bloggers running “substantial” operations who were serial violators could be targeted. Still, Cleland’s comment to CNN that enforcing the guidelines would be a “game of whack-a-mole” given the scope was not encouraging.

Many bloggers were not surprised by the FTC announcement; current regulations already bar deceptive business practices and the FTC sought to ensure these stretched over the tubes of the Internet as well. However, the FTC’s 81 pages of guidelines feel more like an amorphous, and possibly impotent, threat over Internet product endorsement rather than concrete regulations.

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