Though Murky, FTC Has Blogger Disclosure Priorities

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ftc_smallADOTAS – A few weeks ago when asked about some possibly shady endorsin’ by actress Gwyneth Paltrow on her blog, Rich Cleland, associate director of Federal Trade Commission’s advertising division, answered by suggesting that the recently enacted blogger disclosure guidelines operated on a two tier system — celebrities, who get a pass ’cause they’re always getting schwag, and everyone else, who must be held accountable.

“Would consumers understand that celebrities are always getting free stuff?” he replied back to Daily Finance reporter Jeff Bercovici. Gee, that never occurred to me — it’s not like glam mags have been publishing the contents of schwag bags for oh, 10 years now.

In discussing the online endorsement guidelines on Thursday at the office of marketing and advertising law firm Venable LLP, FTC Northeast Regional Director Leonard Gordon admitted that it’s a tough area and nothing is black and white. While acknowledging that the agency is still finding its footing regarding applying the guidelines, Gordon clarified that the FTC has priorities in enforcement — namely the health and safety of consumers.

The 81 pages of guidelines have received quite a tongue lashing across the Internet, with interactive advertising advocates loudly demanding their dismissal.

But as the world of advertising is changing and viral and social media marketing grow in prevalence, the FTC is most concerned about protecting consumers from misleading claims, Gordon explained — in particular, from bloggers paid to propagate deceptive information regarding health and food products.

Health and safety is a top priority for recently anointed FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, who has roots with the Federal Drug Administration and is building additional ties between the two agencies. To some extent, the FTC is on the hunt for snake oil salesman, even on the national advertising front. Gordon cited recent suits brought against Kelloggs — which he noted was the perfect storm of health, food and kids  — and Airborne for making unsubstantiated claims about health benefits.

As far as a two tier system in enforcement, Gordon suggested when assessing targets among the famous and infamous, the FTC has faith in consumer’s common sense.

“Consumers are hopefully somewhat skeptical of celebrity endorsements,” he said. “However, a lot of viral marketing erases that skepticism. If consumers lose that skepticism, the FTC is concerned.”

In other words, the FTC is not Big Brother — it’s not going to monitor every blog to make sure it contains proper disclosure and levy massive fines when it finds the teeniest violation. The agency is first going to seek out deceptive marketers and bloggers that are pushing claims that could cause consumers harm.

With that Gwyneth business, it’s not that she’s a celebrity — there are bigger fish to fry. You’re going to let the minnows get away when you’re hunting swordfish.

As for bloggers receiving free products and not being paid to endorse, the FTC is still mulling its options but Gordon proposed the blogosphere take a deep, deep breath.

“I don’t think we’ll have storm troopers kicking down mommy bloggers’ doors, but that might change,” Gordon said with a smirk.

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