This Wine Blog is More Likely To Deceive You
“A (wine) blogger could receive (wine) merchandise from a marketer with a
request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the
value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any
positive statement the (wine) blogger posts would be deemed an “endorsement”
within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things,
the value of that (wine) product, and on whether the (wine) blogger routinely
receives such requests. If that (wine) blogger frequently receives products
from (wine)manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership
within a particular (wine drinking) demographic group that is the (wine) manufacturers’ target
market, the (wine) blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be
“endorsements,” —parenthetical statements added for emphasis.
FROM THE FEDERAL TRADE COMMISSIONS NEW "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising"
Basically, the FTC says that under the circumstances outlined above, the blogger in question must reveal that the bottle of wine they reviewed was provided to them free—or they could face a fine of $11,000.
Now I have no problem with wine bloggers revealing that the wine or wines they reviewed came as free "press samples". Nor do I have a problem if they don't reveal it. And frankly I don't care that the FTC wants to mandate that this kind of disclosure occur when bloggers review wines.
However, here's where I start to have a real problem with the FTC's new guidelines on what kind of disclosure is required of bloggers who review products: THE FTC WILL NOT BE HOLDING "TRADITIONAL MEDIA" TO THE SAME DISCLOSURE STANDARDS!!
"In general, under usual circumstances, the
Commission does not consider reviews published in traditional media (i.e., where a newspaper,
magazine, or television or radio station with independent editorial responsibility assigns an
employee to review various products or services as part of his or her official duties, and then
publishes those reviews) to be sponsored advertising messages. Accordingly, such reviews are
not "endorsements" within the meaning of the Guides. Under these circumstances, the
Commission believes, knowing whether the media entity that published the review paid for the
item in question would not affect the weight consumers give to the reviewer's statements."
Let me put this in plainer words. If a publisher sends me (a wine blogger) a copy of a new book about the wines of Bolivia and I review it positively I must disclose the book was given to me or face a fine of $11,000. If a reporter at the Wine Spectator (traditional media) receives a free copy of "The Wines of Bolivia" and reviews it positively, they need not disclose they received it free from the publisher. Put another way, if Alder Yarrow or Dr. Vino respond in the affirmative to my email to them offering a bottle of press sample of Mayo Family Winery's 2006 Reserve Zinfandel with a request (though not a demand) that they review it, they must disclose they received the sample free of charge when they do review it—good or bad review. If I call Steve Heimoff of the Wine Enthusiast and make the same offer and he accepts, he (and the editors at The Wine Enthusiast) need not disclose they received the press sample free.
Why the double standard between "Bloggers" and "Traditional Media"?
Apparently the FTC believes that the acceptance of free wine or books by media that possesses an "Independent editorial responsibility" should give consumers the confidence they need to trust the resulting reviews are not bought and paid for.
On the other hand, the FTC has determined that because bloggers have no "Independent editorial policy" or any "Official Duties" related to an editorial policy, consumers can not have the same confidence that they are not bought and paid for. Therefore, bloggers ought to be held to a different set of rules.
Essentially, what the FTC is saying is that if your blog is not your primary source of income, if your writing on your blog is not your profession, if your livelihood does not depend on attracting readers to your blog, if an "independent editorial responsibility" does not define your moneymaking activities, then you can't be expected to have the same ethical standards as those who do possess these qualities and your readers need to be protected from your more likely ethical lapses by the requirement that you disclose all material connections between you and the products or industries you write about.
Should I be offended by the FTC's presumption that since I don't make a living off this blog I am more likely to deceive its readers by being on the take than the Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast or Wine & Spirits, which are moneymaking ventures?
I guess that depends on whether or not I believe that, in general, those with little or nothing to lose are more likely to engage in unethical or immoral actions and society (consumers) need to be protected from this sort of suspect class of people.
The fact is, I am offended by the assumptions built into the FTC's new guidelines on commercial endorsements. I'm offended because the FTC has chosen to codify this suspect assumption about the morals and ethics of people who write, but don't get paid to do so. It codifies an extraordinarily cynical view of human nature that is probably the exception and not the rule. And it is a codification of cynicism that at the same time slaps me and my wine blogging colleagues across the face for simply taking advantage of a new publishing medium to offer our views.
The FTC would have been on much firmer ground has they simply issued rules that provided a fine for anyone, blogger or traditional media, that takes money in exchange for a positive review of a product and does not disclose it. This kind of rule would have punished the unethical transgressor—rather than assume likelihood of transgression.