The FTC just passed some new regulations that require bloggers to disclose when something they’re writing about is actually free swag a company sent them for publicity. Wired notes that the world of wine blogs will take a pretty hard hit; fashion blogs could, too. Full disclosure: People send us free stuff sometimes. Everything from laundry detergent to nail polish to moisturizer samples to eyeshadow to toothpaste to handbags to jeans. Do we write about these things? At the risk of screwing ourselves out of more freebies: no. We don’t feel obligated to invite people we don’t like to our birthday parties and we don’t feel obligated to write about things just because someone sent them to us for free. However, smaller, independent blogs that focus on products — say, fragrances or handbags or skin creams — surely receive lots more free products to review. They don’t often tell readers, “Someone sent me this for free and I happened to like it so I’m telling you I like it.” If a company pays a blogger to say nice things about their products, the blogger must likewise admit that in the post, according to the FTC’s new rules.
The basic premise of the new regulations is great. People deserve to know when anyone is endorsing something simply because it’s free. But what about print publications? They may borrow clothes and send them back (though not even every article of clothing is returned), but that’s not the case for beauty products, which companies send to bloggers with no expectation that they’ll come back. (What would they do? Send them out again? “Dear Marie Claire, Enclosed is a jar of our BRAND NEW MOISTURIZER containing REAL PEARL SHAVINGS and THE BLOOD OF SEAHORSES that Vogue and Elle editors have already sampled. Thought you might enjoy a third go at it! Cheers, YOUTHFUL LOTIONS OF THE SEA.”)
But if the FTC will impose fines on people who so much as tweet about products they’re getting paid to endorse without saying so, they should also crack down on affiliate links. Many blogs covering products include links to where you can buy that product online. Those sites then give the referring blogs a cut of the profits for the recommendation. In the fashion blogosphere, that is probably a bigger problem (if it is a problem — people do have to make a living) than is bloggers endorsing freebies they happen to actually like, or even getting paid for the vote of confidence. The FTC is yet to clarify these regulations. Maybe they should “get online,” as they say, start a Twitter account, and throw us a tweet when they’ve come up with a revised set of rules that makes more sense.