In a move with important implications for school technology buyers and decision makers, the Federal Trade Commission on Oct. 5 took steps to make product information and online reviews more accurate for consumers, regulating blogging for the first time and mandating that testimonials reflect typical results.
The FTC will require that writers on the web clearly disclose any freebies or payments they get from companies for reviewing their products. The commission also said advertisers featuring testimonials that claim dramatic results cannot hide behind disclaimers that the results aren’t typical.
The FTC said its commissioners voted 4-0 to approve the final guidelines, which had been expected. The guides are not binding law, but rather interpretations of law that hope to help advertisers comply with regulations. Violating the rules, which take effect Dec. 1, could result in various sanctions–including a lawsuit.
Testimonials have to spell out what consumers should expect to experience with their products. Previously, companies had just included disclaimers when extremely favorable results were out of the ordinary, noting that the experience was not typical for all customers.
Testimonial advertisements can be effective for consumers, because they show others talking about their experiences–giving hope to the consumer that he or she will have that experience, too. But they are misleading to consumers if they don’t disclose what consumers should truly expect to experience, the commission said.
For bloggers, the FTC stopped short of specifying how they must disclose conflicts of interest. Rich Cleland, assistant director of the FTC’s advertising practices division, said the disclosure must be “clear and conspicuous,” no matter what form it will take.
Bloggers have long praised or panned products and services online. But what some consumers might not know is that many companies pay reviewers for their write-ups or give them free products, such as computers or trips to Disneyland. In contrast, at traditional journalism outlets, products borrowed for reviews generally have to be returned.
Before the FTC gave notice last November that it was going to regulate such endorsements, blogs varied in their level of disclosure about these potential conflicts of interest.
The FTC’s proposal has made many bloggers anxious. They said the scrutiny would make them nervous about posting even innocent comments.