FTC revised guidelines for disclosure: toothless or cumbersome?

With little fanfare, the FTC released updated guidelines for endorsement disclosure on blogs. Diannej.com has a good run-down. Wineries and wine blogs are both affected but the guidelines are a jumble and the FTC has said they have not been getting complaints, they will not fine bloggers (if anything, they would target advertisers), and they are not monitoring blogs.

The crux of the matter remains sponsored posts and paid reviews, which look like editorial but are really ads. Fortunately, we don’t see much of those in wine writing and magazines tend to flag advertorial as such. But given the high cost of wine and low rates of journalistic pay, virtually every wine writer from a magazine to a newsletter to a blog evaluates wines received for free. This constitutes an “arrangement” between the writer and the advertiser, according to the FTC. Yet the guidelines state that bloggers, not newspapers or magazines, should disclose that each and every time a wine is reviewed. While transparency is essential, it’s a double standard not applying this to all forms of wine writing and evaluation, no matter the medium. Further, wine blogs don’t hold lavish consumer events, as some magazines do, profiting from ticket sales while wineries whose wines could be featured in future editorial pour their wines for free. This seems a little higher stakes than some chump change from amazon affiliate revenue.

In the end, it’s probably people in the trade who will be most affected by these updated guidelines, particularly on social media. The FTC is insisting on enhanced disclosure, saying that commercial tweets should be identified as such, adding something like “#paid” or #ad” to tweets with a relationship to the product. In related news, the FTC is performing a review of how 14 alcohol brands engage their audience on Twitter.

In all, these relatively toothless revised guidelines will probably see those with nothing to hide adding more cumbersome disclosure language. Even if there’s little enforcement, it’s better for writers to err on the side of transparency, not for the FTC, but for credibility with readers.

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