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December 20, 2006

I was paid to blog this

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Last week the FTC issued their opinion on for-hire word of mouth marketing, ruling that anyone being paid to solicit a brand must publicly disclose that relationship. They stated that marketing could be deceptive if consumers were more likely to trust the product’s endorser “based on their assumed independence from the marketer.” Well, yeah.

Though not revolutionary, the ruling could have a number of implications, and my personal opinion on all of it is very mixed.

First, realize that the FTC did not pass a new law against deceptive word-of-mouth advertising. Deceptive marketing was looked down upon in the past and it’s still looked down upon. Instead, they issued a statement saying that instances would be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to see if "law enforcement action is appropriate" Kinda intimidating, but at the same time, nothing totally new.

The problem is through the rise of blogs, companies like PayPerPost and other social media sites, it’s become fairly easy to spread fake, yet authentic-looking positive buzz about your company and we’re starting to see it more and more. Recall the fake Walmart blog, the for-pay blogging that goes on over at MySpace, reports that companies are paying users to submit stories to Digg, and the old PayPerPost model that didn’t require bloggers to disclose they were paid for the post. It’s a scary thought to think that deceptive word of mouth marketing has gone mainstream, but in some ways it has.

Obviously, it poses a tremendous problem if consumers are reading paid-for buzz thinking the endorsements are genuine, true depictions of their experiences and feelings. The old model of PayPerPost was unethical; its sole purpose was to deceive. That shouldn’t be tolerated on the blogosphere where trust is so hard to come by anyway.

The FTC wants for-hire endorsements to be marked as such. I’m all for that, I think people who are paid to blog or have an "opinion" have a right to disclose that. However, I fear where the line will be drawn.

Is the FTC going to go trolling through deep sites looking for affiliate links? I think sites should reveal that information but who is going to regulate it?

And if they find something law-enforcement worthy on a site, who is facing the trouble? For example, say a company offers to pay me to write a glowing endorsement of their latest blog tool. If I’m dumb enough to do it and the FTC catches on, is it me who faces the suit, Bruce for employing me and not writing it in the contract that we disclose such things, or the company who hired us with the intent to be deceitful? In some instances I think it’s going to be difficult to identify the true culprit.

And where do you draw the line? I’m paid to blog but the opinion I express here is so clearly my own. Do I need to remind you every day that I make a living out of this? (I hope not, Bruce will start to realize he’s overpaying me!) Do you discount what I say because you know I’m not doing it solely because of my passion for Internet marketing?

And even though I agree that for-hire blogging is unethical, what makes it any different than a restaurant reviewer who got a free meal or someone who gets to stay at a fancy bed and breakfast in order to review it? It just seems like we’re heading into murky waters here when you start talking about laws and being able to file lawsuits.

We don’t need laws. We need a general blogging code of ethics that says if someone paid me for this endorsement, I’m going to tell you. There’s a difference between a blog entry and an advertisement and I think it’s important that it be noted. People form relationships with the bloggers they read everyday. Heck, I bought a Timbuk Blogger Bag after Barry Schwartz talked about it over at Cartoon Barry. If he was paid to write that entry, I’d like to know. (Though I still would have bought it; I’m not privy to cool search engine messenger bags like some people…)

Full disclosure is vital on the Web. I really can’t even stress it enough. There’s so much garbage out there that you need to know you can trust people. If you were paid to write something, I want to know. Own up to it. If you don’t, you risk upsetting people and now it seems like it might get you into trouble with the FTC too.

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