FTC Guidelines For Bloggers; What They Say; What Bloggers Need To Do

In case you forgot, some time ago the Federal Trade Commission issued “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” The Guides are administrative interpretations of laws enforced by the FTC. The Guides apply to bloggers. If you are a blogger, you might find the below flowchart helpful to you in understanding these rules.

Summary

  • Do you blog, Twitter, or post on message boards about products, companies, or industries?
  • Do you receive products to keep, free of charge, or are you paid or given other inducements, with the understanding that you will blog about the products?
  • If a connection between you (the endorser) and the maker or seller of the product (the advertiser) might materially affect the credibility of your endorsement, your connection to the advertiser must be fully disclosed.
  • As an endorser under the federal guidelines, you must disclose the connections (e.g., payments or free products) between you and the advertiser. In addition, you can be liable for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made in the course of endorsements.
  • See the flow chart below to consider whether your blog may be impacted.
  • See also the examples below. 

See also the FTC’s press release announcing the Guides.

“Blogger” Examples

The FTC Guidelines provide the following examples (our emphasis added):

Example: A consumer who regularly purchases a particular brand of dog food decides one day to purchase a new, more expensive brand made by the same manufacturer. She writes in her personal blog that the change in diet has made her dog’s fur noticeably softer and shinier, and that in her opinion, the new food definitely is worth the extra money. This posting would not be deemed an endorsement under the Guides.

Assume that rather than purchase the dog food with her own money, the consumer gets it for free because the store routinely tracks her purchases and its computer has generated a coupon for a free trial bag of this new brand. Again, her posting would not be deemed an endorsement under the Guides.

Assume now that the consumer joins a network marketing program under which she periodically receives various products about which she can write reviews if she wants to do so. If she receives a free bag of the new dog food through this program, her positive review would be considered an endorsement under the Guides.

Example: A skin care products advertiser participates in a blog advertising service. The service matches advertisers with bloggers who will promote the advertiser’s products on their personal blogs. The advertiser requests that a blogger try a new body lotion and write a review of the product on her blog. Although the advertiser does not make any specific claims about the lotion’s ability to cure skin conditions and the blogger does not ask the advertiser whether there is substantiation for the claim, in her review the blogger writes that the lotion cures eczema and recommends the product to her blog readers who suffer from this condition. The advertiser is subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made through the blogger’s endorsement. The blogger also is subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made in the course of her endorsement. The blogger is also liable if she fails to disclose clearly and conspicuously that she is being paid for her services. [See § 255.5.]

In order to limit its potential liability, the advertiser should ensure that the advertising service provides guidance and training to its bloggers concerning the need to ensure that statements they make are truthful and substantiated. The advertiser should also monitor bloggers who are being paid to promote its products and take steps necessary to halt the continued publication of deceptive representations when they are discovered.

Example: A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal blog where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. Because his review is disseminated via a form of consumer-generated media in which his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious, readers are unlikely to know that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact likely would materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge.

The manufacturer should advise him at the time it provides the gaming system that this connection should be disclosed, and it should have procedures in place to try to monitor his postings for compliance.

Example: An online message board designated for discussions of new music download technology is frequented by MP3 player enthusiasts. They exchange information about new products and utilities, and the functionality of numerous playback devices. Unbeknownst to the message board community, an employee of a leading playback device manufacturer has been posting messages on the discussion board promoting the manufacturer’s product. Knowledge of this poster’s employment likely would affect the weight or credibility of her endorsement. Therefore, the poster should clearly and conspicuously disclose her relationship to the manufacturer to members and readers of the message board.

“Expert” Examples

Example 1: An endorsement of a particular automobile by one described as an “engineer” implies that the endorser’s professional training and experience are such that he is well acquainted with the design and performance of automobiles. If the endorser’s field is, for example, chemical engineering, the endorsement would be deceptive.

Example 2: An endorser of a hearing aid is simply referred to as “Doctor” during the course of an advertisement. The ad likely implies that the endorser is a medical doctor with substantial experience in the area of hearing. If the endorser is not a medical doctor with substantial experience in audiology, the endorsement would likely be deceptive. A non-medical “doctor” (e.g., an individual with a Ph.D. in exercise physiology) or a physician without substantial experience in the area of hearing can endorse the product, but if the endorser is referred to as “doctor,” the advertisement must make clear the nature and limits of the endorser’s expertise.

Example 3: A manufacturer of automobile parts advertises that its products are approved by the “American Institute of Science.” From its name, consumers would infer that the “American Institute of Science” is a bona fide independent testing organization with expertise in judging automobile parts and that, as such, it would not approve any automobile part without first testing its efficacy by means of valid scientific methods. If the American Institute of Science is not such a bona fide independent testing organization (e.g., if it was established and operated by an automotive parts manufacturer), the endorsement would be deceptive. Even if the American Institute of Science is an independent bona fide expert testing organization, the endorsement may nevertheless be deceptive unless the Institute has conducted valid scientific tests of the advertised products and the test results support the endorsement message.

Example 4: A manufacturer of a non-prescription drug product represents that its product has been selected over competing products by a large metropolitan hospital. The hospital has selected the product because the manufacturer, unlike its competitors, has packaged each dose of the product separately. This package form is not generally available to the public. Under the circumstances, the endorsement would be deceptive because the basis for the hospital’s choice — convenience of packaging — is neither relevant nor available to consumers, and the basis for the hospital’s decision is not disclosed to consumers.

Example 5: A woman who is identified as the president of a commercial “home cleaning service” states in a television advertisement that the service uses a particular brand of cleanser, instead of leading competitors it has tried, because of this brand’s performance. Because cleaning services extensively use cleansers in the course of their business, the ad likely conveys that the president has knowledge superior to that of ordinary consumers. Accordingly, the president’s statement will be deemed to be an expert endorsement. The service must, of course, actually use the endorsed cleanser. In addition, because the advertisement implies that the cleaning service has experience with a reasonable number of leading competitors to the advertised cleanser, the service must, in fact, have such experience, and, on the basis of its expertise, it must have determined that the cleaning ability of the endorsed cleanser is at least equal (or superior, if such is the net impression conveyed by the advertisement) to that of leading competitors’ products with which the service has had experience and which remain reasonably available to it. Because in this example the cleaning service’s president makes no mention that the endorsed cleanser was “chosen,” “selected,” or otherwise evaluated in side-by-side comparisons against its competitors, it is sufficient if the service has relied solely upon its accumulated experience in evaluating cleansers without having performed side-by-side or scientific comparisons.

Example 6: A medical doctor states in an advertisement for a drug that the product will safely allow consumers to lower their cholesterol by 50 points. If the materials the doctor reviewed were merely letters from satisfied consumers or the results of a rodent study, the endorsement would likely be deceptive because those materials are not what others with the same degree of expertise would consider adequate to support this conclusion about the product’s safety and efficacy.

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