FTC Ruling on Freebies
by Kathy Carlton Willis Communications
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Attention Book Bloggers – Compliance with New FTC Guidelines is Easy and Painless!
By Virginia Smith
On October 5, 2009, the Federal Trade Commission released a statement that set off a whirlwind of activity within the blogosphere. The new guidelines, which go into effect December 1, require that Internet writers disclose the receipt of free products they’re reviewing. The purpose is to ensure that consumers are not misled, and to improve the accuracy of information posted on the web. What makes this ruling significant is that it’s the FTCs first attempt to regulate bloggers, a group of people who have previously been under the Commission’s radar.
Book bloggers in particular have responded to these new guidelines with a fair amount of trepidation. In an effort to generate that ever-elusive word of mouth ‘buzz’ about a book, blog tours have become a primary marketing activity in recent years. A blogger receives a free book from the publisher or author, and in return, promises to mention the book on his or her blog. But how will the new FTC guidelines affect individual book bloggers?
The good news is this: most bloggers will continue to stay under the Commission’s radar. The FTC is not targeting individual bloggers, according to Richard Cleland from the Bureau of Consumer Protection. In an interview with PRNewese on October 8th, Cleland stated that the FTC has “never brought a case against a consumer endorser…. “ He went on to say, “If people think that the FTC is going to issue them a citation for $11,000 because they failed to disclose that they got a free box of Pampers, that's not true. That's not going to happen today, not ever." If the FTC isn’t prosecuting diaper reviewers, it’s a pretty good bet they’re not going after book reviewers, either.
Besides Cleland’s assurance, wording in the original 81-page regulation seems to indicate that a blogger who regularly receives free merchandise for the purpose of writing a review is excluded if the connection is reasonably expected by readers of the blog. For instance, if a blogger posts the standard text provided by a well-known blog tour host, there is a reasonable expectation that he or she received a free book. For that reason, Christian Fiction Blog Alliance owner Bonnie Calhoun is confident that CFBA bloggers are in full compliance with the FTC. “We state up front that this is one of our books. There is no misconception.”
Still, many bloggers have decided to err on the side of caution, and have begun posting a statement that complies with the FTCs guidelines. Several of the publishers I contacted indicated that they will ask their book reviewers to include a standard statement as well. This is especially important if you post book reviews without mentioning that you’re participating in an established blog tour. One publisher even plans to request that reviewers who’ve received a complimentary copy of a book include the statement on their Amazon.com reviews as well as their blogs.
Compliance to the FTC guidelines is not difficult. Here are a few things book bloggers will want to keep in mind:
• If you received a free copy of a book in return for a promise to post a blurb or review, you should include a simple statement to that effect.
• If you have been paid to write the review, you need to disclose that fact clearly. (And while you’re at it, can you let me know who’s paying you, so I can get on the list?)
• Though this situation isn’t likely to come up in a book review, the FTC ruling mandates a clear statement when results aren’t typical. Most of the onus is placed on the company who manufactures the product, not the reviewer. However, you may want to get legal advice before making a claim such as, “I read this diet book and lost 50 pounds in one week.”
• I’ve seen indications in the FTC’s ruling that companies who provide free products to reviewers will now be required to monitor those reviews. So be aware that the publisher or publicist who sent you the free book will be reading your review. (They’ll probably be looking for things like atypical results, mentioned in the previous point.)
• If you paid for the book you’re reviewing, you are under no constraints at all.
Since many book bloggers do receive free copies of the books they review, let me address the statement you will want to include on your blog. The FTC guidelines indicate that the statement must be conspicuous. That means you can’t bury it in tiny font at the bottom of the page. In surfing around the Internet, I’ve seen some proactive bloggers who have placed a highly visible statement near the top of their site that leaves no doubt about their compliance:
“In accordance with the FTC regulations, I inform you that I received a copy of The Best Diet Cookbook of 2009 directly from the publisher, AAA Publishing Company, for review purposes. I review only books I have read, and only state my honest opinion of the book.”
That’s certainly clear. If, like this blogger, you’re more comfortable identifying your reasons for including the statement, you might use similar wording. However, the statement doesn’t have to be complicated or lengthy in order to comply with the FTC guidelines. A simple Thank you will suffice. M.C. Pearson, the Director of FIRST Wild Card Blog Tours, has integrated an acknowledgement in the standard posts she provides for bloggers:
“Special thanks to Sally Publicist at AAA Publishing Company for sending me a review copy of The Best Diet Cookbook of 2009.”
Short. Simple. Clear. Place a similar acknowledgement in a conspicuous place on your blog, and you can rest easy. You’re good with the FTC.
Disclaimer: Virginia Smith is not a lawyer, nor does she play one on TV. The information contained in this article should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney for legal advice, or for an interpretation of the Federal Trade Commission’s 81-page regulation, Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
Virginia Smith is the author of a dozen novels including Stuck in the Middle, which was a finalist for the 2009 American Christian Fiction Writers Book of the Year award, and A Taste of Murder, a finalist for the 2009 Daphne du Maurier Award of Excellence. Her next book, Third Time’s a Charm, will hit bookstores in January 2010. Ginny regularly posts book reviews on her website at www.VirginiaSmith.org.
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Thanks for posting this, Kathy, it helps clear things up. =)
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