The FTC Reigns in the ‘wild wild Web’ and the marketers who use it

Don't be a Jesse James

Don't be a Jesse James

It seems as though, if given the opportunity, marketers will try to blur the line between fact and fiction and this holds true no where better than the ‘wild wild Web.’ Since the first blog was posted, marketers have been seeking ways to capitalize on those blogs with significant audiences, and at times (shocking!), they have forgone transparency for the sake of the sale. 





A perfect example is Wal-mart’s Walmarting Across America blog (no longer active).  Basically the premise was about a  couple who just “happened” to drive their RV around the United States, parking in Wal-Mart parking lots as they went and blogging about their great Wal-mart experiences. The problem was it was billed as authentic when, in fact, it was a carefully scripted (and paid) campaign by Edelman (a well-regarded worldwide PR agency) for Wal-mart. 

There are many examples of the misuse of blogs and bloggers by companies marketing their products and services as well as a blatant disregard for disclosure and as such, the FTC has stepped in with guidelines to help keep unethical marketers (and companies) at bay. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued final changes to its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising. While advisory in nature, the new guidelines will reset standards of behavior that public relations, marketing and advertising professionals should adopt to avoid violating underlying laws against unfair competition and false advertising.

As outlined in a notice provided by The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), the FTC Guidelines  make three key departures from previous guidelines that could impact marketing professional’s practices:

  • The FTC advises that “endorsers” as well as advertisers can be held liable for false or unsubstantiated claims or for failing to disclose material connections between the parties.
  • The Guides no longer offer the “safe harbor” whereby testimonials can be qualified by a “results may vary” disclaimer.
  • Regarding endorsements, the Guides specify that celebrities should disclose relationships with advertisers.

While the FTC will approach each potential violation on a case-by-case basis, the new guidelines will impact how professionals should approach some common practice scenarios. Here are some applications of the guidelines:

  • Bloggers who receive cash or in-kind payment (including free products or services for review) are deemed endorsers and so must disclose material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.
  • Any firm that engages bloggers by paying them outright to create or influence editorial content or by supplying goods or services to them at no cost may be liable if the blogger does not disclose the relationship.
  • Advertisements or promotions that feature a consumer who conveys his or her experience with a product or service as “typical” should clearly disclose what results consumers can generally expect or specify how the results were unique to the individual circumstances.
  • If research is cited in an advertisement or promotion, any sponsorship of the research by the client or the marketer should be clearly disclosed.
  • Celebrities who make endorsements outside the context of traditional ads, such as on talk shows or in social media, should disclose any relationship with the advertiser or marketer.

A note to marketers, we owe it to ourselves and our profession to do what’s right by, not only our clients, but by the general public as well.  Consumers are already wary of advertising, so let’s not ruin it in the online community too.  Just because it’s the ‘wild wild Web’ doesn’t mean we need to act like Jesse James.

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