Source: NY Times (click to view original article)
Writer Source: Kayleen Schaefer
LAST August, Britt Aboutaleb, a New York-based blogger, wrote a post for Fashionista.com, a beauty and fashion Web site, about her visit to a Gap store where “cute boys” served her coffee while Patrick Robinson, the Gap’s lead designer, helped her select a pair of jeans. It was unclear whether Ms. Aboutaleb had received the $69 jeans free, but some readers’ antennae were raised.
In comments about her post, they accused her of being intentionally vague. But her online response to the comments was anything but vague: “How is it less than crystal clear that I went intending to walk away with gifted jeans? Must I put FREE in the title?”
According to Federal Trade Commission guidelines announced last week, the answer is — or soon will be — “yes.”
Beginning Dec. 1, bloggers, Twitterers and many others who write online product reviews must disclose the receipt of free merchandise or payment for the items they write about.
The guidelines, an update of the F.T.C.’s 1980 guide concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising, will affect many in the beauty and fashion blogging community, where freebies ($40 eye-shadow palates, $250 clutch purses and, yes, $69 jeans) are rampant. The rules reflect the commission’s concern about how advertisers are using bloggers and social networking sites to pitch their products.
“Pretty much all of the products I review are sent to me by publicists,” said Nadine Haobsh, who writes the beauty blog Jolie Nadine. Last week, she posted an official disclosure policy on her site after learning about the ruling.
Ms. Haobsh and other bloggers have mixed opinions about the commission’s newfound interest in what they’re doing on the Internet. Some say the rules may help identify them as serious journalists.
“The fact that we’re being regulated is actually a backhanded compliment since it establishes legitimacy and shows that blogging is here to stay,” Ms. Haobsh said.
Some think it will help establish more professional standards, policing the kind of bloggers that Amber Katz, the founder of Beauty Blogging Junkie, calls “cloggers,” or bloggers who use their Web sites as platforms for soliciting the latest perfumes or garnering invitations to fashion industry events.
“Cloggers will tweet about how they’d just love a free garment or accessory directly to a brand’s Twitter account,” she said. “They brazenly insist on tons of samples even though they haven’t been blogging long enough to build up any sort of readership.”
Others are upset about what they say is a double standard: The guidelines don’t require disclosure of free samples for newspapers and magazines or their online counterparts.
“There’s the feeling that we’re not as trustworthy as traditional print media and need to be policed,” said Kelly Cook, a founder of a network of blogs about beauty and fashion, including Bag Snob and Beauty Snob. “The singling out is what offends me.”
Carolyn Hsu, the managing editor of The Daily Obsession, said she gets fewer gifts than the print editors she knows, and in March went to a fashion event where the print editors were given a designer bag as a gift but bloggers were not. “There was quite a bit of Twitter outrage,” she said.
Even before the new rules, some bloggers identified posts that advertisers paid them to write as “sponsored.” But most don’t have formal disclosure policies, or they tend to use ambiguous language about giveaways.
Ms. Katz, for instance, writes that she “had the opportunity” for a specific salon service whenever she gets a blowout or manicure on the house.
Others, like Ms. Cook, don’t plan on instituting a disclosure policy because of the new F.T.C. rules. “There’s no way they can enforce this,” she said.
Theoretically there could be a fine, but Richard Cleland, the F.T.C’s assistant director of advertising practices, said that the purpose of the new rules “wasn’t to announce a law enforcement effort, but to provide guidelines.” He added that he expects “a high level of voluntary compliance.”
Indeed, most of the bloggers interviewed for this article say they are crafting ways to comply with the ruling, including posting an official disclosure policy on their “About Me” page or adding a line that the product was free.
“I don’t think readers know exactly how much product is sent,” Ms. Cook said. “They would be shocked if they did.”
But Ms. Cook said that even though readers may not know how common free lip glosses or brand-sponsored lunches are, they do a good job of policing bloggers they suspect have fallen under a company’s spell.
“They catch us,” she said. “They’ll comment, ‘Oh sure, you were second row at the show and now you’re all in love with the brand.’ ”
Free products or not, the majority of reviews on fashion and beauty blogs tend to be positive.
“I’m only going to write about something if it’s great,” Ms. Aboutaleb said.
But the new rules mean companies could now be viewed as bribing bloggers to earn positive reviews.
Alison Brod, whose public relations firm represents Laura Mercier and Old Navy, has four employees whose job it is to get bloggers to write about clients, mostly by providing them with samples. “I don’t have concerns with readers knowing that we sent bloggers product because people simply want to look more beautiful and, chances are, a positive review is still going to drive sales,” Ms. Brod said.
But readers may have concerns about advertisers paying bloggers to write reviews. Lauren Friedman, a lawyer in New York, said: “It would make me less likely to go out and buy a product if I knew the blogger was being paid to review something by the company and wasn’t disclosing that. Once you know, though, you can take a product review for what it’s worth.”
As for Ms. Aboutaleb, she said the new rules about freebies were unlikely to affect the posts on Fashionista.com.
“If we love a product enough to write about it in the first place, then we’ll happily disclose where it came from, and how, before moving on to more relevant, and interesting, information.”