Bloggers who want to maintain good relationships with the brands that pay the bills should at least be aware of the rules around paid promotion.
The rules are simple: if you receive payment to write, podcast, make a video, or post to social media about a product, you have to make the financial relationship clear to consumers.
More broadly, you have to declare any benefit you receive from a brand in relation to the products you publish about. If they paid for your trip to the product announcement, you have to tell readers. The same is true if the product was given to you free, if the company is making a donation to your favorite charity, or if you expect discounts in the future.
The FTC wants consumers to be aware of anything that might influence a journalist, online or otherwise, in their public opinion of a product. Even if you think payment or benefits don’t sway your opinion, you should still make it clear to consumers.
Traditional journalists spend years training in institutions shaped by the ethics of their trade. A key component of journalistic ethics is the firewall between editorial content and promotional content. Blogging looks like traditional journalism to many people, but it evolved separately and hasn’t had time to establish the institutions and norms of traditional offline journalism.
Many bloggers and social media influencers don’t have a clear understanding of the importance of keeping paid promotional content and editorial content separate, or of the legal requirement that readers are informed when content is motivated by payment.
The suggestion that traditional offline journalism is a high-minded and ethical pursuit might have some readers shaking their heads, but the ethics and rules around advertising are, for the most part, adhered to. The division between bloggers and journalists is itself old-fashioned: bloggers have every right to think of themselves as journalists. But they also need to take ethical and legal responsibilities seriously.
When you read a product review on a website, you understand the difference between the editorial text of the review, which you expect to be an honest appraisal, and the paid advertising around the editorial content, which you know isn’t an honest reflection of the publication’s opinion. It’s a distinction worth preserving.
The rules are good for those who make a living reviewing and promoting products. Imagine if you bought a product because a blogger you trust said it was incredible. When it arrives, you find that it is a piece of junk. Your suspicion is likely to be that the blogger is a shill for the company that makes the product — and by extension that most bloggers aren’t to be trusted.
Without the trust of consumers, bloggers can’t make a living. If blogs and social media influencers are widely seen as unreliable and dishonest, brands won’t use them for advertising.