The Author is this piece is pushing her own book, so no money changed hands.
The Author of this piece is pushing her own book, so no money changed hands.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission announced it would fine bloggers as much as $11,000 for violating its guides to the use of testimonials in advertising. The rules are designed to ensure that customers have a fair basis for buying a product. The basic rules are that if someone is compensated, that should be made clear; if a celebrity endorses a product, he or she should actually use it. Most of us didn’t want to know about Bob Dole‘s Viagra prescription or Lita Ford’s favorite ball gag (NSFW), but at least we know they are telling the truth about their preferences. The full details are on the FTC Web site in all their bureaucratic glory.

This creates some sticky problems for people blogging about books, movies, and music. You know, folks like us here at Popdose and our readers, at least some of whom are artists looking to get attention for their work. I can’t speak for everyone involved with Popdose, as that is a job for Jeff Giles. But, yes, we receive books, MP3s, DVDs, and bottles of tequila to review. We also write reviews about things that we bought with our money. I write book reviews for Barron’s, and those books are usually sent to me through my editor. Sometimes, though, he has misplaced the book or can’t remember if the publicist sent him a copy, and he doesn’t want to ask the publicist to send out a new one, so I go to the bookstore and buy it.

Like most reviewers, I quickly end up with more free books than I can possibly read. I usually end up dropping these books off at random places through Bookcrossing or donating them to the thrift shop. Some reviewers sell their excess copies to used bookstores or online, turning them into cash that way, although I have heard tell of writers who use something close to their real name on Amazon being shunned by authors who feel cheated out of royalties.

Are these random books, CDs, and spirits enough to cloud our judgment? I don’t know. I’d like to say no, but I can’t promise you that.

The traditional media likes to promote a myth of objectivity that no one believes. There’s much blather about the separation of editorial from advertising, and much tsk-tsking over bloggers. And yet, you will never see a major parenting magazine do a story about how easy it is to make your own baby food. (Just mash bananas or overcooked vegetables with a fork, or throw cooked spaghetti in a blender.) A travel magazine’s staffers may wander the world anonymously and pick up their own checks, but the resulting stories are often laden with the brands of cars driven through the countryside, fancy carry-on luggage that fit into the overhead bin, or easy-to-pack designer clothes.  A beauty magazine may recommend a new face cream because the manufacturer is an advertiser and had a swanky launch luncheon with fancy goody bags for all the junior staffers. It’s probably safe to assume that the product didn’t cause an outbreak of contact dermatitis, but is it really the best? Finally, a reporter for the New York Times would never let her personal friendship with a source cause her to slant her case for sending American troops into harm’s way, unless her name was Judith Miller.

I’m also an author, and I want my books to be reviewed. Hence, my publisher and I send out copies to people we think might want to know about them.  The recipients don’t always write a review, and I understand (because, of course, I have a pile of books on the floor of my office that I won’t get around to reading.) Some bloggers have interviewed me but told me not to send a book because they already have too many. Not all the reviews are glowing, although there is the issue of what constitutes a bad review. One of the worst Amazon reviews of Day Trading for Dummies is headed “Not for Dummies.” I’m okay with that!

The FTC’s targets fall into a few categories. The first are personal bloggers who are in the business of getting free stuff. I subscribe to a few different lists for writers looking at sources, and there are often requests from bloggers looking for samples to review. Some more or less promise a good review in exchange for product. Finally, multi-level marketing and direct salespeople have been known to use blogs to promote their products, without disclosing either accurate information about the products or their own selling relationship.  And, there have been loopholes that held a company’s print advertising to a higher standard than its online marketing efforts, especially in the use of celebrity endorsements. A lot of the Facebook ads citing Oprah or Jennifer Aniston to sell vitamin preparations could not run in magazines.

The FTC has said that they will review the situation on a case-by-case basis. It doesn’t seem that they plan to run a red-light camera operation, sending out bills for $11,000 and asking questions later. I suspect that most bloggers have nothing to fear, nor do the authors and musicians looking for a bit of promotion. But a few folks do need to worry before they ruin it for everyone.