Thursday, November 15, 2012

Every Good Thing Attracts The Bad - Fake Blogger Endorsements

Blogs began with a certain level of honesty and innocence.  People listened to blogger recommendations because they were genuine.  And marketers noticed that and started asking bloggers to market their products.  I wrote about this phenomenon two years ago at some length and with links to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Today I got one that went beyond most of the others.  Not only do they want me to talk about their products, they'll even write the post for me, and reward me with a gift certificate.  I would note that when I looked into this in the past, I learned that bloggers who get paid for their recommendations but don't tell their readers, are breaking the law.  (See below for more details.)

So here's the email I got.  (If you sent me a private email in response to something you read on my blog, or because you're a friend, I would not post or share your email without notifying you first and seeing if you have any objections.  But this is an unsolicited email asking me to break the law for their benefit.  There are no reasons why I should keep their correspondence confidential.)
Hi
I work for XXXXXX and wanted to reach out to you. We came across your blog What Do I know? and thought you'd make a great person to work with for a mutually beneficial initiative we've started. We're looking to have a select group of bloggers like yourself pick out their favorite XXXXXXX products and then ideally mention them in a blog post. The product selection is quite varied so I'm sure you'll find something that fits perfectly with your blog. To make this really fast & easy, we've developed a tool that guides you through everything. It even helps generate a blog post title and the actual content once you've chosen your products. You can get started by visiting this url: http://XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (yes I'm sparing you the real url) It should only take a couple minutes, but we would like to offer you a XXXXXX.com gift certificate in exchange for your time if this sounds interesting to you. All the best, Axxxxxxxx
So I followed the link and I had to pick one category from a long list.  Things like holidays, animals, birthdays, trendy, religion, gaming, brands. . .  24 in all.  I picked political and went to step 2.  Pictures of the products.  You'll see they didn't check my blog too carefully.  Here's a screenshot of three of the products.


Mind you there were dozens of choices for political products but they were all anti-Obama.  T shirts, bumper stickers, baseball caps, etc.  I guess these are bargain basement now.

Then I went to the next step to see what the post they were going to give me would look like.

 Let's see, I think this promotion sucks.  It's unethical, illegal, and their politics are all wrong.  Oh wait, I'm not doing a post to push their products, I'm doing a post to warn other bloggers and consumers.

The post they had for me turned out to be very similar to the picture above.  There were three T shirts, but vertical, and with links to buy them.

There was no disclosure that the blogger was getting a gift certificate for posting this.  I don't know how much it was for.  I didn't go that far.

I did go back and check the religion category.  There were cards (Christian and Jewish), bumper stickers and stickers (Buddhist), and T-shirts (Muslim.)  The Jewish cards ranged from ok in a secular way to tacky to offensive. The Muslim T-shirts, I can't tell if any would be acceptable to a Muslim, but some were clearly offensive.


My Blogger Colleagues!  It's illegal to get paid to endorse products without disclosing that relationship to your readers.  This solicitation does not ask me to disclose, nor does it warn me that if I don't disclose I would be breaking the law.  (In the past I even had solicitations that offered to pay me more if I DIDN'T disclose.)


This is from the Federal Trade Commission website, dated June 2010.

"The revised Guides – issued after public comment and consumer research – reflect three basic truth-in-advertising principles:
  • Endorsements must be truthful and not misleading;
  • If the advertiser doesn’t have proof that the endorser’s experience represents what consumers will achieve by using the product, the ad must clearly and conspicuously disclose the generally expected results in the depicted circumstances; and
  • If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed.
Since the FTC issued the revised Guides, advertisers, ad agencies, bloggers, and others have sent questions to endorsements@ftc.gov. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions.

About the Endorsement Guides

Are the FTC Endorsement Guides new?
The Guides aren’t new, but they’ve recently been updated. It’s always been the law that if an ad features an endorser who’s a relative or employee of the marketer – or if an endorser has been paid or given something of value to tout the marketer’s product – the ad is misleading unless the connection is made clear. The reason is obvious: Knowing about the connection is important information for anyone evaluating the endorsement. Say you’re planning a vacation. You do some research and find a glowing review on someone’s blog that a certain resort is the most luxurious place they’ve ever stayed. If you found out that the hotel had paid that blogger to say great things about it or that the blogger had stayed there for a week for free, it could affect how much weight you’d give the blogger’s endorsement."

There's a lot more questions and answers at the link. 


Remember the title of this post?  Every Good Thing Attracts The Bad.  In this case I'm giving the example that when blogs started they were new and fresh and honest and people listened to bloggers' endorsements because they were genuine.  And then the marketers moved in to exploit this new source of credibility and trust.

But this happens everywhere.  Legitimate organizations always attract the illegitimate who want to use their good name for their own gain.  We see this in every field, from religion to education and throughout the business world.  Knowing how to tell the genuine from the charlatan is a skill that has been useful since humans first became humans.  It's a skill I encourage on this blog a lot. 

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