Bloggers of the world, relax - the Federal Trade Commission is not out to get you. That was the message from Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection.
In a conference call for reporters today, Engle aimed to set the record straight after a flurry of news stories (not to mention blogs and tweets) about the FTC's new advertising guidelines that were, as she put it, "all wrong."
"We are not going to be patrolling the blogosphere," she said. "We are not planning on investigating individual bloggers."
Engle stressed that the guidelines are just that – guidelines. “They are not rules and regulations, and they don’t have the force of law,” she said. “They are guidelines intended to help advertisers comply with Section 5 of the FTC Act,” which covers unfair or deceptive practices.
The FTC published the new guidelines, which had been last updated in 1980, on Oct. 5. The revised guide expands on product endorsements by consumers, experts, celebrities and organizations, and the disclosure of connections between endorsers and products.
While much of the FTC’s intention was to crack down on ads for weight loss products touting miraculous results, it was the provisions dealing with bloggers and endorsements via social media sites like Facebook that got the most public attention.
Engle said that bloggers who are paid per blog or tweet to market a product, for example, need to disclose that information. At the same time, she said, “The primary responsibility falls upon the advertiser using the blogger to market the product…. Our focus is on the advertiser, not the individual endorser.”
While the guidelines do not have the force of law, the FTC as always can still sue an advertiser for deceptive practices under the FTC Act. But she said the agency has “never brought a case against an individual consumer endorser.” Nor will the FTC levy fines for violating the guidelines.
Engle did acknowledge a substantial gray area when it comes to blogging. If a blogger received an occasional free sample and happened to write something positive, she said, “that’s not something we think would change the expectation of the audience,” and might not require disclosure. But if at some point it became a steady stream of freebies, then disclosure would be called for. “It’s not burdensome and it’s not hard,” she said.
When it comes to making law enforcement decisions, however, she said the FTC will go after the cases that are black and white. “We’re not interested in playing gotcha in the gray areas.”