FTC: Fess Up Bloggers!
This past week the Federal Trade Commission announced a revision to rules regarding testimonials and endorsements. It’s the first revision to the rules since 1980 and the first rule change to expressly address bloggers.
The media has largely portrayed this as aimed at mommy bloggers who endorse a product after receiving a truckload of it and celebrity Twitterers who rave about shoes, cell phones, fashions and other consumers goods without letting on if the Tweet was an honest fan statement or if it was a quid pro quo trade of item for endorsement.
My personal perception is that the further into the mainstream you move the more glowing the endorsements tend to be and the less likely they are to have come without some sort of palm-greasing. (I once satirized this on BKW by calling a pair of socks “the greatest socks ever in the history of the world.” You can read the review here.)
As I’m a blogger, this new rule revision applies to me as well. It’s as good an opportunity as I’m likely to get to offer some insight into how I do things.
A boss I had some years back (Garrett Lai at Bicycle Guide) told me there was only one promise he ever made or that I would ever make while on his staff. He told every manufacturer he dealt with: “I can’t promise a good review, but I can promise that if it doesn’t arrive here, I can’t review it.” I’ve stuck to that promise and it has served me well.
There are people in the bike industry who work on the principle that everything can be boiled down to a transaction. Theirs is a simple quid pro quo world: They buy an ad and believe it entitles them to a good review. Some of them don’t even think they need to send the product to get the review, a photo and press release should be enough to get the job done, right? After all, the positive outcome is a foregone conclusion. I tend to avoid these folks the way I avoid high-interest credit cards.
The flip side is that some magazines base their opinion on your ad budget. Buy a page and the review is pretty darn good. Buy a page a month all year long and you’ve got one terrific bike. There’s a site that charges companies to review a bike. Once the review is complete, they get a video to post on their site. Isn’t that the very definition of quid pro quo?
While you may be suspicious of how other media outlets conduct their business, your concern in reading Red Kite Prayer pertains to how I do business. So here it is in fairly simple terms.
When I write about a product, the review comes about in one of three ways:
1) I wanted to try it out based on what I’ve seen.
2) The company contacted me and asked me to give my honest opinion.
3) You readers suggested something and I decided to follow up.
When I write the review, the conclusions are based on one thing alone:
1) I write as honest an appraisal as I can in the hope that I’ll make the truest, most accurate statements about the product to be found.
No matter how a review starts, they each end the same way, with something I believe to be true. There have been times when I’ve realized I’ve overlooked something (I once neglected to mention how much I hated the sound of a freehub on a set of wheels), but I try to include everything I think is relevant to the reader, good, bad or indifferent. If I think the product is overwhelmingly bad or have reason to think the item (not the product) is defective and not representative of the production run, I’ll contact the manufacturer and start a dialog.
But what about those products I reviewed and liked? Am I compensated? The short answer is no. I’ve never made a deal to say something nice about a product in exchange for cash or product. I’ve been quoted on occasion (and I can’t say that I haven’t liked it), but I’ve never said something nice expressly for the purpose of wowing readers.
Were I to say something mythically positive, a mammoth compliment for a world-changing product, but something I didn’t believe, seeing my words quoted would pain me. That would be an opportunity to say something true I had lost. Getting at the truth of a product, an experience, a person, has always been my drive. If I miss the opportunity to say something true … well, that was just lousy writing and I haven’t pursued this craft for so long to do the job “half-assed,” as my father would say.
What about schwag? It’s true that some products don’t get returned. Every bike I’ve ever reviewed was returned. When I’ve reviewed something I’ve always done so with the expectation that it would be returned. For some companies, they find value in knowing I want to keep riding it. In this age of carbon fiber handlebars, stems, seats and seatposts, that price tag isn’t exactly cheap. For more expensive stuff, I’ve often asked what to put on the check should I want to keep it. Otherwise, there’s always the UPS call tag.
For some publications, there’s been an expectation that everything stays. I saw one San Fernando Valley-based magazine’s waiver that they would test a bicycle to the point of failure, that it wouldn’t be in working condition to be returned and consequently would wind up in the dumpster. I have my doubts about the actual fate of many of those bikes; I know some wound up being sold (by staffers) on Craigslist. Plenty of guys at plenty of magazines have kept bikes.
Do we really need the Federal Trade Commission to help us judge what’s ethical? I hope not. Could the fear of a fine cause some blogs to conduct business a little differently? I hope so. Is the potential of action on their part enough to increase your faith in the job I do? I doubt it. By now, you’ve already developed a pretty good sense about what I have to say. I try to be transparent in what I write. Yes, I have my preferences; I do like bikes that are stable at speed. I like a frame that doesn’t feel dead. And all things being equal, I’d prefer the part that is lighter. That said, I try to be up front about my preferences in order to give you a point from which to triangulate.
There are few absolutes in cycling, so if you know I like light stuff that gives great road feel and you don’t mind something kind of wooden feeling and a little heavier in order to save, say, $2000, then you can evaluate my statement on a relative basis. I think it’s helpful if we’re all clear that my 10 might be your seven and vice versa.
The FTC thinks that schwag is a dirty little secret. Dirty, maybe; secret, no. The secret has been out for some time, and while not all of us do the math the same way, some of us do think there is an ethical limit to what can linger in our garages, permanent-like. The real issue is the quid pro quo. What I can tell you is this: When you read a review in RKP, it has been written with no agenda and the recommendations have been made from a sincere desire to say something accurate, something true. You’ll never see a statement made for the sole purpose of stroking the manufacturer just so I can have something for free.