Reveal Those Review Copies, Bloggers

If you’re in the U.S., as of December 1, the Federal Trade Commission has made it mandatory for bloggers to disclose any payment or free items they receive in return for reviews. If you don’t, “penalties include up to $11,000 in fines per violation.” No specifics were provided on how the items must be disclosed.

(Update: The FTC has clarified through questions from the affected: the fine potential is for advertisers, not bloggers.)

Last time the subject came up, at the beginning of the year, those who were in favor of explicitly disclosing review copies were told they were acting like amateurs because old-school media didn’t make similar disclaimers. However, the FTC has clearly demonstrated that they see online media, especially blogging, as different, with different rules applying.

Update: To go into more detail, this excerpt is from the FTC press release:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers — connections that consumers would not expect — must be disclosed. … [T]he post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

Update 2: More links. Key quote from this interview with an FTC representative:

A book falls under “compensation” if it comes associated with an Amazon link or there is an advertisement for the book, or if the reviewer holds onto the book.

That’s two out of three that this site falls under, Amazon links and keeping the books. (In part because I don’t have a postage budget to return books at $2.38 and up a pop.)

And having skimmed through the actual government notice, I’m more convinced than ever that this site, and others like it, need to run disclaimers listing review copies, as we have done and will continue doing. Given this statement,

advertisers who sponsor these endorsers (either by providing free products — directly or through a middleman — or otherwise) in order to generate positive word of mouth and spur sales should establish procedures to advise endorsers that they should make the necessary disclosures and to monitor the conduct of those endorsers.

I am very curious to see how the press releases and boilerplate instructions I receive with review copies of books and DVDs change, if at all.

My thanks to all the commenters for providing additional information and viewpoints on this issue. It’s been helpful in refining my opinions and decision on how to proceed. There’s already a lot of anger out there about the double standard between new and traditional media (such as a newspaper, which is not required to disclose), although it doesn’t bother me. I still don’t understand why people are resistant to saying “I got this for free”. Heck, how you found something you liked is often a neat part of someone’s story about their reactions to a new book.


  • The full FTC press release on the subject is here, btw:

    I think it’s made much clearer there that they are talking about people who are being paid for a “review.” Not seeing a review copy of a book for the purpose of review.

  • Greg, I’ve edited the post to include more FTC information, but it seems clear to me that free copies of whatever product are intended to be covered. Thanks for providing that link, it was very helpful.

  • Kevin Melrose

    I agree with Greg: I don’t see that it applies to review copies. The FTC release specifies “[material] connections that consumers would not expect”; surely, review copies are “expected.”

    That aside, enforcement of the rules is going to be dicey, and likely will provide fertile ground for lawsuits.

  • I think the conversation showed last time around that review copies were not well understood by many readers, especially in terms of scope of distribution. That is, they may think that Newsarama gets some, but they may not realize that Bob’s Comic Blog does too, so I’d argue that they are not “expected”.

    Once again, I’m back to my question: why not disclose? Why the resistance to doing so? Especially now that the government’s getting involved.

  • Kevin Melrose

    I don’t want to wade into the why/why not disclose debate.

    But the more pertinent phrase in the press release — I don’t see the actual guidelines yet — deals with “cash or in-kind payment to review a product.” A review copy doesn’t qualify as “in-kind payment.”

  • Mark Cook

    The actual guidelines are provided in a link to the left of the release under “Related Items.” An excerpt: “Although other situations between these two ends of the spectrum will depend on the specific facts present, the Commission believes that certain fact patterns are sufficiently clear cut to be addressed here. For example, a blogger could receive merchandise from a marketer with a request to review it, but with no compensation paid other than the value of the product itself. In this situation, whether or not any positive statement the blogger posts would be deemed an
    “endorsement” within the meaning of the Guides would depend on, among other things, the value of that product, and on whether the blogger routinely receives such requests. If that blogger frequently receives products from manufacturers because he or she is known to have wide readership within a particular demographic group that is the manufacturers’ target market, the blogger’s statements are likely to be deemed to be “endorsements,” as are postings by participants in network marketing programs. Similarly, consumers who join word of mouth marketing programs that periodically provide them products to review publicly (as opposed to
    simply giving feedback to the advertiser) will also likely be viewed as giving sponsored messages.”

    So *I* don’t have to disclose right now, because no one really reads my blog so it would be hard to target any demographic with it (plus I’m Canadian and the FTC is American); but it would certainly appear that Johanna ought to, unless she really want to deal with the FTC on a case-by-case basis. The monetary value is kinda sticky, but at then end of the document the example of a blogger reviewing a video game is used as a situation that must be disclosed, so it clearly does not have to be *THAT* expensive, given that video games float around $50 new.

  • Melinda Beasi

    Information in this link makes it clear that any blogger who reviews a book and keeps it is subject to this new rule.

  • Thanks, Melinda, that’s a big help. Notice also that since I use “buy this book” links, which would count as “a linked advertisement to buy the book”, I must disclose that it was a free copy whether or not I keep the book.

    I think it’s simpler to just say “reveal review copies” instead of trying to play games with if something’s an endorsement (so if it’s a negative review, you don’t say you got it for free? only if it’s positive? what if it’s mixed?) or based on the size of your readership or whether or not you think your reader demographics match the product’s target market. I really don’t understand the resistance, but if this kind of thing happens more widely, no wonder the FTC wanted to get involved.

  • Heidi M.

    Just because something is from the old media, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad.

    A professional review is not an endorsement. I continue to resist the idea that how a product was acquired would have any influence on the opinions of a professional reviewer.

    For a reviewer whose opinions I respect, it makes no difference how they got the video game, book or pimple cream.

    Having scanned the guidelines, to me, this seems more about the FTC making more money, the IRS making more money and the idea that an independent blogger is not a professional, no matter how they comport themselves. As the FTC fellow says in the Edward Champion review linked above:

    Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review. I informed him that this was not always the case and observed that some bloggers often receive 20 to 50 books a week. In such cases, the publisher hopes for a review, good or bad. Cleland didn’t see it that way.

    So what we really have now is a double standard. And according to the FTC it does come down to professionalism.

  • In this case, it seems that the FTC is assuming that old media is better, in that they aren’t being subject to new guidelines. Since the public has had their chance to argue with them (as Heidi is doing) and lost, I’m more concerned with how to proceed now.

    It’s true that the government is resistant to new media. This isn’t the only way — responsible online journalists are also being told in some cases that they aren’t covered by shield laws protecting their sources.

    Yes, it’s all a double standard. But in key ways, as Ed has pointed out, new media *is* different from old in that it removes a lot of the middlemen serving an editorial or buffering capacity. And some, clearly, could have used better judgment in praising expensive products without revealing they were given them for free.

  • Melinda Beasi

    Cleland insisted that when a publisher sends a book to a blogger, there is the expectation of a good review.

    Wow. I have no problem disclosing my review copies (I do anyway), but that’s seriously insane. Most of the publishers who send me books just send me all their new releases for each month, regardless of whether I’m likely to enjoy them. None of them have ever stopped sending books just because I didn’t rave over one series or another.

  • Heidi, I think by companies they mean the organizations that are providing the products as part of an ad/marketing campaign. So in the case of, say, the Watchmen DVD, Warner would have to show that they’re following these guidelines by advising the recipients that they need to reveal that they got it for free. And yes, I’m looking forward to seeing what the specific guidelines wind up being.

    Melinda, I have had companies cut me off if I didn’t review their books or only reviewed them negatively. But if I don’t have anything to say positively about their publications, I can’t really blame them.

  • Argh… the stuff about affiliate links just makes it more confusing.

    So if I get a review copy, write a review, and post a link to Amazon, then I have to disclose…what, the review copy, or the fact that I’m linking to Amazon (which would seem pretty obvious), or the fact that I’m linking with an affiliate code?

    What if I’m reviewing a copy that I bought through normal channels, and include an affiliate link to Amazon? Do I need to disclose that circumstance?

    I’m not looking forward to reading that 80-page PDF.

  • If you bought the book, there’s nothing to disclaim, as I read it. If you get a review copy and give it back (and don’t have ads or affiliate links), you don’t have to disclaim. Otherwise… this is why the FTC needs to publish additional guidelines.

  • You know, Johanna, I could understand a publisher pulling review copies if they never get reviewed. I am disappointed that they’d stop sending them just because of negative reviews.

  • […] as I imagined she might, Johanna Draper Carlson has all kinds of smart things to say on this very subject. Go read what she has to […]

  • Thanks for your commentary on this, Johanna (and commenters!). I’m at the point where I regularly get review copies from a few companies, and I’m using Amazon to partially fund my site, so I think all of this is going to matter to me very soon. I’ve also been doing giveaways for review copies of really fancy or interesting review copies after I finish the review, which I’m sure will be a whole other can of worms. I wonder if PDFs count as review copies, too?

    On the subject of pulling review copies due to negativity… I used to do videogame journalism for a fairly decent magazine. We gave a new Japanese RPG-ish game, which was very, very bad, a low score. Their PR rep assured us that that was okay, and they wouldn’t pull ads, and we’d still have a relationship with the company, etc.

    The next month, we were notified that they were pulling ads and that they needed to “talk” to us before they’d send builds of anything for further coverage.

    It sounds like the kind of thing that’s way more common than it should be. I can see the company’s rationale for it (“Why should we waste time shipping a game out just for a negative review?”), but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

  • […] Johanna Draper Carlson examines the new Federal Trade Commission requirements for bloggers to disclose “material connections” related to the products they discuss. I’ve […]

  • I’m at the point where I’m kind of glad when someone whose books I don’t care for quits sending me things, because that’s one less thing for me to worry about, especially if it’s a bad match between me and their publications. And publishers do have a lot more choices these days for coverage. And review copies do cost money.

    But yes, it is also the case that some publishers are too quick to cut off people — another reason it’s sometimes tricky for a reviewer to operate without these kinds of concerns affecting them.

  • […] Some reax: Johanna has the will power not to title her post “TOLJA!”. […]

  • It’s not like the FTC is asking much. They want you to disclose that you received a copy of something in return for promotion. Well, honestly, you probably should have been doing that all along, or your readers might assume that you pay for what you review. If you didn’t buy it, they should know that.

    On Okazu, my readers sponsor reviews (I don’t keep the books, I give them to the library, or to the AnimeNext Manga library ) or I buy my own. This way I can say whatever I bloody well want. I never ask for review copies and rarely, if ever receive them. If it is a review copy *of course* I’m going to note that. Readers deserve to know that I did not spend my hard-earned money on it.

    If your prime motivation for blogging is to get free stuff, then do us all a favor and stop. That makes for lousy reviews.



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