The Federal Trade Commission came under fire when it released new disclosure guidelines on sponsorships this fall. Most vocal were bloggers concerned that anyone online could be fined up to $11,000 for disclosure violations.
But Len Gordon, the FTC's Northeast director, thinks speculation surrounding the new rules has been overblown. Speaking at Venable's "mini-summit" in New York this morning, Gordon took a moment to dispel rumors that his agency will be banging down the door of mommy bloggers who accept free samples of soap without posting about it.
"The blogosphere went a little crazy with visions of storm troopers going after bloggers," he said. "As far as I'm concerend there aren't plans to do that. But you know, things always change."
That last addition was facetitious. Gordon made clear that the new rules are not intended to collect money from bloggers who have accepted free merchandise, Twitterers who don't disclose occassional brand affiliations or individuals who have acted in good faith.
Of course, there could be exceptions, but Gordon reiterated that the FTC is not interested in stalking individuals online. It is concerned with brands acting properly.
Another issue of concern has been the practice of companies giving away goods for favorable coverage. Many brands are in the habit of giving away free samples or sending products to writers who review or test their products. Many readings of the new rules make it seem like this practice would be verbotin.
Here's what Gordon says:
"It's one thing if it's a packet of soap, another if it's an automobile. It's going to depend on the particulars."
And that seems like it will be the answer on a lot of things. The FTC is moslty interested in protecting consumers. That has been proven with its history of going after health product companies and diet schillers that make claims unproven by science.
Online the commission is still concerned with brands that make unsubstantiated claims and while consumers have grown accustomed to discerning the shape and design of an informercial on television, online it's a bit different.
As Gordon notes: "It gets harder in a tweet." That's why bloggers and social media users have been so concerned with the changes. It's incredibly difficult to fit a disclosure into 140 characters.
At the same time, Gordon pointed out that when a person mentions a product on Twitter and it turns out that they are actually being paid to do that, it changes the meaning of that message.
"If a consumer wouldn't understand the endorser is being paid to say that which they say, that's something we're concerned about."
For those looking for a clear explanation of exactly what they can get away with online, however, the FTC is not going to make it that easy. The organization has not decided when and whom it will start fining to achieve complance with the new guidelines. Says Gordon:
"I don't think the agency has reached a final decision. It's going to depend very much on the facts."