This summer the Federal Trade Commission amended its disclosure guidelines to give it authority to fine any blogger that accepts gifts without disclosing the relationship to readers. As of yet, the commission hasn't doled out any fines to violators. Which means that many brands are still carrying on with the practice of rewarding bloggers for posts.

Last month, Ann Taylor LOFT extended an invitation to bloggers to preview the stores new collection in return for gift cards to the LOFT. The trouble is, a few bloggers didn't accept the offer.

Gawker Media blog Jezebel was invited to come down to inspect the new collection. If they liked what they saw (and posted about it within 24 hours) they'd receive a gift card valued at between $10 and $500. Though Jezebel didn't accept the invitation, and as they point out, those that did are likely in violation of the FTC's new rules:

"Almost none of the bloggers who typed write-ups and posted grainy cell-phone photos disclosed their financial relationship — or lack thereof, if in fact anyone turned down the cards — with Ann Taylor. A gift card might not be the most liquid form of currency, but it certainly has monetary value — and $500 is no small sum."

In the contest fine print was the following wording:

"Please note all bloggers must post coverage from our event to their blog within 24 hours in order to be eligible...You will be notified of your gift card amount by February 2. Gift card amounts will vary from $10 to $500."

This looks disturbingly like pay-to-play and The LA Times took note, calling the effort attempted bribery.

Gifting bloggers after their coverage runs presents a slightly different predicament for discloser in a blog post than guaranteed payments. At the time of writing the post, the blogger hadn't actually been compensated for it.

As Ann Taylor LOFT told The LA Times:

"Engaging the blogging community is a new way for us to communicate product information. We put a premium on the editorial media that covers our brand and we do not incentivize media for coverage. ... It is not uncommon for LOFT to offer contests, promotions or special offers in-store and through various online channels to our clients, similar to other retailers."

But receiving a free shopping card definitely incentivizes people who like the products to write — adoringly — of a company's products. However, will this sort of example bring the attention of the FTC? Probably not.

The last time I spoke with an FTC representative, it looked like decisions on the matter would all come down to scale. In January, Len Gordon, the FTC's Northeast director, said that fines would be handled on a case by case scenario:

"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 while Ann Taylor is definitely walking a tight line by offering gift cards depending on such strict rules, this sort of stuff happens all the time in print. Magazines run editorial pages full of products gifted to them by advertisers. It's impossible to say exactly what brands pay for what placement in magazines, but women's magazines notoriously give favorable coverage to brands that gift them free stuff (and advertize in their pages).

The main problem for Ann Taylor is that this gift was so well documented. And while this specific case may not result in any FTC fines, if this becomes a popular tactic to entice fickle bloggers to make good on their promise of blog posts, brands shouldn't be surprised to see the FTC poking around. The group isn't above making an example of an individual to scare brands off of shady practices when it comes to endorsements. As Gordon put it in January:

"If a consumer wouldn't understand the endorser is being paid to say that which they say, that's something we're concerned about."

image: Wikipedia

Meghan Keane

Published 4 February, 2010 by Meghan Keane

Based in New York, Meghan Keane is US Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow her on Twitter: @keanesian.

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Comments (6)

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Rob Clark

FTC fines aside, it's a poor choice to tie coverage in with rewards. Social media coverage is coveted because it is viewed as originating with a trusted source.  Brands that sully that trust in a wild attempt to gain coverage risk tarnishing that which makes the medium so valued.

I've no issue with providing samples for review purposes, or even providing gifts to spur on customer evangelists, but it should be made known upfront to one and all that there are no strings attached and that it's fine if the blogger chooses to write something negative, or even nothing at all.

Bloggers themselves ought to be wary that they don't blow all their social capital for a few trinkets and swag.  Your word and reputation are paramount and shouldn't so easily be thrown aside.

- Rob

about 8 years ago


Courtney Henley-Anderson

I was at the event and this was much ado about nothing. Many people received the card without having to write anything at all.

about 8 years ago

Meghan Keane

Meghan Keane, US Editor at Econsultancy

Courtney, You're missing the point. Giving incentives to bloggers to write about products blurs the lines of discloser. While you may not have received a gift card for your post — which was published after the store's deadline — other people who did receive gift cards didn't mention them.

When brands give offers like this, and leave it up to writers to disclose the relationship, it becomes impossible to discern who has been paid and who hasn't. I'm sorry your name was included in the original Jezebel post, but that does not undermine the basic issue here — that undisclosed freebies can confuse readers (and Jezebel writers) as to what copy has been paid for and what is genuine editorial.

about 8 years ago



Bloggers are not journalists and have no credentials, just an opinion.  If there opinon is influenced by a gift card, then that only validates their credibility. Passing gift cards to bloggers should not impair bloggers judgement. 

about 8 years ago


gareth baker

Isn't this along the same lines as Skimlinks which econsultancy gave a highly commended award to? Skimlinks works on the same principle to monetise blogs and forums. Bloggers write reviews and if what they write is adoring enough to generate sales the blogger gets paid commission. Skimlinks inserts the affiliate links and takes a cut of the commission.

The comparison with magazines is misleading. Editorial staff are paid a salary or an editorial fee on word count for freelancers. They work for the publisher. Bloggers accepting Ann Taylor's voucher are working for Ann Taylor. 

about 8 years ago



This whole thing is absurd. While Ann Taylor LOFT’s ploy was really obnoxious, this was because all gift cards were $10 not $10-500 and not a single attendee we know “won” the $500 card (side note to LOFT, writers all know each other and we talk). This wasn’t because it was pay for play. Is the FTC unaware of how many freebies writers (including this editor) get from companies in general? Whether a print journalist like myself or a web blogger, we are showered with stuff. It arrives via courier, we get it in gift bags, you can’t stop the flow. It just is. If my publication spent money to send back every unsolicited gift we received, we’d actually go bankrupt. Do journos from Vogue, Elle and Harper’s and all the mags bypass the goody bag handed out to us at an event? Of course not. Witness last Thursday’s Ann Taylor party at the Ace Hotel. We all (and no, I won’t tell you which one I write for) collected a goody bag on the way out. Lookbook and a pretty necklace. Is that a bribe? Don’t be absurd. No self-respecting journalist (print or web or whatever you want to call bloggers - unfortunately Jason, you're wrong, some bloggers are credentialed journalists and some credentialed journalists have blogs) can be bought off with a $50 necklace, much less a $10 gift card. Has anyone stopped to ask the question, who the hell is incentivised by $10? Even at our pathetic salaries, that would be an absurdly low rate for our work. The fact is, that all this merch allows us to see (and experience) what we are being pitched. We write about things which capture our imagination – and newsflash, FTC, if I’m holding it in my hand, yes, it’s more likely to make sense to me. End stop and out.

almost 8 years ago

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