Members and readers of social networking sites are adept at sniffing out deliberate attempts to manipulate their thinking, especially when the merits of a product are being reviewed. Members who shill for a particular product or company-particularly members who are posting for the first time-are quickly called out and these social media communities are very good about self-enforcing membership protocols. Starting on December 1, 2009, they are going to get some help from the Federal Trade Commission. Bloggers, twitterers, forum members and others who write product reviews will be required to disclose payment or the fact that they received free merchandise for the items they review.
The new guidelines are an extension of the FTC’s 1980 guide regarding the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising. The new regulations have drawn mixed reviews from bloggers and other social media writers. Some say it will add credibility to what they do, identify them as serious writers and establish professional standards. This is especially relevant in the fashion blogging community where some bloggers referred to derisively as “cloggers” use their sites or forums as a means of soliciting free samples or gaining invitations to exclusive fashion industry events.
“Cloggers will tweet about how they’d just love a free garment or accessory directly to a brand’s Twitter account,” one supporter of the new rules said. “They brazenly insist on tons of samples even though they haven’t been blogging long enough to build up any sort of readership.”
Critics of the regulations say that it amounts to a double standard since the guidelines do not require newspaper and magazine reviewers to observe the same rules.
“There’s the feeling that we’re not as trustworthy as traditional print media and need to be policed,” one said. “The singling out is what offends me.”
The FTC is responding to widespread shilling and manipulation by some social media outlets, especially for women’s fashion and beauty accessories. One public relations company that represents a fashion designer and a high-volume retailer has four employees whose job it is to get bloggers to write about clients, mostly by providing them with samples. “I don’t have concerns with readers knowing that we sent bloggers product because people simply want to look more beautiful and, chances are, a positive review is still going to drive sales,” the owner said.