The recent release of the new FTC guidelines for social media has caused much stir in the online community.
Although I don’t totally agree, but somehow, I think that is a natural evolution in digital marketing & PR. It is simply a natural extension from offline to online to uphold the most basic principles of honesty in business. Most of us industry professionals do live up to the promotion of transparency and authenticity. However there are cases where makes it hard for these principles to be in place. Well explained by John Bell from Ogilvy, I highly recommend you should read it.
Unlike journalists, bloggers are free individuals who are not bound by job responsibilities or professional ethics. They are not obliged to promote or say good things about the brand. There are many grey lines to the concept of a effective set of governing rules. While monetary transactions are clear, there is a difference between giving away samples and endorsements. While I agree that any form of endorsements should be disclosed, but are samples considered “sponsorship” as suggested by FTC? Surely it’s not an issue to tell anyone the sample was given. But it is also the influencer’s free will to decide if he/she thinks it is an issue worth mentioning at all. After all, you get samples when you shop at malls. It’s not such a big deal to everyone.
According to page 59 of the FTC guidelines, this example was cited,
A consumer who regularly purchases a particular brand of dog food decides one day to purchase a new, more expensive brand made by the same manufacturer. She writes in her personal blog that the change in diet has made her dog’s fur noticeably softer and shinier, and that in her opinion, the new food definitely is worth the extra money. This posting would not be deemed an endorsement under the Guides.
Assume that rather than purchase the dog food with her own money, the consumer gets it for free because the store routinely tracks her purchases and its computer has generated a coupon for a free trial bag of this new brand. Again, her posting would not be deemed an endorsement under the Guides.
Assume now that the consumer joins a network marketing program under which she periodically receives various products about which she can write reviews if she wants to do so. If she receives a free bag of the new dog food through this program, her positive review would be considered an endorsement under the Guides.
Okay, I understand the examples above. But what if… the consumer did not join a network marketing program, but rather because she’s an existing customer, the brand was listening to her rants online and approached her to try a new product to garner feedback. Would that be considered as endorsement under the Guides? Apparently it should. But as free individuals, not representing professional bodies, this rule to make it compulsory (forced) for the influencer to mention, and the brand/company to monitor his posting for “compliance” may make the influencer feel pressured, as though prisoned or under the eyes of an eagle. Such action seems to be sailing away from the primitive objective of blogging and conversations. Please don’t mistaken me, I am not against the ideals of this guideline as a marketer. I am just doubting it from my capacity as a social media activist. Question is… would I prefer to freely do it, or be compelled to do it – by law. But again, this is a very tough question to answer, as laws are usually there to protect against deceit and fraud. But this case in particular, it seems to infringe the private space of individuals. Much to be debated about.
Social Media Guidelines beyond FTC
I definitely foresee the Guidelines to be assessed and reviewed over time. But nevertheless, it will become a norm in many countries in the years to come. And one such place I believe which will catch it on quickly, will be my homeland, Singapore.
Singapore has always been known for all kinds of rules and regulations. Being a country run by campaigns and systems, I am confident MDA (Media Development Authority of Singapore) will definitely use FTC Guidelines as a benchmark to draft a similar set of domestic guidelines for Singapore. However, the issue of disclosing collaboration between brands and bloggers was kind of resolved a pretty long time ago here, when Nuffnang was set up in 2007. Nuffnang is a blogger advertising community which bridges advertisers and bloggers. Note, I mentioned advertisers. Which means it does not exactly promote or build long-term relationships. It basically plays as the media company (like a matchmaker) between the two. Which, to be really really honest, despite the success of the concept, I don’t agree with it at all. It is making all our top blogs look like advertising billboards, and instilling the concept of blogging to earn money. I can’t decide which comes first. Passion or Money.
Anyway, back to the topic… despite having bodies like these in place setting some rules straight so consumers can recognise an ad when they see it, it is still an opt-in program. An official guideline will act as a good balance to set the note right for the many social media developments in the near future. Social media as we know it, has expanded beyond simply blogs. And it is fast becoming unclear what would deem to be an advertisement, what is really credible and what is actually a chapter of stealth marketing. It is likely beyond a community effort to keep it authentic any longer. Even with official guidelines, it will be challenging to execute it efficiently.
What Singapore Can Do?
Instead of implementing hard and fast rules, what I suggest MDA could do, is to work with 4As and other professional bodies governing the marketing and PR profession to make it mandatory for agencies to commit and declare themselves to a set of disclosure guidelines (Take a leaf out of CASE – Consumer Association of Singapore), which binds the industry to perform ethically instead of confusing the public with vague descriptions on concepts of “endorsements” and “sponsorships”, which could lead to 101 different cases of possibilities and arguments.
No one would want to risk a personal reputation for nothing. Unless it is a clause or request from the paymaster, I doubt any influencer would intentionally keep payments or endorsements discreet. So by instating such guidelines on the professional bodies, most of such doubts should be cleared. And in cases where samples are sent to bloggers, I think it should be their free will to disclose the source. There are always sites to sign up for free samples and I do not think this is a pressing issue since they are not obliged to write anything positive about the product. Hence, their credibility should not be doubted.
Asia Beyond Singapore
With Asia’s social media developments growing at a robust 29% annually, it is currently the largest region in the world with lowest internet penetration.
And would such guidelines be effective in other parts of Asia outside Singapore? I’m not sure if there are existing guidelines in Japan or Korea (please let me know if there are) but I think this would probably work in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The consumer market there is largely similar to Singapore although having different purchasing behaviours. Social media activities such as blogging is a mainstream activity in Taiwan, where it is reported that 70.9% of the internet users have created a blog themselves. Which many of these celebrity bloggers have now been converted into TV commercial models.
However, you would probably be more interested with the case of India and China. I would think China is desperate for such a set of guidelines but they are not ready for it. I would use the word “messy” to describe the social media landscape in China at this point. I believe they are still in a process of figuring out the best model that will work for the majority. Having such a vast land and population also means it is hard to administrate the rules if mass education is not in place. (Just look at all the domestic problems they have in ensuring quality control over health, food, manufacturing products etc).
As for India, I am not all that familiar with the market but I think it still lacks maturity and will take a couple of years to grow before the population catches it on as a mainstream activity.
But I do believe South-east Asia would be a potential region to explore such guidelines. It is however up to individual countries to decide the importance that social media will play to its economy.
Never too early to think about it, never too late to execute it.
But the FTC guidelines for social media has grown to become an international concern and benchmark beyond the United States. The world is watching, observing, learning and reflecting.
No matter what kind of approach is adapted in the end, nevertheless, it’s time to stop and rethink authenticity.