Reading the FTC ‘new rules’– What’s an ‘ad’ anymore?

In my last post I went off on the FTC without reviewing the guides, taking Wired.com’s article summation at face value, because I trust Wired.com and because I just don’t really have the time today to read through the official documentation.

I thought I’d better start by reading through the official documentation, though, because otherwise the post just sounds like “I’m pissy! And I don’t really know why!”

Only three pages in so far, and I think I’m going to have to shout even louder. There’s some real zingers of phrases in here. For one thing, check out the following new rule:

[A]n endorsement means any advertising message (including verbal
statements, demonstrations, or depictions of the name, signature, likeness
or other identifying personal characteristics of an individual or the name
or seal of an organization) that consumers are likely to believe reflects the
opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences of a party other than the
sponsoring advertiser, even if the views expressed by that party are
identical to those of the sponsoring advertiser. – FTC rules (pdf)

So what does this mean? No, seriously…  look at it above.  If someone gives you something for free, and you later write about it, even if you’re not getting any actual monetary compensation, the value of the item you received promotionally can be argued to form “sponsorship”. Because you took the freebie, you are now “sponsored” by the advertiser. Anything you say about the product, even if it’s really what you as a person truly believe and not some paid statement, is now subject to the FTC’s new rules.

Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Danger!

This is pretty broad, and pretty slippery language. There’s an awful lot of wiggle room, and it looks like it’s perfectly designed to pave the way for advertisers to start suing the crap out of people who make posts about products which compete with their own. Or just because. Or for the media conglomerates to start filing complaints in an effort to remove online endorsements to help them shore up their own for-profit advertising efforts, which is the bulk of how they make their money.

This is just on the first couple of pages. (Incidentally the FTC posted these rules for public comment… only 17 comments were filed, most of them from media companies or advertising consortia.)

More as I have more time to review the doc. But I’m already upset by this shameful abuse of authority.

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