Did you know it's the law for bloggers to disclose, clearly and prominently, when they were paid or received free product in exchange for writing a blog post?
Well, it is.
I believe very strongly in transparency, so I would like to think that I would tell you these things with or without the weight of the law compelling me to, but I'm glad for the accountability that requires me to stay honest.
The Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, was created to keep companies from falsely labeling or promoting their products to intentionally mislead consumers. Think turn-of-the-century "diet powders" that were actually just baking powder and "alcoholism remedies" that were actually diluted opium. There need to be regulations on advertising to ensure that consumers aren't duped or, even worse, harmed or killed by falsely labeled products. Regulations have since expanded to include clear labeling of editorial content so that consumers don't mistake advertising for "unbiased" journalism (we could have another conversation about what unbiased journalism even is, but that's for another day).
When fashion blogging first came on the scene, there were no regulations governing client-blogger relationships.
Blogging was a new medium unlike anything before it, blending personal narrative with advertising with journalism, and it was difficult for people to distinguish between editorial and advertorial content. Companies and bloggers exploited this confusion to sell products, and make bank.
That's when the FTC stepped in, treating blogging as a digital magazine and applying similar disclosure requirements.
In print magazines, editors are required to disclose when an article has been paid for as a means of advertising a particular company or product. They are not, however, required to disclose when a product in a round-up was provided free of charge, when a company has a particular stake in editorial content without direct advertising, or how brand-magazine relationships skew editorial messaging.
In this way, bloggers are held to a higher standard than magazines, and some of us - myself included - acknowledge that this isn't really fair. The difference is in how we direct that anger. For myself, I think traditional magazines should have to disclose early and often. They should be held to the standard bloggers are held to, so that readers can make an informed choice about the tone and nature of content. Some bloggers skew the other way, feeling that we, the little guys, shouldn't be persecuted just because we're not connected to a large publisher.
In either case, it's clear that we need consistency. But just because the system isn't as fair as it should be doesn't mean I'm free to forego disclosures.
I do a fair amount of sponsored posts - it's how I make a part-time income off of this blog - but I don't do more than others.
It's just that I'm disclosing.
If a blogger features a new product every day, it's pretty fair to say they received those products - or at least some of them - for free, or received store credit to purchase them. If a blogger writes a piece dedicated to a particular brand, it's very possible they were paid to do so. If a blogger shares an Instagram post with one item featured prominently - especially when it's off brand (think fashion bloggers talking about Tylenol) - they're probably in a paid partnership with that company. If a blogger goes on vacation and overshares about the hotel's amenities, the hotel has probably paid for their stay.
If a blogger links to a product using bit.ly or another link shortener, it's probably an affiliate link.
I'd like to tell you this doesn't happen in the "ethical" blogging world, but it does, all the time.
And that's why I'm writing this today. Because I'm tired of seeing people not live the values they claim.
Look, sometimes it's hard (and annoying) to disclose everything - and sometimes I forget to disclose affiliate links - but for the sake of transparency, legality, and consistency, I think we owe it to ourselves and our readers to suck it up and just do it.
Why do bloggers refuse to disclose?
It's probably not from a sense of entitlement or disrespect. It's more likely fear.
Fear that readers won't respect that blogging is monetized, and that our work is worth something other than page views. Fear that people will think that monetization inherently equals dishonesty. Fear that we can't drive sales if readers know we're using affiliate links.
Bloggers need to build trust, and readers need to give it. I have a responsibility to disclose even when it hurts the bottom line, but I'd hope that would mean you'd respect me more, not less, for it.
Being able to work on monetized collaborations with brands gives both parties an opportunity to learn, grow, and promote responsibly:
- I offer packages that allow me to show products not in an aspirational light, but a realistic one. I think that's ethical.
- I get the chance to celebrate companies based on the value of products I can feel and wear, and that means my promotion is based on personal experience, not promotional talking points. I think that's ethical.
- I connect with companies who pursue their values in all sorts of interesting, innovative ways, and I hope we both grow from our interactions with one another. I think that's ethical.
- I learn to discern when a company is not a good fit, or when ethical priorities are being greenwashed. I choose not to promote those products. I think that's ethical.
I don't believe that the ends justifies the means. So, even if I'm promoting an ethical product, I have a responsibility to extend that premise to the way I go about promoting it. I know that doesn't make me popular, but it's the best way to live my values.