Rules to follow if you write about something you got for free

(Adapted from a post that originally appeared on douglevy.com.)

Many bloggers rely on product samples or invitations to events to get what they need for their writing. The ways bloggers disclose these relationships are as varied as the blogs on which they appear. Here is a quick guide to the rules that bloggers should follow, especially to stay within bounds of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations.

In its latest update, the FTC reiterates that there is no ambiguity: FTC rules apply to bloggers. It doesn’t matter whether anyone reads your blog. It doesn’t matter whether you get paid to blog. It doesn’t matter if it is merely a hobby.

Icon by Louis Gray and Jeannine Schafer.

If you are a blogger, you must disclose every time you write about a product or service and you receive compensation or something of value from the provider of that product or service. This includes free product samples, meals, or any other item of value that is not generally available to all consumers.

If a winery pours free tastes to all visitors, you do not have to disclose that you had free tastes. However, if you got a free bottle, you must disclose it.

Where many people get mixed up is social media. The FTC does not distinguish between types of media. A Facebook post, YouTube video or newspaper article all have the same regulations. This even includes within a 140-character tweet. But it’s not that difficult. The FTC website has a thorough guide that shows how to do this with as few as three characters. Google also has a simple guide for online reviews.

In its latest update on how to handle product endorsements, the FTC emphasized earlier guidance that disclosures cannot just be a separate page on your website or buried at the bottom of the page. “It does not convey the importance, nature, and relevance of the information to which it leads,” says the federal agency. Simply putting “AD” in a tweet may be enough, however.

“You have to disclose that you were paid or got a free sample before you mention the product,” says Jana Seitzer aka Merlot Mommy. The disclosure has to be “clear and conspicuous,” according to the FTC guidance on native advertising, which applies to many kinds of blog posts, including reviews.

Here are five things bloggers should do:

  1. Disclose that a review is based on a sample at or near the top of your review. Some bloggers put a short note above each post. Others include this detail within the text. Either is ok, provided that a reader sees it before the product mention.
  2. If you link to a web page where consumers can buy a product you wrote about based on a free sample, the disclosure must appear before the link. This applies even if you do not get a share of the sale. However, no disclosure is needed if you are mentioning a product or service just as a convenience to your readers and you have no relationship with the seller of that product or service.
  3. On Twitter, Instagram, or other platforms that limit characters, tags like “Paid Ad” or “Ad” may be sufficient disclosures. “Affiliate” or “affiliate link” is not, because not every consumer will understand what that means. Sending a separate tweet with a disclosure is not sufficient.
  4. Include clear disclosures on all platforms — this includes audio, video, or even SnapChat.
  5. Any links related to paid or otherwise compensated content must use the “nofollow” tag. This should be used anytime a link is included because you received a sample or compensation. https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/96569?hl=enthe “nofollow” tag.

Here is how I handled a wine tasting for which I received a free (expensive) bottle of (very good) wine and a set of wine glasses:

The “Ad” tag before the hashtag that the sponsor asked me to use followed the FTC guidelines at the time. Under the new guidelines, the tag needs to come before the product name. I also did a tweet at the beginning of the series that disclosed exactly what the winery provided. Note that the disclosure tweet does not satisfy the FTC guidelines. The “ad” tag or another explicit disclosure within each tweet that mentions the product is mandatory.

For more about “nofollow” tags, refer to Google’s Search Console or WordPress. There are many blog plugins to simplify this, but it’s really just a matter of adding rel=”nofollow” to your hyperlinks, like this:

<a href=”http://wineandfoodworld.com/” rel=”nofollow”>Doug Levy’s blog</a>

For a fun way to incorporate disclosures into your blog, check out the handy set of of disclosure icons by Google’s Louis Gray and artist Jeannine Schafer.

If you have questions or comments, please let me know.

Disclaimer: Although I am an attorney licensed to practice law in Maryland, this blog post is for information purposes only. Consult your own attorney for advice specific to you.

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