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Paul M. Rand
Long list of exposed falsehoods shows why federal guidelines are nice, but strict laws are unneeded
Paul M. Rand is president and CEO of Zócalo Group and president-elect of the Word of
What was your reaction the last time someone told you something that turned out to be greatly exaggerated or even untrue? Do you remember how you felt, and how many people you told, after you bought an overhyped product that underdelivered? I'm willing to bet that in both cases, you began to doubt the credibility of the person or company behind the misrepresentation. And if you ever felt duped by them again, you probably quit listening and stopped buying the brand.
This same process of vetting information is happening online. People are talking voraciously about brands they find informative, helpful, or remarkable. Falsehoods are quickly exposed, often in brutal fashion. Individuals and companies find their reputations quickly built or destroyed based on whether readers believe what is being written. In this self-correcting online world, are government regulations needed? No. But everyone from bloggers to marketers can benefit from guidelines and best practices, and those can be provided without slipping into the "what about free speech?" morass guaranteed to accompany proposed legal restrictions.
Since 2005, the Word of
Bloggers and brands have learned firsthand that they'll not only be called out but very likely be vilified for trying to deceive online readers. Remember the Working Families for
Then there was
And Belkin? Earlier this year, an employee at the electronics company was exposed for paying bloggers and reviewers (many of whom had not even tried its products) to write dozens of reviews--all without disclosure. Again, within hours, the CEO was out professing, "Belkin does not participate in, nor does it endorse, unethical practices like this."
We've seen time and again that word of mouth works best when it is 100 percent credible. Credibility cuts both ways as bloggers, endorsers, and companies must disclose relationships with one another. Full disclosure assures consumers that testimonials are truthful and trustworthy, and it offers marketers and advertisers a proven way to reach audiences with credible information.
A few weeks ago, our association released a simple assessment method to guide marketers and bloggers. It states that marketers must be clear and distinct in asking bloggers to disclose relationships with brands and products and any compensation they receive for participating in marketing initiatives. Likewise, bloggers should disclose if they have been asked by a marketer to be part of a consumer outreach program. Marketers must encourage and expect bloggers to express honest and genuine opinions, while bloggers' responsibility is to always do so and to be accurate and truthful in communicating their identity. Finally, marketers must carefully analyze marketing programs to be sure they accurately reflect the company's philosophy and uphold its integrity.
Following these guidelines will most likely ensure that marketers, advertisers, and bloggers are in compliance with the coming FTC direction. More important, voluntary relationship disclosure will make legal restrictions unnecessary in the future.
The online world is changing rapidly. Rules are evolving, and ethical practices are still being defined. However, our intolerance for being lied to, hoodwinked, or manipulated remains consistent, and that will continue to govern. Laws may be needed if self-policing stops or proves inadequate. But for now, let's stick with the common-sense approach that is helping sort out this new world.