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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Blogging, Transparency, and Skamania Lodge

You boot up your friendly, neighborhood beer blog to read a review of the newest Widmer product. The blogger raves about it. Question: would you trust the blogger's opinion if you knew Widmer had given the blogger the beer?

The Federal Trade Commission believes you would not, and therefore is preparing to make bloggers confess if they've received free swag:
Beginning Dec. 1, bloggers, Twitterers and many others who write online product reviews must disclose the receipt of free merchandise or payment for the items they write about.

The guidelines, an update of the F.T.C.’s 1980 guide concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising, will affect many in the beauty and fashion blogging community, where freebies ($40 eye-shadow palates, $250 clutch purses and, yes, $69 jeans) are rampant. The rules reflect the commission’s concern about how advertisers are using bloggers and social networking sites to pitch their products.
I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I think transparency is a good thing, and I don't really see any harm in this regulation. On the other hand, it ghettoizes blogs--who must make this disclosure--but leaves the mainstream press alone. So, if the brothers offer me a bottle of their new cherry doppel and I blog about it, I have to disclose the freebie. If Willamette Week publishes the same article, I don't have to. That seems a bit ... off.

To complicate matters, not all products are created equally. While I might feel more beholden to a company if they gave me a $26 bottle of beer, it hardly seems worth it to sell my credibility for a lousy $1.50 bottle.

And that brings me to a subject where I think absolute transparency is required--junkets. A few months back, the Astoria Chamber of Commerce paid for a bunch of beer writers to go to their fair city and sample beer and stay in a hotel for free. If I didn't disclose that fact, I would expect you never to trust me again. The reader has some responsibility to make judgments--but that depends on having all the facts.

All of this is a good segue into a junket I'll be attending this weekend--to Skamania Lodge for their "Celebration of Beer" weekend. The Lodge is putting me up for free, and even letting me bring Sally. They're feeding me and giving me free beer. I don't actually have a huge amount of information about the event, but I suspect they are looking for a little press, particularly during this dismal economy. When I write about it--and I will write about it, lots!--you need to understand that my opinions of the place is colored by the fact that I'm enjoying it for free. (My opinion on the beer will be less suspect: after all, there's no quid pro quo there; it's Skamania Lodge who's footing the bill.)

I think it's a great opportunity to explore the whole question further--and as I write about this, I would love your feedback. All bloggers have is their credibility, so freebies are an issue with which to contend. The FTC aside, I will try to be transparent when I receive freebies, and you all should feel invited to charge me with corruption if see evidence that I'm too easily bought off. Seem fair?


  1. Free beer? Free trips? Sounds like a good problem to have.

    How do they really think they are going to enforce this?

  2. I don't think they can enforce it--and as far as I know, there's no enforcement mechanism. (Can you imagine the outrage if Americans found out that the FTC were spending precious resources to go after bloggers instead of corporate monopolies--as they're charged with doing? Ten billion dollars to sue mommy bloggers--an outrage!)

  3. As a beer blogger and a print journalist, I have mixed feelings about this. The FTC should not be regulating journalistic ethics; journalists should be regulating journalistic ethics.

    That being said, disclosure is good and necessary. Readers have a legitimate interest in knowing how reviewers may be swayed by freebies.

    Yet I wonder if disclosure is sufficient. In politics, campaign donations are publicly reported. But has disclosure reduced their influence?

    And what limit do you put on gifts? A pint is one thing, but a night for two at a high-end lodge carries substantially more value.

    If, as research indicates, doctors can be influenced to prescribe drugs by trivial freebies such as pens, how can we pretend that freebies won't influence bloggers?

  4. i read a lot of gaming magazines and it's pretty much guarantee that the guys and gals who write the reviews are getting all sorts of freebies from the game industry. sometimes they disclose it, sometimes they don't.

    and these are print magazines so, yeah, there's a weird double standard there.

    you should try and get all the free schwag you can man. you won't be able to rely on your looks forever ;)

  5. To imagine that a publican pours a free beer and expects a glowing report is silly. That publican needs to spend much more than that to get a good review!

    I agree that disclosure is necessary and I appreciate it when I know it.

    I think one reason that blogging is singled out, but other "journalism" is not is that blogging is to journalism as writing email is to publishing novels. It's not really comparable. For the cost of spending some time at a library, you can set up a blog and start publishing. That's freedom of speech, but it's hardly journalism.

    Therefore, it has spawned a cottage industry of folks who create a following and "review" goods and services that are influenced by the producers of those goods being reviewed. That's not to say all bloggers are bought and sold or that print journalism is free of such influences. It's just that it is far easier to blog and the blogosphere is hardly filled by a majority of folks schooled and trained in journalism and its ethics.

    Before I incite a riot, I recognize that many journalists blog and that Beervana (and many others) is to some degree the result of needing a better outlet for beer reviews and the like. So, I am not impugning this blog or others or saying that the writers and the writing are not of a high standard. Or, that reviews are tainted by freebies, whether it's a pint, Honest or not, or a weekend junket. It's just my opinion that the potential for bought-and-sold reviews and commentary are more readily accomplished and more easily concealed in this new(ish) world of online publishing.

  6. Soggy,

    A pint is one thing, but a night for two at a high-end lodge carries substantially more can we pretend that freebies won't influence bloggers?

    I think influence is a given. I am at the stage in life where a free pint doesn't carry weight, but it might have back in the day. That's why info is key--without it, readers don't know to adjust their views.

    Mark, no riot from me--I agree. I don't think the FTC should be getting involved particularly, but bloggers should hold themselves to a high standard if they expect people to treat them as credible. You want credibility, you have to prove you're worthy of it.

    Iggi, my good looks are clearly carrying me well into my sixties. I'm like the Warren Beatty of bloggers. Or is that Ned Beatty?

  7. Given that we are all brought up to be polite what do you do when a brewer offers a sample off of a tank? How do you write about a beer that's no available in your market if a PR person doesn't send a sample?

    To review a book does it matter if the publisher sends it or if you check it out of the library. What if it's galleys, not exactly in attractive book form?

    What if a usually reclusive sports star/musician/brewer gives you an interview or unusual access?

    What about the beer that shows up at the door you don't write about? Michelob Rye IPA arrived yesterday. I've already written about the beer.

    But does that mean every time I mention Michelob (the all-malt lager) is a beer badly overlooked by geeks should I include a statement ABInBev once sent me a bottle of Rye IPA?

    And as long as I am bitching. When you buy a book at the used book store that still has the press release that was in a review copy or you buy a "cutout" CD at the used store where to you think they got them? Usually from a print review person.

    I'm in favor of transparency, but it's dang complicated.

  8. On a semi-related side note: a couple of cases (12 bottles per case) of the Brewdog Atlantic IPA made it to Oregon.

    There's 11 bottles left here at the Station, and I would assume the other cases found their way to John's, Beaumont, Saraveza, or maybe the Bier Stein.

  9. I love transparency, but I think it should be the same across the board for all journalists no matter which way it goes. Print, web, tv, etc.

  10. My question is how far does transparency go? I've been offered a beer on the house at one of my favorite bars, but just haven't accepted it yet. This offer has little to do with my blog and more to do with knowing the right people. However I do toss up releases from the bar every once in awhile. If I were to post on this bar would I be required to disclose every time that I'd recieved free beer from the owner? It's to convoluted and without clear guidlines. Luckily enforcement seems impracticle so people may not need to worry.