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Blogging about being a mom is a booming business. And the popularity of these blogs has spawned an industry that turns some of the moms into virtual product reps.
Recent complaints about a Merck campaign that had moms throwing movie-watching parties to promote Children's Claritin got us wondering about the practice. How does the Federal Trade Commission deal with the blurring the distinction between online social activities and marketing?
We asked Mary Engle in the FTC's office for advertising practices. Here are highlights from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Q: How do endorsement disclosure requirements differ between a peer-to-peer exchange, like mom bloggers, and a celebrity endorsement?
A: In traditional advertising, we've said celebrities don't have to disclose, because everybody understands that a celebrity is not going to be in an ad for a product unless they're paid to do that. But in nontraditional advertising context — for example a Twitter feed or blog or Facebook page — unless they make that disclosure, consumers wouldn't have any way to know they're working for the company.
In the case of a mom blogger or an ordinary consumer, it depends on whether it's clear from the context. In a lot of cases it won't be — if it just looks like her own blog with nothing else to indicate to the reader that she's working with a company, then it needs a disclosure. It's very context specific.
Q: How closely are you monitoring blogs to make sure they're complying with FTC advertising regulations?
A: We don't have an affirmative blog monitoring program. The blogosphere is too vast. We certainly don't have the resources to do that. So we rely on complaints and things being brought to our attention — by other bloggers or news articles, the tech press, that sort of thing.
Q: Are these kinds of blogs a growing concern at the FTC?
A: It's hard to say whether there's a big problem out there or not. When we hear of occasions where it doesn't appear bloggers are disclosing when they're being paid or have a financial connection, we look into it. Sometimes it pans out and sometimes it doesn't.
We want there to be full disclosure when it's needed, but we don't have good empirical evidence or a survey of if most people are doing it or not.
Internet and social media marketing has just expanded the number of potential marketers exponentially. It's not possible for us to monitor it all.
Occasionally we'll do Internet surfs, where we target a particular kind of claim that is problematic. For example cancer treatment claims, HIV treatment claims, diabetes treatment claims. Or when there's a scare out — avian flu, SARS, anthrax. We will do a surf and find websites that are claiming to sell a product that will treat or prevent those diseases, and then we can systematically attack them that way.
Q: One thing that makes mom bloggers unique is that their primary topic is often children. But isn't marketing over-the-counter drugs, for instance, to children a violation of the law? How do you ensure that children aren't being targeted in these ad campaigns?
A: If it's misleading, it's illegal. So that's the question, is it misleading or is it unfair in some way? It would have to meet our test for being unfair or deceptive under the Federal Trade Commission Act. There's no specific rule that says you can't do that — for example, you can certainly advertise acne medicine to teenagers, there's nothing illegal about that. The claims need to be truthful and not misleading, but it's not per se illegal to market over-the-counter drugs to children.
Q: Doing a quick survey of the over-the-counter drugs that are targeted toward children, they tend to have appealing logos on them.
A: And the question there is going to be: Are they marketing to moms to buy for their kids or are they marketing it to kids? Are they making it easier for mom to get their kid to take this, or are they marketing it to kids?
Q: So in the case of the blogosphere, how do you ensure that the latter doesn't happen?
A: The companies involved should certainly have practices in place and guidelines for their consumer endorsers about what is appropriate and what's not appropriate. That's an important part of marketing nowadays. When you have social media marketing companies, they need to have these guidelines in place. They need to make sure that all of their brand evangelists — or whatever you want to call them — understand the rules of road, and they need to do monitoring to make sure that those rules are being followed.
Q: What about in the case of the parties and events that bloggers throw for the endorsement of a drug company?
A: We would have to rely on these events being brought to our attention. Just like we can't be at every Tupperware party, we can't be at every mom blogger party.