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FTC Oversight of New Media and Marketing Tactics: A Good Thing?

“Increased government oversight” isn’t a phrase that many individuals are likely to be in support of these days, but the new proposed revisions to the Federal Trade Commission’s advertising guidelines may not be such a bad thing.

As consumers experience an erosion of trust in traditional information sources – including corporate America, media, government organizations, etc. – many are turning to their own personal networks (virtual or otherwise) to obtain the information they seek. We’ve seen this firsthand with the rise in popularity of sites like Facebook, Yelp, TripAdvisor, Amazon, Twitter and other social platforms that allow consumers to share information with people they trust.

In the virtual world, knowing who you can trust is a difficult task, and the Federal Trade Commission’s lawyers have drafted up some new guidelines for the online world, including blogs, product reviews and discussion boards (as well as some offline marketing tactics such as street teams that have surfaced since the guidelines were created in 1980) that are intended to help protect consumers from being misled by less-than-transparent sources.

The Federal Trade Commission, which among other tasks helps protect consumers from false claims in advertising, is set to vote on the revisions to the Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (PDF) this fall to include regulations for these new types of media and marketing tactics.

In essence, the new guidelines would require posters to disclose any paid relationships “between the endorser and the advertiser” and could hold both the endorser and the advertiser legally responsible for any false claims. In addition to blogs, the recommended revisions also target discussion boards, such as product review sections.

A recent example of these misleading tactics was perpetrated by Lifestyle Lift, a cosmetic surgery company in New York, which asked employees to pose as customers and write positive reviews about its procedures on various sites. The company also created a number of sites that appeared to be independent on which they posted additional fake reviews. After an investigation by the New York Attorney General, the company reached a settlement of $300,000.

Transparency is a practice reputable public relations practitioners have been preaching for decades, as we know that being honest and forthright with our actions helps us to build back that eroding trust among our key stakeholders.

While the FTC agrees the new guidelines will be difficult to police, some in the blogging community are screaming “Big Brother,” and are anxious to see how government oversight, and potential investigations, may impact the free flow of information on the blogosphere. The FTC has stated it doesn’t intend to troll the Internet searching for violators and admitted that investigation of this nature will “be most likely because its an outgrowth of some other kind of investigation.”

So whether or not you’re in support of having the government regulate yet another faction of our lives, I think all Internet users, particularly marketing and PR professionals, can agree that a more authentic, honest exchange of information will be an overall improvement.

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