When the sponsor wants to whisper in your ear online

August 3, 2009

Product endorsements have been around for generations. Thanks to long training, the public is fully prepared to listen to celebrities, ordinary people, or actors impersonating ordinary people as they burble with delight about their lustrous hair, all-weather tires, air freshener or  whole-grain lip gloss.

Consumers don’t normally wonder whether the testimonials are sincere, and, come to think of it, that’s odd.  After all, an endorsement carries weight only because at some level you believe the endorser means it. Yet the consumer also realizes the testimonial is bought and paid for. Even when it’s a genuinely satisfied customer up on the screen, some consideration has changed hands, usually through the medium of money, and as always, the medium shapes the message.

Still, despite that unresolved tension between conviction and commerce, this subspecies of advertisement persists and persuades. Now, along with the rest of the communications media, it has entered a new era.

The specific issue is whether bloggers and other Internet-borne communicators who accept money or freebies in connection with product reviews should have to say so. That is a matter now before the Federal Trade Commission, the country’s chief advertising regulator.

The FTC is looking to update its guidelines on testimonials for the first time since 1980 and keep up with big changes the Internet has brought to the endorsement game.

For one, there’s a huge increase in the sheer number of knowledgeable people offering comment on what to buy and how much to pay. Whether you want AC filters, repossessed SUVs or MP3 download devices, you can find advice from thousands of people on blogs or message boards.

So marketers have vast new armies of influentials to put the touch on, and many work independently of institutions that restrict gratuities.

Another change is the ad industry itself has a new subsidiary known as word-of-mouth marketing. Here, marketers deputize trend-conscious consumers as plainclothes sales reps to talk up products to friends and acquaintances, who may or may not know the pitch is sponsored.

So this hatchling sub-industry is eager to use the Internet as a brave new venue for word-of-mouth persuasion.

Finally, online praise offers major new benefits to marketers. They’re no longer looking just to coax a few more buyers. If you’re in sales, once bloggers begin linking from their websites to yours the ranking your site gets from the all-powerful search engines such as Google and Yahoo rises. Before you know it, your site comes up on the coveted first page of search results, and your prominence before the consuming public soars.

So the reward from influencing these influentials is greater than ever.

The upshot is deepening pressure to turn online conversations, in which strangers customarily trust one another to swap disinterested advice about goods and services, into commissioned sales presentations that rely for their effectiveness on one side concealing its affiliation.

Enter the FTC. The guidelines that seem heading for approval would make it clear, for the most part, that people who are getting paid or have accepted free products have to acknowledge that as part of their reviews: “When there is a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience)…”

The principle has wiggle room, as it must, and seems to be pretty broadly accepted among the often fractious universe of Internet communicators. Some point out, rightly I think, that bloggers might actually end up held to a tougher standard than, say, a newspaper columnist, who may very well not be required to disclose that the high-tech device she’s reviewing was given to her for free and for keeps.

But I think the larger problem is that this crackdown may not be enforceable. The wider kind of corruption that’s involved may simply be too unruly. So much of Internet-borne information is second- and third-hand, consisting of links and quotes and references. Even when an initial endorsement is couched honestly, ensuring that it keeps that warning label as it careens from site to site is likely to be completely impossible.

Hypercommercialization, in Robert McChesney’s apt term, is a huge threat to the integrity of Internet communications. Regulators can help by setting a tone, but the ultimate challenge is to the culture of the Internet and to the determination of people to insist on honesty and transparency, even when it costs them money.

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