January 11th, 2011 at 02:06pm
From Britain, via the printing presses of The Australian, comes the news that the British authorities taking bloggers, tweeters, and presumably perpetrators of other online activities to court if they make a sponsored comment without noting the fact that it was paid for. The penalty, interestingly, is an “unlimited fine”.
CELEBRITIES who endorse products on Twitter without declaring that they are paid to do so may face court action, the Government’s consumer watchdog said yesterday.
Britain’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has already clamped down on one PR firm which was secretly paying bloggers to talk about products. Now actors, pop stars and TV presenters who “plug” luxury goods to thousands of fans could face similar action under consumer protection laws.
Although the OFT refuses to discuss specific cases, an official said research showed that people were “very concerned” about the “rules on blogging”, including paid-for adverts masquerading as personal recommendations.
“People shouldn’t be misled,” the official added. “If someone has been paid to advertise a product they should declare it. It’s not specific to celebrities.” If warnings are ignored, the OFT can seek an order that could lead to a criminal prosecution and an unlimited fine.
I’m not convinced that this should be a criminal act. I really think that this is a matter of personal ethics. If I was paid to promote a product, I would want to disclose that the promotion is an advertisement, either through a disclosure or through the nature of the promotion making it blatantly obvious that it’s an advertisement. To the same extent, a paid endorsement is something that I would only be willing to do if I actually liked the product enough to endorse it. As it happens, there are a number of things that I’m happy to endorse without payment…now if the people who are in charge of those things were willing to pay me, that’d be great, but I’d be endorsing their product mainly due to the fact that I like the product, and the payment’s only purpose would be to make the endorsement more regular.
That’s the way I look at it…but I don’t expect anyone else to agree with me or follow those standards. I’m also not sure where you draw the line on this if you do go down the route of regulation. For example, from the article:
Peter Andre, the singer with 669,000 followers, was paid by Costa Coffee to launch their Flat White coffee last year. “At BBC Studio,” Andre wrote in October. “Yeay [sic] they have a Costa Coffee here. Need an espresso.” A spokeswoman for Costa Coffee denied that the company had asked him to tweet.
In this case, the fact that he was paid by Costa Coffee is public knowledge, but tweeting was not part of the contract. That said, he was under contract at the time, so does the tweet count as an advertisement? And if so, how do you fit a disclosure in to a character-limited tweet?
What if Woolworths were to pay a group of shoppers to write on Facebook about the specials in the local store. Sure you’d expect a disclosure from them under these rules, but what if one of their friends notices that apple juice is being given away for one hour only at the local store and notes it on her Facebook page moments before the paid-for Facebookers note it? The unpaid one doesn’t have a disclosure on her page, but has written something which looks identical to the ad written by the paid-for people, so a nasty person goes and dobs her in to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) and she, although completely innocent, gets hounded by OFT for days, maybe weeks, due to a coincidence.
And then if this is successful in the online world (note: OFT’s idea of “successful” may differ from mine), why stop there? Why not take the next logical step and apply it to the real world? It’s simple really…the people who absolutely fascinate Today Tonight, the walking-talking advertisement in the shops who recommends products to you as if he or she was a real customer…make them wear tags with fine print on them saying “I am being paid to talk to you about these products”. Defeats the purpose of hiring the person…in fact, it just killed a job.
And in the broadcast world, I’m reminded of the week that I filled in on the breakfast show on 2QN in Deniliquin and the Ford dealer had his live spot discussing a featured car of the day. It was painfully obvious that it was an ad, but it was unscripted and I saw it as my job to try and make it as interesting and compelling as possible, so I tried to have a brief chat with the Ford dealer…add some personality to the spot. As far as I’m concerned, it still seemed like an ad, and was quite obviously an ad, but was a tad more interesting as a result. Under these rules, if I added some personality to the spot rather than just letting the dealer rattle off some car specifications, then I’d expect that I’d have to top and tail the spot with disclosures such as “the following is a paid advertisement for…” and “a brief reminder the what you just heard was a paid advertisement for…” which not only takes up extra air time unnecessarily, but it as boring as the proverbial winged-creature’s droppings and seriously detracts from the effect of the ad.
It would also probably prevent the friendly chat because I wasn’t being paid any extra for it, and nor was the station, so it would be a waste of time and effort if it required the disclosure.
Now I’m not going to argue that people shouldn’t disclose that they’re being paid to promote something, but I believe it’s a matter of personal ethics and depends on the nature of the advertising. I’m personally sceptical of anything that a celebrity endorses unless the “celebrity” is someone that I trust enough to know that they are endorsing a product because they believe in it, not just because they’re being paid to endorse it. But despite this, I think there are times when a disclosure is warranted and times when it is not. The only time that I think the government should be involved is when the claims are fraudulent or deceptive…and ultimately in such a case the person who endorsed the product would have their reputation tarnished just as much as the product.
I just can’t see a good reason to regulate endorsements or advertisements, beyond the existing classification of advertisements such that they can only be broadcast at certain times of the day. But then again, I don’t really see a good reason for our onerous “cash for comment” regulations in this country.