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New FTC Rules May Stop Fake Windows Testimonials

As most of you know, it’s been widely reported that Microsoft has long been “buying” favorable reviews by sending along new versions of Windows installed on powerful note-books to certain tech bloggers. It’s the sort of thing, of course, that you know but can’t always confirm, since it’s not as if a reviewer is going to boast that he or she received a bribe for touting the product or service in question.

Well, this is only a microcosm of what Advertising Age has called “Blogger Payola,” and it extends to a whole range of endorsements not just from online writers but celebrities as well, particularly when done on social sites, such as Twitter. In response, the FTC has issued a new set of tough guidelines about such unethical behavior.

What this basically means is that these endorsements or testimonials must be accompanied by full disclosure as to whether there’s some sort of commercial relationship  between the company and the blogger or celebrity.

In our corner of the universe, it would mean that if a tech writer took a spiff from Microsoft to give them high fives, that fact must be revealed or the offender may face a fine. On Twitter, when a movie star says they just love Diet Coke, they have to tell you if they got paid for that endorsement. Unfortunately, the edict is sufficiently unclear that it may require n explicit disclosure for each and every post, not just something buried in the fine print on a site’s footer. But how would that work within the 144 character limit of Twitter?

How this would be enforced is anyone’s guess. It is restricted to the U.S., and it’s not as if the government will attempt to use the Patriot Act to monitor confidential communications between a tech company and the reviewer in question, nor eavesdrop on the lunch meeting between an agent and a celebrity on their latest endorsement deal. The hope is that this will serve as a deterrent to ongoing abusive conduct.

Now I suspect lots of you have long felt that favorable reviews on ad-supported publications have always been influenced by advertising. That’s one of the reasons that Consumer Reports has prospered, because they buy everything they test at normal retail outlets and do not accept advertising.

But that view is a bit too simplistic. A responsible publisher is going to find a way to firewall the advertising and editorial departments. When I wrote for Macworld, for example, I was informed early on that the writers never talked to the ad sales people. We were expected to be honest in our reviews and features, and back up what we say with facts. I never, ever heard from anyone asking or hinting that I should favor one product over another because it would impact ad revenue. When I submitted articles, the editorial comments and corrections were designed to improve the presentation. Nothing more nothing less.

Indeed, in one case, when I reviewed an Apple note-book, my editor at the time suggested that I actually reduce the “mice” rating because my conclusions clearly merited the change.

But what about getting free stuff?

All right, here’s the deal: For software, reviewers generally receive an NFR (Not For Resale) user license or retail boxed copy. You get to keep the product, of course, but nobody forces you to keep using it after the review process is over. Believe me, I removed lots of apps once the article was submitted, because, as the articles clearly expressed, I wasn’t pleased with the product and couldn’t recommend it.

Hardware is a different story. Apple used to send out iPods and let the reviewers keep them, but everything else has a return date, usually two weeks to a month. They will sometimes grant you an extension if that’s not sufficient to complete the review. For example, when I received a first generation iPhone, I was given a two week limit. However, Apple released a software update near the end of the process, so I requested an extension and was granted an additional two weeks. As far as Apple is concerned, if you don’t return the products in a timely fashion, forget about getting any further equipment loans.

Other companies may be more lax about the process, but most will expect to see the hardware back at some point in time. So in the normal course of events, there’s not a whole lot of incentive for a writer to favor one product over another. Having had dozens of boxes in my home office at times, the process of caring for all of them — and not accidentally mixing parts from one with another — can be downright annoying. It’s the price you pay for getting involved in the hardware review process.

Here at The Mac Night Owl, we’re a small company, and I sometimes have to play several roles, so I have devised a mental firewall to deal with the advertising versus editorial content dilemma. But I still apply the very same standards, and I’m certain most online publications do as well.

As far the exceptions, whether they got paid off to favor Microsoft or another company, they have to think about the harm they’ve done to their reputations by selling out.