FTC Dot Com Disclosure Guidelines and Food Allergy Blogging

"Blog and Order" at the 2014 Food Allergy Bloggers Conference (Left, Homa Woodrum, Middle, William Devine, Right, Assly Sayyar)
“Blog and Order” at the 2014 Food Allergy Bloggers Conference (Left to right, Homa Woodrum, William Devine, & Assly Sayyar)

I had the privilege of participating in a panel last month entitled “Blog and Order” at the Food Allergy Bloggers Conference along with Assly Sayyar, Esq. (my older sister) and William Devine II, Esq. (a friend of mine from law school).  The usual caveats apply here that all three of us are licensed to practice in Nevada (my sister is also licensed as an attorney in California) and nothing we discussed then (or below) are meant as legal advice or to create an attorney-client relationship.  It is purely information and we’d encourage you to contact counsel in your area with specific questions.

William and Assly
William and Assly

William tackled a great segment about protecting your intellectual property and the rights/obligations associated with that.  Assly spoke about defamation and best practices for communicating online within that realm.  My section was about guidelines (in the US) that impact how and what we share on our blogs and in social media to essentially protect our readers.  Our session started late (AV issues overall during the event had a bit of a domino effect) so I had about 4 minutes to summarize everything I meant to discuss (my apologies!) and promised to post some links and additional information here at a later date.

The March 2013 FTC .com Disclosures file can be downloaded from the FTC here, I’ve also mirrored the file here in case that link doesn’t work.  It isn’t a huge file as many of the pages are examples of webpages so I highly recommend downloading it to your kindle or smartphone or even just printing it out and reading it next time you’re waiting at the doctor’s office.  Or, if you’re a nerd like me, you’ll just read it for fun.

QUID for Responsible Blogging

Interestingly enough, necessity being the mother of invention, I threw together a mnemonic I really like when I realized I had to scrap my planned presentation:

"QUID" for FTC Disclosures
“QUID” for FTC Disclosures (Just realized that I’m channeling my friend Selena with this font since she uses it at Amazing & Atopic – I just liked the swirls!)

So what does “QUID” entail and how do you incorporate it into your blogging practices?  QUID stands for “Qualify, Use Common Sense, Integrate, and Disclaim/Disclose.”  I like that it hearkens back to the phrase “quid pro quo,” which means “something for something” in Latin.  When you receive a product for review, chances are in exchange you’re going to write a post, so the mnemonic really works for this context.

Generally, if you follow all four points when you include affiliate links, product reviews, paid content, and the like, you’ll be protecting your readers and yourself.  What do I mean by protecting your readers?  Well, the whole theme of the FTC .com Disclosure guidelines is that you don’t want to hide the ball, you don’t want to make it difficult for someone to know up front what biases you may have before they take some sort of action.  It could be as simple as having someone click on a link without making it clear that you get a cut from any sale that results from their time on a given recommended site or it could just be that they read some (but not all) of your review of an awesome meal and come away thinking “Blogger A really loved that place, I should check it out” without ever knowing that you tacked on a disclaimer at the end of the post that your meal was comped.

This concept transcends your blog, so if you wrote a review of a restaurant and had been comped for the experience and later have an automatic script that tweets out your old posts to generate interest, or you pin your page to a board on pinterest and don’t repeat/include some sort of disclosure, you could be running afoul of disclosure rules.  Taking our hypothetical restaurant review, say the title of the post was “Great Meal at Chez Allergy” and in the post itself at the very end you disclose that the meal was free.  Later, when tweeting out a link to the post you just say “Read about my great meal at Chez Allergy” or have the post title and a link with no other information.  If you don’t disclose in the medium you’re sharing the link that you received some benefit, you could be causing confusion then and there.  Your followers may never click the link to discover the full circumstances of your dinner but they’ve already taken some information in and internalized it, which is that Blogger A really loved Chez Allergy.  You’ve impacted them without giving them the full benefit of knowing how you came to eat at the restaurant and write about it.

Talking with my hands, as usual!
Talking with my hands, as usual!

It sounds cumbersome in my examples but using QUID we can see how Blogger A could approach the restaurant review. . .

Qualify

Another word for “qualify” would be “characterize.”  We want to ensure that whatever is being presented is going to carry with it the right weight given a circumstance.  In the same way I see bloggers mention “I wasn’t paid to say this, I just really wanted to share this product,” you’d be saying to your reader, “I have independent opinions but want you to know that I did get a free product that I am now sharing with you.”  Simple, to the point, and it actually can increase your reader’s esteem for you in the long run because they’ll know where they stand.  This is what I like to think of as the “I’m not a doctor but I play one on the internet” type of concept – you want your readers to know that just because something was safe for your allergic family, they need to do independent research.  I had one great question at the end of my talk where I was asked how a blogger can share articles of a scientific nature without having people think they are endorsing them or putting them out as something they might not be.  The best solution we discussed in that circumstance was to say exactly what is going on  – something like, “I read this abstract and it sounds fascinating/promising/what have you, so I’m sharing it while also letting you know I’m no expert and you need to do your own investigations.”  You’ll find the right voice and tone for your space, probably significantly less wordy than mine, but I hope that helps.

Use Common Sense

This is a bit of a catch-all parameter but it goes back to putting yourself in the shoes of your reader.  What do you want to know when you read a review of account of an experience?  Price is often an important factor, so when you get a free product and review it can you really be as fair as you would be if you had to shell out $5 for said bag of gluten free flour?  This also carries into integration and generalized disclosures.

Also under common sense, please give credit appropriately.  If you get permission to use someone’s image, share that, if you’re getting a recipe from another site, why not link your reader to that site and avoid wholesale copy/pasting?  Others will extend you the same courtesy as well.  Watermarking is something else we discussed on the copyright side.  When I see poor practices I usually make a mental note of the person engaging in that behavior and view them with suspicion.  Don’t get on my suspicious list!

Integrate

This is a tough one.  As I mentioned above, if you are sharing a post via twitter and enticing people to click over to your blog, or even sharing a recommendation on instagram, you need to integrate the disclosure with the medium you’re in.  That means you can’t just have a link to your disclosures page at the end of a post or tweet or instagram picture.  If you cannot for some reason perform appropriate integration, you cannot share that recommendation in that medium.  It bears repeating – if 140 characters is not enough to get across that you got a free meal at Chez Allergy, you shouldn’t be sharing on twitter that you had a great meal.  It is probably a better fit for your facebook followers, etc.  So you’ll also be cautious about auto feeding your facebook posts onto your twitter account because even with proper facebook disclosure you know your words will be truncated as they go out onto twitter, etc.

Integration is a platform issue as well – you need to be beta testing your own site on multiple platforms.  A sidebar disclosure that you have affiliate links in all your posts is not going to be enough when someone looks at your site on their mobile browser.  The sidebar in that circumstance collapses into a menu or is too small to read, or the like.  The FTC .com Disclosures even go so far as to say you need to look at where people’s eyes are drawn and not hide disclosures where they don’t look.  I’m personally fascinated by this stuff, so you can check out an article about eye tracking here but generally, there are areas of a page people just aren’t going to be looking so that is not the place to put a qualified disclosure.  What does this mean in a common sense approach?  Just put your disclosure right where you’re making your recommendation or placing your affiliate link.  For affiliate links I state a product name and then parenthetically place an affiliate link labeled as such.  For a post about an experience, I would put information to indicate it was provided by a given company at the start and end of my post.  If the post is lengthy so that you could scroll a ways and not see any indication of a disclosure, it may be a case where you remind your reader the meal or experience or product was comped.  It doesn’t take long to write these disclaimers and it doesn’t take long to read them.  Your readers will appreciate you all the more for respecting their time and energy.

Disclaim/Disclose

So we’ve qualified our words, integrated them into our posts and been reasonable about our approach. . .what exactly are you disclosing in a disclaimer to protect your readers?  You want them to know anything that is essential to understanding your position or understanding that they could be benefiting you by clicking on a link or taking some action.  If I tell you Chez Allergy is great and you find out that they paid me to make the recommendation, it is going to diminish your opinion of my words.  In the more extreme case, if I point you to something and make it sound like I’m a doctor or know something specific about an area and I don’t actually have that expertise, then I could actually cause harm.  You don’t want to do that, and the FTC doesn’t want you to do that.  The more specific your claim or recommendation, the more you’re going to be disclosing.  That doesn’t mean you should shy away from taking positions or making opinions known, but anything you can provide by way of behind the scenes information to let your reader make an informed choice is going to be good.

People blog to inform, to vent, to make money. . .the list goes on, but since you are in control of what you share, you need to view the trust your reader is giving you with a sense of responsibility.  You’ve seen magazine ads that try to look like an article (“advertorial” is the term I believe) and they list clearly that they’re an ad.  Same goes for blogging.

Assly is on Twitter @vistalawyer, William is @devinelawyers, and I am @woodrumlaw (I tried to make the dry erase colors match our outfit colors that day)
Assly is on Twitter @vistalawyer, William is @devinelawyers, and I am @woodrumlaw (I tried to make the dry erase colors match our outfit colors that day)

Let me end by saying you’re allowed to make money for the work you do – for food allergy families a free box of cookies represents a $5 benefit and a nice perk for being involved in writing, researching, recipe testing, etc.  You’re allowed to get a percentage of a sale if a reader orders a book based on your suggestion.  What you can’t do is be sneaky.  Being careless is tantamount to being sneaky for the FTC – just not knowing these guidelines are out there is not enough.  The disclosure pdf is written in easy to understand terms and has a lot of great examples via screen shots.  I just wanted to distill the concepts into something you can implement in your blog right away.

With my older sister, Assly
With my older sister, Assly, at the registration desk

I can’t thank William and Assly enough for taking the time to come speak at the conference – the volunteer time people put in as speakers, at the registration desk, and helping with set up and take down was so appreciated.

Thank you for reading!

5 thoughts on “FTC Dot Com Disclosure Guidelines and Food Allergy Blogging

  1. Great info! I didn’t consider the different media forms aspect but it makes total sense. I really hope I can come to next year’s conference. And if I ever do anything to get on your “list” let me know because I am sure it would be unintentional. The medical and science field have been great teachers in disclosure and citing sources.

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    1. Ha! I didn’t mean it to sound ominous, I remember it came up in a twitter chat about blogging once about what you should do if you see someone maybe not qualifying their statements and I think it is totally fine to send a private email to make sure the person knows that maybe what they wrote could be taken another way. It is sort of like letting someone know privately about a typo as a courtesy. I think you are so right that the scientific disciplines make sure you leave a trail for others to follow to learn sources – we should all be as conscious! Thank you!

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