Plug? Ad? Opinion? Life?

Is this a story or an ad? It matters.

I went to Radio Shack today to buy wires and plugs to hook up my iPhone because the damned car radio has no plug and the damned FM kluges don’t work. I bought the wrong wires, realized it immediately, and returned in minutes to exchange them. Radio Shack, as it its irritating habit, demanded my phone number, name, and address. I refused. It was a cash exchange. The guy hassled me and then, on the fourth attempt, finally told his computer that I’d refused, which he could have done in the first place. I cursed myself for not going to Best Buy, where they don’t take your blood type to make a transaction; one of the reasons I like Best Buy is its no-nonsense return policy. They care about satisfied and returning customers over irritating rules. I tweeted that here. Now I’m blogging about it.

OK, so I just said something nice about Best Buy and something critical about its competitor. Look on my disclosures page and you’ll see that I had a business relationship with Best Buy. A few weeks ago, because of my book, they paid for me to come speak to various groups over two days (which I quite enjoyed and which taught me a lot about retail, which I’ve been contemplating and want to write about).

So is what I just said about Best Buy an ad? An endorsement? A testimonial? Or just a story and my opinion? I leave that to you to decide and trust you with that decision. My integrity and relationship with you depends on what you decide. I disclose my relationship for that reason. I believe in transparency and recommend it – in my book – to companies, governments, and journalists. So is this story an ad for my book? That, too, is up to you to decide.

But now the Federal Trade Commission is getting in the middle of our relationship. It has issued vaguely worded rules – amazing that they’re still vague after 80 pages – that make we wonder and worry whether my disclosure is adequate – should ever tweet carry a caveat? – and whether Best Buy will make my observations accurate (what if they give a customer a hassle on a return and that customer complains I misled him?). Best Buy, in turn, might need to worry about what I say about them.

Note that if I were writing for The New York Times – if I were, say, David Pogue – the FTC would not regulate my speech in this manner. First Amendment, you know. The press. But as a blogger, I am now a second class citizen in my speech. The government casts its net over all citizens who now use the tools of the internet to publish – no, to speak. This is a corollary to the debate that’s going on right now over who should be covered under a federal shield law. Who should be under the FTC’s net?

On this blog, that’s my problem and I can handle it. But what about all the huge proportion of the population who are now using the tools of the internet to publish – or what publishers and governments would call publishing when most of them think they’re just using blogs or Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or what comes next so they can talk with their friends – what about them? Now they have to worry about missteps.

Some of you have argued that the FTC is going after deceptive bad guys and that’s good. But what are the unintended consequences? What if one of those unsuspecting “publishers” falls for PayPerPost as Pied Piper and becomes human spam but the FTC sees her as a flim-flam mom? Some of you are pointing to the FCC saying it won’t be mean and it can’t enforce all its regs anyway so we shouldn’t worry – yes, selective enforcement, that’s comforting. But another FTC guy said absurdly that people who review books should return their review copies or they could be in trouble. Which is it? You could be the one person who was fined huge amounts of money because your kid pirated music in your house; you could be the example. Don’t want to take chances? Figure you’re playing it safe?

Welcome to the chill. We all have our own FCC now. Broadcast is an exception to the First Amendment’s prohibition on regulating the press. Now bloggers are, too, because we’re not the press. But we are, aren’t we? See, there are bigger things at stake here than just a few fake Viagra ads. (Mind you, I’m not endorsing Viagra. It’s not working … yet. Now how’s that for disclosure?)

  • I had a similar experience at a local hardware store where I had to return 3 keys they cut that did not work total 75-cents. Needed name, address, signature, phone….. Wouldn’t let up. I gave them Jim Jones at 200 Punch street, etc…… Clerk didn’t care.

    What another store owner told me was that a cash refund is an opportunity for store clerks to make bogus refunds for their own benefit. The requifrement made sense to me. Not pleasent, but understandable.

    Using item barcodes for return items to stock and original receipts slows down employee theft and negates some use of additional information. But it is remains an issue for vendors.

  • barbara raab

    I hate the Radio Shack demand for info too, and I always, always refuse to provide it. I tell the clerk, that’s information you use for marketing purposes, to help Radio Shack make money, so I’ll sell you that information, but I won’t give it to you. They always seem a little taken aback. As to the rest of your post, right on. As to the Viagra part, well, afraid I’m speechless on that part. :)

    • Don’t worry, it’s not supposed to work … yet.

  • Mariah

    I have not read the new FTC disclosure regulations personally. That being said, from what I have read about the regulations, I think you’re giving a pretty one sided opinion. From what I understand they pretty much say that bloggers now have to disclose any sorts of financial arrangements they have with the makers of products they advocate. Any freebies they received or financial payments they accepted before writing their testimonials. That is information the public, your readership, should have. Otherwise, people wouldn’t know if they were reading a blog or a sheep-in-wolves-clothing advertisement. Don’t you want to elevate yourself over the dumb weight-loss testimonials and pyramid “earn $20 per hour posting links to google” scemes?
    Newspaper reporters and television broadcasters don’t have to disclose such information because they aren’t allowed to accept free gifts or financial contributions of any kind. (Thats not to say that major media groups don’t get partisan funding, but that individual reporters will be fired if anyone finds out they accepted gifts or money from a source or subject).
    There is no question of censorship here. The ftc isn’t restricting speech in any way. Only saying that if you were paid in any way to advocate any goods, the public deserves to know. Facebookers, myspacers, and hobby bloggers wouldn’t be in any danger, only bloggers who had received payment for posting good reviews.
    On a side note, these regulations also make it so that advertisers can’t report unusual results as if they are the norm. That is to say, the weight-loss pills work some of the time for most people, but one lady lost 50lbs in 2 months and shes the one who is featured on the commercial as if everyone can do what she did. Who wouldn’t support that? Everyone is annoyed by those infomercials and pop-up adds, we should hassle them as much as we can.
    All told, I’m just wondering why you care so much about having to say that best-buy and you go way back. If it really is such a trivial part of your opinions then it doesn’t matter at all. Full disclosure is what good journalism is about, and i think blogging is probably the most valuable medium for journalism at this point. If you’re honest there is nothing to worry about. If you’re just mad because now you have to admit you were paid off for reviews or statements, then you’re not helping journalism and you should get out of the game.
    Thanks for the intelligent opposition, though.

    • Why don’t you read them first and then let’s discuss. On Twitter, Mark Glaser, a damned good reporter, said he, too, thought they sounded ok … until he read them.

    • Andy Freeman

      > Newspaper reporters and television broadcasters don’t have to disclose such information because they aren’t allowed to accept free gifts or financial contributions of any kind.

      Oh really? “Aren’t allowed” by whom? What law or regulation says that?

      Note that there are reporters who benefit financially from their reports, so if you can name the law or regulation, prosecution can ensue.

      I’ll wait.

      • Mariah

        It’s not a rule or regulation, it’s part of the ethics standards in journalism. Any paper worth reading would have rules against it, reporters caught taking payoffs for stories are fired, and their reputations are ruined.

      • Mariah

        and there is nothing wrong withe benefiting financially from a report. There is something wrong with getting money or gifts directly from a company for writing a favorable review.

      • Andy Freeman

        In other words, bloggers are to be held to a higher standard, just like I said.

        As to the “has rules against it” and “fired”, enforcement is the exception, not the rule.

        I do like the attempt at trying to distinguish between being paid to say something and making money on the side from saying something. That’s not the sort of thing that a “journalist” would excuse in someone else, so why should we accept it for them? (Hint – we don’t.)

        I keep pointing out that the general public views journalists less favorably than used car dealers and that the reasons have nothing to do with good behavior by used car dealers. It was nice of Mariah to provide some of the reasons.

        And, with Limbaugh, we find out what “fact checking” really means. No, this wasn’t reckless disregard for the truth because relying on untrustworthy sources is standard practice for professional journalists.

        Disagree? Better include some of the negative consequences suffered by the journalists in question. (I’ll be surprised if there’s even negative comment from their peers. Oh, there will be “I’m sorry that they ran with a bad story” but that’s a long way from “it was wrong to do so”.)

  • Isn’t the difference that the FTC doesn’t require journalists at newspaper and magazine companies to adhere to no-freebies, no conflicts-of-interest rules? They are house rules at most titles, self-policed, and, it should be said, in the self-interest of publishers, the degree of which usually determines the diligence of the policing.

  • Okay, let’s not get crazy here. I hear your frustration and agree to some degree (about Radio Shack :) Truth is, there is no conflict of interest with your customer service anecdote and unrelated work with Best Buy, and the FTC would see it that way — if they saw it at all. I’ve spoken with Richard Cleland (of the FTC), and the rules are much less nefarious as being reported.

    • Cleland is on the one hand saying, oh, shucks, don’t worry about us li’l ol nice guys. I don’t care what he says. I care what the rules say because I don’t know who’ll be enforcing them. I also point you to the absurdity of suggesting that book reviewers should return galleys!

  • As to your “story or an ad” question: it’s certainly not a story by my definitions. I can tell by the writing in the first paragraph.

    Interesting way to make the point though, Jeff. I agree that it’s a silly set of laws. Not to mention that the FTC has bigger fish to fry, like identity theft for one.

    But I also think it’s good that bloggers and tweeters might one day be held accountable on some level for what they write. If for nothing more than quality control.

    And as to the Viagra reference, how does your wife feel about your disclosures?

    • Andy Freeman

      > But I also think it’s good that bloggers and tweeters might one day be held accountable on some level for what they write.

      Journalists first, or at least at the same time and to at least the same standard.

      Let’s start with bogus “quotes”.

  • Mariah

    You deleted my comment? Lame. I put real thought into that.

  • Mariah

    aw nevermind. My computer was doing weord things to the comments.

  • I had a similar experience with Delta airlines. Heaven forbid that you accidentally make a mistake in making a reservation online with them. There was not an atom involved in the transaction. It was all digits. But Delta charged me a $200.00 per ticket rescheduling fee plus the cost of the ticket difference. It was complete computer transaction, did not cost them a cent and bingo, I end up with $400.00 more for two tickets. What is wrong with this scenario?
    What ever happened to customer service?
    Why do companies/businesses treat people as though they are doing us a favor?
    They need to read Rick Barrera’s book, “OverPromise and OverDeliver.”

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