The FTC has been cracking down on “influencers” and bloggers who have failed to disclose commercial arrangements.
The Kardashians and Lord & Taylor and Nylon are two well-known examples, resulting in legal action and fines.
This flared panic and discussion within “influencer” and blogging communities, and while not all bloggers choose to follow FTC guidelines, most are at least aware that they must disclose their relationship to a company if they are compensated monetarily (in the form of sponsorship or affiliate sales,) or compensated with free product.
However it seems that big publishers missed the memo – and large publications with hundreds of thousands of loyal followers continue to make money off of affiliate articles and unknowing consumers.
What companies are seemingly violating FTC guidelines?
There are hundreds of publications in every niche seemingly violating FTC guidelines, but for the sake of brevity I will show only a couple of examples of trusted publications hiding affiliate links in “news” content:
Runner’s World is a reputable running magazine that publishes articles on topics such as the “Best Running Shoes of 2016”. Unfortunately, it might have been more appropriate to title the article “Running Shoes of 2016 That Make Us The Most Money”.
If you click through the links to look at Amazon or Walmart product pages, you’ll notice that the URL in your browser is extremely long. For the Amazon links, it will look something like this:
This page from Amazon explains how to build an affiliate link with your Associate ID, by adding the string” tag=your_Associates_ID” – in this case, the associate id is “runnersworld06-20”.
Now this is me making assumptions and connecting the dots with the information available to me online – I am not accusing Runner’s World of any wrongdoing, I am simply observing that the URLs appear to be affiliate URLs in an article with no disclosure. My understanding of the FTC guidelines is that this is a violation, however they may have good and legal reason to be doing things the way they are.
To the best of my knowledge, these URL strings are generated in affiliate advertising programs, and tell Amazon that Runner’s World sent the traffic to them. If you make a purchase through this link, Runner’s World will make a commission from the sale.
Geek.com is another example of large web publications that do not disclose affiliate links. They publish articles like this one, discussing cute Hello Kitty mashups. Similarly to Runner’s World, they display products in an editorial manner without disclosing any relationship, yet when you hover over the images you see that it links to “Shareasale”.
Why does the FTC have disclosure guidelines?
The FTC requires disclosure to protect consumers against deception and provide the opportunity for consumers to make truly informed decisions.
This means that if there is an exchange of goods or money between a publisher and a company, the publisher must disclose this relationship so that the viewer can weigh this into their purchase decision.
This disclosure may not have an impact on the consumer, or the consumer may decide that the article is biased, incredible, or unobjective and choose to seek information elsewhere to make a better-informed decision.
The knowledge of affiliation sometimes deters buyers because it reduces the credibility and objectivity of the articles, which is why some people intentionally avoid disclosing, violating the rules put forth by the FTC.
Are large publishers above the FTC guidelines?
Here’s what perplexes me – I can understand that a new blogger might not understand that affiliate links require clear and conspicuous disclosures, but many of these large publications have unlimited legal resources at their disposal.
I would expect therefore, that their legal team would ensure that they strictly follow all advertising guidelines.
However as far as I can from all information the FTC provides to the public, these undisclosed affiliate links are in blatant violation of the guidelines. There is no clause in the guidelines to excuse certain types of companies or publications (that I can see).
The case involving Nylon also leads me to believe that these companies are in fact in violation of the guidelines and could potentially face fines and legal action, considering that they are a similar large publication with vast legal resources at their disposal.
But hey, I’m not the well-paid team of lawyers of a multimillion dollar company, so there is likely some reasonable explanation that I am missing.
Why non-disclosure is a major problem:
There are a handful of reasons that non-disclosure of advertisements is a big issue online.
Violating the FTC guidelines is obviously a problem because it can result in legal action and fines against all parties involved.
These guidelines weren’t just created to further kill journalism and make it impossible to earn money online – they were designed to protect consumers.
I found myself on the market for a vacuum cleaner recently, and since I know nothing about vacuums and need one that does well against dog hair, the first thing I did was Google “best vacuum for dog hair”.
This led me to listicles of “Top 15 Vacuums for Dog Hair,” and similar articles, rating the vacuums on features and performance. However these articles were written not by people who had used all of the vacuums and had an opinion on which performed best, but by people who knew exactly which one yielded what commission through Amazon Affiliates.
When articles disclose their relationship with phrasing such as “this article contains affiliate links. If you click through these links and make a purchase, I will receive a commission,” it allows buyers to understand that the article is essentially an advertisement, and I may weigh it similarly to a TV commercial rather than advice from a friend or acquaintance.
Evening the playing field:
Let’s be honest: it’s not fair that an individual who relies on their blog for their income has to disclose affiliate and sponsor relationships, when a multi-million dollar company is “above” these rules.
While bloggers try desperately to make a living writing articles with potentially deterring disclosures, multi-million dollar companies are deceiving consumers and quite likely making far more from affiliate links because the consumer is unaware of the monetary relationship.
This does not mean that small bloggers should avoid making appropriate disclosures; on the contrary!
Large companies need to be held to the same standards as bloggers – if not higher. After all, a part time blogger does not have a team of lawyers at their disposal. There is no excuse for major publications not to be held accountable to FTC guidelines.