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FTC to bloggers: Fess up or pay up

A fine of up to $11,000 awaits bloggers who don't reveal paid reviews or free products, in the first revision to the FTC's disclosure guidelines in three decades.

Independent bloggers who fail to disclose paid reviews or freebies can face up to $11,000 in fines from the Federal Trade Commission, according to revisions to the agency's "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising" published Monday.

This marks the first time that the Guides document has been updated since 1980.

From an FTC-issued release:

"The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that 'material connections' (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers--connections that consumers would not expect--must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other 'word-of-mouth' marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service."

The FTC also has its eye on celebrities. "Celebrities have a duty to disclose their relationships with advertisers when making endorsements outside the context of traditional ads, such as on talk shows or in social media," the release explaining the revisions explained.

That means, theoretically, that if a celebrity gushes about a new car on his or her Twitter account and it turns out that the car was given away for free, the celebrity could be fined by the FTC.

Word of the FTC's crackdown on blogger endorsements first broke in June and set off a wave of chatter in communities of bloggers who are well used to receiving and keeping free products from marketers and PR agencies--most notably the thriving "mommy blogger" sector.

It's going to be hard to police--there are a lot of bloggers out there, not to mention a lot of different kinds of bloggers, and a lot of marketers. And as some media critics have pointed out, undisclosed endorsements of freebies have plagued some sectors of the magazine industry for decades now.