By and  on October 13, 2009

The Federal Trade Commission is forcing beauty brands, bloggers and celebrities into an open relationship in new media.

The stream of freebies to beauty bloggers, a common industry practice, must be revealed to readers under guidelines issued last week by the agency to expose material ties between online reviewers and the suppliers of products and services. Similarly, a celebrity who opines on products they are paid to endorse over Twitter or talks up that product on a late night talk show without divulging the sponsorship could run afoul of the FTC.

Richard Cleland, assistant director for the FTC’s division of advertising practices, stressed the agency, which is charged with consumer protection, is particularly concerned that the relationship between advertisers and the people endorsing specific products outside of traditional advertising be transparent. “In terms of bloggers, we are in an educational mode. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of blogs out there. Many of them, probably most, don’t touch on any of the issues raised in these guidelines,” he said.

The FTC’s actions have bloggers and brands scurrying to nail down the appropriate procedures to avoid violations. “We are in the process of reviewing the policy to understand how this can affect [Procter & Gamble],” said Brent Miller, a spokesman for P&G Beauty. “As part of P&G’s core principals, we always operate within the letter and the spirit of the law, and so we will certainly comply with the FTC guidelines.”

Cleland outlined that disclosures need to be clear and prominent, but don’t need to include details of financial specifics. Across the beauty blogosphere, a wave of conflict disclosure messages, links and Web pages sprung up in response to the FTC’s guidelines, although no one seems to be quite sure whether these forms of disclosure documentation are what the FTC had in mind.

The call for new media endorsement transparency comes as beauty bloggers and beauty brands have grown closer because companies have learned to leverage the strong bonds between bloggers and their audiences to introduce and promote products. The resulting beauty giveaways — and rare instances of payments for blog reviews — has raised questions about the trustworthiness of blogs that most bloggers insist are unwarranted and fear could be reignited by the FTC’s attention.

“I am a little annoyed,” said Jolie Nadine blogger Nadine Haobsh, who, with the bloggers behind The Makeup Girl, Afrobella and Makeup Bag, is starting an organization named Bloggers With Integrity to set internal standards for beauty blogging. “It does perpetuate a misconception that beauty bloggers are in it for the swag, and that is not the case.”

If there is a specter of pay-for-play on blogs — real or imagined — bloggers hope articulated rules on endorsement disclosure sparked by the FTC guidelines could help legitimize blogs in the eyes of readers and in industry circles. Still, they are wary of being singled out by the FTC and argue that old media types shouldn’t get a pass.

“I actually don’t mind it,” said Elke Von Freudenberg, beauty blogger at elkevonfreudenberg.com/blog/ and founder of the Beauty Blog Network with nearly 90 blogs, of the FTC road map. “It makes it very honest and upfront as to what a person is writing about.” She estimated she doesn’t pay for 90 percent of the products she covers in her blog, and has created a disclosure page to detail the associations she has with public relations firms and advertisers.

Elisa Camahort Page, chief operating officer of BlogHer, a publishing network of more than 2,500 blogs that reaches 15 million women monthly, said the FTC guidelines were useful to deal with “an increased commercialization” of the blog arena. However, she added, “There is going to be a lot of pushback and a lot of people raising questions, which is fair. I believe the guidelines are fair, but if they are not applied fairly, it is up to us not to be held to different standards and not to be made scapegoats.”

FTC guidelines or no, Farah Ahmed, assistant general counsel at the Personal Care Products Council, suggested the business of beauty won’t be dramatically altered. “We don’t anticipate that this would be a big overhaul in terms of how companies do things,” she concluded.

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