The FTC and food bloggers; or, why quid is sometimes but not always pro quo

Nothing says “Yum-o!” to a food blogger like a 12-page treatise from that house of haute cuisine, the Federal Trade Commission. And as of today, according to the FTC, there is such a thing as a free lunch — as long as you make sure everyone knows that you ate for free, because if you don’t they can haul your fattened, freeloading, lying-by-omission ass into court.

That’s the jist of it; go here if you’d prefer a more technical explanation.

And on that note, I poured two bottles of J Pinot Noir on Thanksgiving. One was from Nicole’s Vineyard; the other one was Russian River Valley. Both were fantastic, if you’ll forgive the term, expresions of the grape; they had a nice combination of the fruit I associate with Northern California and the complex flintiness that I associate with Oregon (and usually prefer for Pinot Noir). And? Both were 100%, delivered-to-my-doorstep in styrofoam containers, tasting notes thoughtfully included, FREE.

See how easy that was?

A publicist sent the wine to me unbidden. In fact, it took a little deduction to figure out the source. Not that it mattered; as soon as the brown box landed on my desk, I knew why it was there. The sender wanted me to write about the wine. And I wanted to drink it.

When I started food writing in 1992, I competed for, and got, a job as the restaurant reviewer for an alternative weekly. The rules were simple: Be anonymous and pay for everything. And, like most other newspaper food writers, that’s what I did. Invitations to dine “as a guest” of a restaurant owner were ignored; my employer also made it clear that if I thought a place worth reveiwing, they’d pay for it. Also: kind of creepy and gross.

I wonder what restaurant launches looked like before the internet? Were they sedate, congratulatory affairs? Nowadays some feel like foodie frat parties, albeit with a much better quality of free-flowing booze. And instead of leaving with a STD, you get a gift bag.

I digress… actually, I don’t. This free-admission numbers game is how publicists penetrate the new food-world order. There are now far fewer journalists employed as restaurant critics (or employed as journalists, period). However, you can set up a blog and become a critic. No one’s paying for your dinners, much less paying you to write, but if you write with some intelligence and consistency the world’s food, wine and travel publicists will beat a path to your inbox. And then they will invite you to restaurant launches, to tequila tastings, to “fam trips” and to media dinners.  Sometimes you can watch the coverage flow through the blogs, like a wave.

It took a while — the FTC hasn’t updated its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising since 1980 — but they finally figured out that the bloggers couldn’t afford all the stuff they wrote about and publicists were not blessed with a surfeit of generosity. And so:

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.

I like this. Frankly, if I could afford to buy all the food and wine and travel, I’d like it more. But since I can’t, I’ll take the level playing field.

This is how I read it: If I write about a wine sent to me by a publicist, I tell you. If I talk about the food I ate at a media dinner, I tell you. If I stay at a hotel for free or at a media rate, I tell you. This is how I am able to afford some of the things and experiences I write about.

This is how I feel about it: I don’t write about a wine just because a publicist sent it to me. Or about the media dinner or the hotel just because I was there. This is how I avoid the kind of creepy and gross.

This is what I do: Sometimes I go to media dinners; sometimes I go out on my own dime. Either way, what I choose to write about — and what I choose to write — is wholly up to me. As any number of likely annoyed publicists will tell you, I don’t feel inherent obligation to write about anyone or anything.

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