The media and marketing site Mumbrella recently reported on legal developments in the UK concerning advertising transparency in social media. It refers to an article in the Advertising Age that examines the behaviour of a UK blog advertising agency called Handpicked Media, which commissions blog authors to publish spamtastic advertorial posts in a similar manner to an Australian equivalent I have discussed before.

The Advertising Age in turn reports that the UK Office of Fair Trading has ruled that Handpicked Media had operated in breach of regulations requiring transparent disclosure of advertorial content. If only these sites actually bothered linking back to the sources of this material: the press release and investigation summary, both dated 13 December 2010, issued by the OFT.

Why quote from second hand summaries when you can have the originals? The OFT explains that:

This investigation was opened by the OFT on its own initiative to investigate the engagement by Handpicked Media of bloggers on a commercial basis. The OFT was concerned that individuals engaged by Handpicked Media were publishing online content which promoted the activities of Handpicked Media’s clients, without sufficient disclosures in place to make it clearly identifiable to consumers that the promotions had been paid for. This included publication on website blogs and microblogs (for example Twitter).

The resolution was a ruling that:

prohibit[s] any future promotion that does not clearly identify, in a manner prominently displayed with the editorial content such that it would be unavoidable to the average consumer, that the promotion has been paid for or otherwise remunerated.

Back in 2009 Handpicked Media received a surprisingly gushy advertorial of its own in the Guardian, which in hindsight makes for curious reading. We now live in a more cynical world.

What does this mean for Australian bloggers? There are no such restrictions here yet. On 1 January 2011 the Trade Practices Act 1974 was renamed the Competition and Consumer Act 2010. Although Australian law prohibits misleading or deceptive conduct, it seems more narrowly defined than UK law and does not clearly describe advertising disguised as editorial as being inherently misleading or deceptive.

I don’t think the overt and unsubtle commercial entrepreneurial culture of Asia, where transparency and disclosure have not always been standard practice, translates well to Australia. Perhaps I am naive, because the blog advertising agency doing business in Australia seems to be surviving. I think it does so primarily due to the naivety of the bloggers, who sign up to earn pocket money in exchange for making their sites look like shit.

While it is apparent that this agency encourages its advertorial bloggers to publish disclaimers on their work, the prevalence of these disclaimers is becoming annoying. Several sites that I used to enjoy are now full of them, and a result they’re no longer on my reading list. And there’s no way of knowing what else is being done by other marketing goons.

Do most bloggers now expect to be rewarded for discussing products and services? They didn’t start out that way, so are they now motivated by greed rather than the utility of sharing information? Isn’t the pleasure in being read, and being in some intangible way influential, enough?

Will it even be possible for bloggers to discuss products and services in a plausible manner in future in this commercial environment? One fashion blogger, who has previously published sponsored posts, recently prefaced a cosmetic review with the disclaimer ‘This is not a sponsored review‘. That this appeared necessary is telling.

Do Australian audiences now expect or assume that review content is likely to be sponsored rather than independent?

misleading and deceptive blog advertising

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