Thursday, October 15, 2009

Food for thought - Should bloggers disclose when they receive freebies or cash for a product review?

should we be kept in the dark for blogger reviews?

Let's kick up some dust, just before we end the week with a scary question i.e. should bloggers be regulated to disclose either cash or freebies they receive for product reviews?

Why? You may ask, am I asking this suddenly. Well, it just happens the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has decided to start regulating bloggers on this disclosure issue, last week. That has sent a buzz around the online community and even made its way to Singapore, where their Media Development Authority (MDA) claims it is looking into ways for stricter disclosure rules. One wonders, how long before the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission will also jump on the bandwagon too.

Let's analyse the FTC guidelines that were released in relation to "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsemens and Testimonials in Advertising." Per their guidelines, "a post from a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement". The guidelines continue to say, "bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product of the service." No mention about the kind of disclosure is required, as that is left to the blogger but it is required to be clear and conspicuous.

What happens when you violate these guidelines you ask? It is stated that if you regularly flout the guidelines or complaints are made, a fine of USD11,000 will be imposed for each violation. Already in Singapore there has been fiery exchanges on the Net with comments claiming this is a violation of blogger privacy.

I guess, since this is more of a food blog, one must ask this question, would you as a blog reader want to know when you read a blog post recommending a certain outlet for food, whether it is made clearly on top of the review, that it was an invited review where food was received as payment in kind or that particular blogger received a sum for writing that review?

Definitely food for thought, for all of you to chew on. Let me know your opinions and whether these FTC guidelines will be applicable here in Malaysia.

For further reading on this, see Wired's article on the FTC guidelines and Singapore's reaction to MDA's proposal to regulate bloggers. I also like this blog post from the Singapore Straits Times on how difficult it will be to police these regulations. One suggestion is to go after those companies that continues to practice these kind of reviews.


lyminn said...

Yes, I definitely think so.

Bloggers (or Floggers) should be more transparent.

A friend of mine had an encounter with a apparently very popular Malaysian blogger recently who had threatened the organization with a bad or nasty review unless the blogger is given freebies/discounts/privileges, etc. And after checking with other people in the industry, my friend found out that this the blogger's modus operandi, i.e. the way the person makes a living.

(please note, that I am not implicating anyone, just rationalizing on why I agree that bloggers should be transparent)

J said...

Well, maybe I'm just blur but I don't see how putting some sort of disclosure is invading the privacy of a blogger - anyway, isn't it the right thing to do?

I mean, wouldn't it be better to let the general public/ readers know if you have gotten something for free/ been paid for a review?... If they can see that what you blog is fair/ true then they will not doubt you/ suddenly stop reading, would they? (if that's what those bloggers are afraid of)....

Anonymous said...

i also agree that disclosure is a must, coz most ppl choose to read review from blog because the opinion is personal and probably more trustable!

Big Boys Oven said...

I fully agree with lyminn. I never had experienced being paid cash to review food but it must be awesome getting paid. I reviewed eatery due to passion and giving the food retailers a hand! :)

Lyminn: who is this popular Malaysian blogger?

Shinnen said...

I'm not a food blogger but I love to read food reviews and try the food out. I agree that bloggers in general has to be transparent. Masak-masak has a disclaimer after every review which is good enough for me because she rationalises that the review is part of her own taste and if there's something that's not great, she says in out loud. But likew newspaper or the tv shows about local food, sometimes the reviews aren't honest. I've been to some ho chiak reviews and the food suck big time while they are in the show saying "si beh ho chiak" or something like that. I feel cheated. So far, after reading masak-masak for 3 years, fried chillies and KampungBoyCityGirl. I'm pretty happy with floggers cos the ones I read are honest.

Lyrical Lemongrass said...

As a reader, I'd be much more inclined to have faith in a blogger who does 20 out of 40 free food reviews and discloses the fact than a blogger who does much less and doesn't disclose the fact because in the former's case, I can make a calculated assessment. So yes, I'm all for transparency.

"Joe" who is constantly craving said...

read this in the edge..

if theres nothing to hide..then why hide?

and even if u hide, its quite easy to tell when you try it its a case of once bitten, never go back (restaurant and blog)

Precious Pea said...

I do agree that food bloggers (answering to your question) should have transparency. There is no harm letting people know that it is a free food review, regardless if there are any monetary exchange. This increase their credibility too to let their readers know in advance cos bear in mind, the food they had during the free review MIGHT NOT BE the same as those who just walk-in.

On the other hand, if such ruling is imposed in Malaysia..god knows what they will impose next??

Paranoid Android said...

I think it is only right that bloggers reveal that they have received something for reviewing a product.

If they have been paid, then they should be treated as advertising for the product (in a new media) and hence be subjected to the same regulations that are enforced on advertisements. Readers will be made aware that it might be a biased opinion. No two ways about it.

Unknown said...

with or without ruling, a blogger should discloses if it is a free product/food review.

the ruling is just something to regulate bloggers who never take initiative to do that ;p

firethorn said...

As a consumer, it would be good to know if a review was sponsored. However, it's left to the reader to judge if the review was biased or not.

As for my personal blog, I put a disclosure note in the sponsored posts.

Anyway, I dont think adding a discloure note is invading my privacy, but a simple way of being fair to my blog readers.

KY said...

I think it is a good thing to inform readers if it is a free food review or if you'd receive any payments (which never happened to me anyway).

I tagged all "free food" reviews with "by invitation" :D

Unknown said...

Yes most definitely ALL food bloggers should do it so as to not mislead the readers with your views ESPECIALLY if you have been "bought" via free food or cash in hand!

Snapshots said...

yes, if you are paid in cash or kind, yes if you receive a invitation, yes if you get something free, as there are implications, that you will only write good about such places or products.

if you do not get paid in cash or kind, if you do not get a free product, if you do not get a invitations i will trust the blog post more

Jean said...

I agree that bloggers who get paid or freebies should let their readers know too.

Rebecca Saw said...

Very interesting.

Personally for me, I have encountered cases when the food during review is so much better than normal days. Sigh.

Well, I do acknwledge the host and I will highlight tht it was an invited review when i write that particular post so it is up to the readers to decide on visiting the restaurant or otherwise.

But as a reader of blogs, I have an inclination of dismissing the review instantly if it is stated tat the writer is given compensation for the review.
I mean, how can u say the food is bad (if it is) since it's paid?

Its just like those ads in the paper! The outlet pays fr the ads, hence the reviews written is a "sale" pitch.

~Christine~Leng said...

Our personal thoughts would be: disclosure is somehow necessary. We don't see why not.
We personally would like to give credits to the restaurant owners for invitations. Like what rebecca mentioned, we've also encountered food served during a food review which are so much better during normal dine-in sessions.
Well, not to say all restaurants are like that but we never know. I believe the readers would love to know whether it's an invite/ paid review or not.

Ciki said...

yes! by all means go if invited. Just say its a review! easy peasy;)

(never take money).

minchow said...

Absolutely 100% for transparency. The trust we've afforded peer reviews shouldn't be tampered with, and while invited reviews/freebies (and the inevitable watered down criticism or neutrality) are all fine and dandy, the blogger owes it to readers to disclose that transaction.

eiling lim said...

I think it's harmless if the blogger would just indicate that this is a paid review or vice versa. As we all know it that some bloggers are very obligated to write good things about the product if they have received payment or free gifts. I also think that the reputation of the blogger as a person whom is honest and sincere is important when writing a review.

Poncho Wearer said...

I found your site while searching for places to dine while we're in KL. I can't get over how great your photos are and your insightful entries. You know your way around. Is this weird to ask? Do you want to meet up for a meal while we're in town. This is my first time in SE Asia. We don't bite, except for the food that is. We'll be visiting KL October 31-November 2. Let me know...

boo_licious said...

lyminn - sounds like a fair observation. Gosh, that sounds terrible, holding people ransom with the threat of writing a bad review. Guess we'll never know which famous Msian blogger is that.

J - the invasion of privacy thing I suspect was just a Sporean reaction as Americans didn't think so. True, at the end of the day, the blog readers can make their own decision, as long as you make yr disclaimer.

Simple Girl - u're rite, I also look at other blog reviews together with restaurant reviews and make my own judgement abt whether food is good.

BBO - restaurants here rarely pay cash for the reviews but instead they'll pay for the food, which is in a way "payment in kind" and those are also the reviews that fall under this disclosure issue.

Thanks Shinnen for such a vote of confidence. These are the comments that often spur me on for more blog reviews, esp when I feel jaded with life. My disclaimer actually started because a friend of mine was making noise saying I needed to tell the whole world how different my blog reviews are from normal media reviews.

LL - I guess credibility and honesty is the best policy. At the end of the day, the readers will make the choice on what they want.

Joe - yeah, Oon Yeoh's article also got me thinking and it spiralled to this blog post after I read abt Spore's views. Yeah, the proof is definitely in the tummy or more the tongue!

PP - thxs for yr viewpt and yes, it feels very ominous that the govt will control everything we do!! I personally think these disclosure rules are in a way good, as it means govts are accepting new media like blogs as impt tools to get the message across.

Paranoid Android - yup, being honest is always the best policy!

kgboycitygal - ah, I guess it was a matter of time as the industry realised and recognised new media. True, even though this ruling may never come to Msia, bloggers shld practice their own "honesty" regime and disclose reviews probably on top of their blog post.

firethorn - well said from the consumer and blogger pt of view. Am glad you're already following that way already.

KY - I don't think we have cash reviews of restaurants here, unless it is for a guide book. Kudos to you for tagging those as invited reviews.

fwuh27 - adds credibility to the blog post rite?

boo_licious said...

Snapshots - Ditto to that, as I often reach out for non invited reviews also when I'm researching for a place to blog abt.

Thxs Jean for yr opinion. Hopefully we see more of that being disclosed.

Nomadgourmand - disclosing it is an invited review is good.

For restaurants, if they wish to approach mainstream media, they will pay for an advertisement and it includes a write up where food is paid by the restaurant kinda like an advertorial.

When it comes to bloggers, restaurants can do away with the additional cost of paying for the advertisement (that can run up to RM10,000s depending on how big the ad is) and their cost is just buying the blogger, a meal (which is labelled as payment in kind to the blogger)and they get free publicity on the Net.

Christine - it's sad abt the food quality being so different, esp since blog readers will be walking in like normal customers.

C&C - yeah, disclose, disclose, disclose!

Thxs Minchow for that honest reply. Now, I hope more will jump the bandwagon and say, "I disclose"!

eiling - yeah, being Msians we're often too polite to say otherwise and obligation definitely puts a spanner on giving an honest opinion.

Poncho wearer - glad to see you in SEA, will email you. Hope u're enjoying yr trip here.

seahorsey said...

yes definitely. i think it's pretty unethical to give bad reviews unless they're paid as per lyminn's comment. even more reason for transparency and regulation.

foodbin said...

all for transparency-count me in!

sc said...

when i get email invites from restaurants to sample their food, i'll always reply that i will be very honest with my reviews (be it good or bad) although it's FOC meal for me. only if they are ok with this terms will i accept their invite. and guess what? 90% never replied me after i state my terms. guess they are not confident of their food either :p

Lingzie said...

i do agree that floggers should disclose if they have been invited by the restaurant for a review. i too have encountered sessions where the food was great during the invited review, but not so great during walk ins. nevertheless i have always indicated in the post if it was an invited review or not.
i guess the main problem is consistency of the service & staff and there is also the subjective-ness of taste. but i always try to be as honest as i can without sounding mean or overly biased.

so yes, by all means, disclose! :)

Tummythoz said...

M late so most have voiced what I thot so I'll keep this short. My vote's for disclosure but not for regulations.

J2Kfm said...

I've always shunned free food invites, and chose to pay for what I ate, and dine in anonymously.

At least until I've finished my meal, or someone walks over and ask why am I snapping pictures of the food. Then probably I'll disclose the fact that I'm writing a personal food blog.

personal opinion here; if one's invited to a free food review, or get paid for a review, (much like the TV shows eg. Ho Chak etc) how can his/her review be bad, or discouraging if the food is mediocre?
one would feel compelled to write positive reviews, no matter how the actual experience turned out to be.

Just my 2 cents. and I'm really glad that those who got invited reviews, or paid reviews, to disclose this fact in their posts. At least in most of the blogs that I follow.

thule a.k.a leo said...

personally, I have never received any freebies or whatsoever to review a certain place..
I use my hard earned money to pay for my foods and drinks and therefore, I always speak out what's in my mind...
but I guess not anyone will take criticism or complains lightly.. I had my share of experience with certain restaurant in The Strand, which really pissed me off but then... I really voiced out what's in my mind.

Vivien said...

all for transparency, i went to only 1 invited review, and i will label them as "invited view:...", as i am given a treat, therefore my review is not as crude/honest as it usually is... not critising the food as much... therefore by seeing the "invited review", hopefully readers will take my opinion with a pinch of salt :p

Unknown said...

Looks like most people are supporting transparency... so not so much dust after all Boo :)

Jason Wong said...

I do believe with or without the forced regulating, it comes down to the bloggers character and ethics. Some bloggers are not in for the monetary or non-monetary gift, but for fame. How are they or we going to regulate them?

For fame, to be popular amongst and to attract great traffic, they have obscure the truth and what is factual. Will their readers sniff out their fishiness? I guess they will in time.

Will the actions of the few affect the rest? Would their tainted character and ethics blur out the genuineness and effort of the none tainted, and cause the loss of trust for bloggers as a whole? It is happening.

So, before we point the fingers at other, we must ask ourselves what have we done to protect the trust and respect the has been given to the blog sphere?

Whether reviews are sponsored or not, the responsibility lays on the hand of the host or business. As food bloggers or food journalist, we should be honest with our thoughts and comments. Where else would we see improvements?

Again, there are many hypocrites out there! I have my fare share of experience with them. Give credit to those who have earned it, avoid those who taints your character.

Rarebeet said...

Whether full disclosure or not, I do believe that readers are able to read between the lines. Having said that it would be good to be upfront about it so that when you really do read a good review about a restaurant, you know its a honest one.

fatboybakes said...

i think any writer worth their salt should make it clear if the meal they're having was at the invitation of the restaurant. it would also be only courteous to acknowledge the invitation from the host, surely. unless otherwise stated, i'd assume the writer was paying for their meal.

lainieyeoh said...

I appreciate the declarations (very, VERY much), but would not expect nor want it to be regulated. i just pick and choose which websites i return to.

rokh said...

when i write, i write for my readers, therefore i write with all transparency and honesty. but being bias might be an oversight, so best to first state that one has been invited and when reader goes it might be of different experience.

Barb said...

I'd be happy to disclose anything I'd get for my readers. I just want to know how to get it! Could you email me some tips/info? I see other bloggers getting great items all the time. My blog is a year & a half now so I'm ready.

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