Nov 3, 2013

FTC Issue on the Amazon Vine

NPR has a story on Amazon's Vine program, in which top reviewers receive free products to review from manufacturers. Does this program run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission's blogger endorsement rules, which I've written about in the past?

The guides, formally the "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising," generally provide that "endorsers" of products or services may be liable for civil penalties if they make false or unsubstantiated claims about a product/service or fail to disclose "material connections" between themselves and an advertiser.

This was a particular concern regarding bloggers, the FTC said, because while traditional media exercises "independent editorial responsibility" in writing reviews and free products and services for traditional news reporters are "reasonably expected by the audience," bloggers and social media users may not have such editorial independence, and freebies for bloggers Tweeters are not "reasonably expected. (Details here.)

Amazon's page about the Vine program explains that
Amazon provides Vine members with free products that have been submitted to the program by participating vendors. Vine reviews are the independent opinions of the Vine Voices. The vendor cannot influence, modify or edit the reviews. Amazon does not modify or edit Vine reviews, as long as they comply with our posting guidelines. A Vine review is identified with the green stripe Customer review from the Amazon Vine Program.
On the individual product pages, Vine reviews are identified with as an "Amazon Vine Review," in green text, with a "What's this?" link to the program description page. The individual reviewer is also identified with a "Vine Voice" badge, which links to a description of the badge program which includes a brief description of the Vine program.

Is this enough disclosure under the FTC guides? The guides state that disclosures of the endorser's relationship with the advertiser must be displayed "clearly and conspicuously."
For example, when an endorser who appears in a television commercial is neither represented in the advertisement as an expert nor is known to a significant portion of the viewing public, then the advertiser should clearly and conspicuously disclose either the payment or promise of compensation prior to and in exchange for the endorsement or the fact that the endorser knew or had reason to know or to believe that if the endorsement favored the advertised product some benefit, such as an appearance on television, would be extended to the endorser.

But the guides do not define what "clearly and conspicuously" means. Amazon, which I'm sure has great lawyers, has apparently decided that marking marking reviews by Vine members, with a link to an explanation, fulfills the FTC requirements.


Terrie Farley Moran said...

As a reader, writer, frequent Amazon patron and occasional Amazon reviewer, I read Amazon Vine reviews all the time. I read them for the humor of it--often the Vine reader gets a book totally outside their usual reading materiel and they admit that in sometime funny ways. I assumed that by now the entire planet knows that Vine readers get freebies, and can take that into account when reading the review. Perhaps not.

b-fabulous said...

Most people don't know about the Vine Program and only look at which products are the highest rated and then purchase. That's what I was doing until these products I was buying actually sucked and then I went back to look at the reviews and that's how I found out about the Vine Program. So now I start out reading the 1 and 2 star reviews for an honest review. To me there's nothing honest about the Vine Program. It was a sleazy move on Amazon's part.

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