just a thought – total disclosure

just a thought — Danielle on May 19, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Lets talk about disclosure.  The FTC has been laying down the law, at least on American bloggers and publicists, and everyone, American or not, has been watching and waiting to see what this sort of legislation means for us.  As small “examples” are made, it seems like fashion blogging and PR will be the ones testing the new laws.  Because of all the niches and industries out there, surely fashion is the one where consumer objectivity is a matter of public health and safety. Okay, I’m being sarcastic. But here we are.

When I first heard about the FTC stuff, I didn’t think much of it. Like many fashion bloggers, I’ve been trying to raise the level of disclosure on my site for a long time – not for any legal reason, but just because its the right thing to do by my visitors. I hate legalese on my website – I don’t feel like its my job to tell people to obey the law, that should be implied. In posts where I was invited to an event, I’ll tell which PR company invited me, and in posts where I feature an item that is a gift, I try to word it in a way where its clear that the item was gifted.  But I know because I try to be creative with how I do it, sometimes it is not so clear.  Its been a process of trying to figure out a way to do it that suits the site.  Well, how about a total confessional?

Gifts

Total disclosure time. Here’s the thing about almost every item I feature on my site in the what I wear category: they’re almost ALL gifted.  Until the day that I am making money like gangbusters (full disclosure: not even close), I essentially have no disposable income.  What little disposable income I have I put back into the business – computer stuff, office furniture, art supplies, etc.  Clothing – as much as I love it – is not a priority.  Most of the clothing that I post pictures of comes from the following sources:

  • gifted by PR
  • hand-me-down from a friend
  • thrift stores
  • trades for services in kind with other artists and designers
  • and very occasionally… a special item that I have saved for.

It is thanks to the generosity of so many designers and publicists that I even have an outfit photo feature on the blog.  I have never enjoyed shopping as a pastime, so I don’t blog about shopping. Still, I love clothes. I held out on the outfit posts for a long time – I wasn’t sure if it was for me. After much consideration, I’ve decided to just go for it – and as far as I am concerned it is a win-win.  I get cool clothes that I like (I don’t accept gifts of clothes I don’t like – why would I?) and the designers and brands who kindly indulge my tastes get coverage on my blog that would otherwise be unavailable.  Beyond that, readers seem to like it (outfit posts often get more than their share of comments) and I’ve managed to avoid the rat race that puts so many outfit bloggers in credit card debt.

Sponsorship

Like a lot of fashion bloggers, I want to develop a blog that is a profitable use of my time.  The blog serves as a calling card for my services as a fashion illustrator, it occasionally allows me the perks of being considered a member of the media, and for the past year I’ve experimented with a sponsorship program.  Sponsors get their own very clearly defined news post once a month, as well as placement of a custom-illustrated badge in the sidebar.  To say that I am biased towards my sponsors should be obvious – any business that is supportive of my business fills me with all sorts of warm, friendly, un-objective feelings.

For a blogger, unlike a masthead, there is no distinct separation between editorial and sponsorship departments, because I do both jobs.  It is in my best interest to be selective of my sponsors to maintain my credibility.  For bloggers, credibility isn’t implied by a history of industry conventions, credibility is earned by demonstrating it on an ongoing basis.  The rules for this are still being discovered, but the lines are easily marked by the instant feedback inherent in blogging.  If I step even slightly outside of what my readers are comfortable with, they let me know – either by unsubscribing or by contacting me.

Overall, I think sponsorship helps me improve as a fashion blogger.  I now feel an obligation to post consistently at a certain level, to constantly strive to increase the reach of the blog.  Now that I have a modest level of income from the blog, I feel justified spending more time on the blog rather than always pursuing freelance work.  I think the result is better for readers and visitors, as well as being better for the blogger and the sponsors.  Win – win – win.

Other Stuff

The last topic to cover is advertising and affiliate programs.  I do have Adsense on some of my most frequently Googled posts in the archives.  I also have affiliate programs with Amazon.ca and Shopbop.com, for when I happen to mention a book or a certain product.  Things I don’t do – I never accept offers for paid links or paid posts outside of my sponsorship program, ever.  That stuff is just lame.

Public Relations vs. Fashion Bloggers

After the FTC made an example of Ann Taylor, I got a peculiar email from a prominent PR firm, with a kind but unintentionally condescending tone, notifying me about the FTC rules and asking me to do some sort of disclosure about my relationship with them.  Naturally the siggy at the bottom of the email was a big chunk of legalese demanding total secrecy.  If I was a publicist, I would be a bit alarmed by the Ann Taylor story too – before I read about that, I thought it would be the bloggers getting disciplined, not the companies offering the gifts, even insignificant gifts.

So there is a bit of a shift happening now in the balance of power between fashion publicists and fashion bloggers.  Publicists are now faced with the unenviable challenge of figuring out which fashion bloggers are worth working with.  Now that bloggers are overwhelming fashion events and dishing out abundant but uneven coverage, publicists are going to be looking to cull fashion bloggers from their lists – and by legal necessity, one of the factors considered will be policies towards disclosure.  Just one more reason to be up front about where your stuff is coming from, especially if having good relationships with PR is important to you.

Celebrities and Fashion Media

As an aside to the topic, I find the enforcement of FTC rules to be incredibly condescending and arbitrary, both towards bloggers and to consumers.  Though the legislation also addresses other media and celebrities, there are no industry standard policies towards gifting that I can see clear evidence of.  While Robin Givhan expresses concern over “what rules bloggers are playing by”, from a media consumer’s point of view the tacit rules that individual magazines, newspapers, and television play by are no more clearly stated – personally I’m curious what much more rigorous disclosure from all types of media would look like.

Lack of disclosure is most outrageous when it comes to celebrities – who unlike bloggers and media types, can clearly afford to purchase whatever their hearts desire.  Imagine if legislation demanded that every celebrity on the red carpet carry a placard clearly stating which parts of their outfit were gifted, loaned or bought.  If disclosure is important, surely we need to know that the relationships between celebrities and the companies they endorse is often much more complicated than a red carpet paparazzi photo reveals – and considering that the influence of these photos is so vast compared to the reach of an insignificant fashion blogger, it is a mystery to me why the strong arm of the law would be trying to grasp at such tiny straws.

You.

Disclosure is a complicated issue, and it really does revolve entirely around you as a consumer of fashion and media.  How do you feel about companies gifting people of influence, no matter how large or small their influence must be?  When do you feel that fashion bloggers or other personalities and media need to disclose?

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    7 Comments »

    1. Great article, Danielle! First of all, I do believe that disclosure is important in cases when gifting is involved, but whether or not to state it as a footnote or within an article should be up to the blogger. I do not want any legal talk on my blog, and also prefer to disclose in creative ways, but certainly so that my readers would not be duped to believe that items were bought.

      As you mentioned, most bloggers would not endorse a product they themselves do not find useful, and I suppose it does depend on each person.

      But again, most of the time, disclosure shouldn’t be such a big deal – more of a common sensical thing. Though, there’s that argument that common sense is dead. Le sigh.

      Comment by Nelia — May 19 2010 @ 2:24 pm
    2. Superb and comprehensive explanation on disclosure. Thanks!

      Comment by Donna Vitan — May 20 2010 @ 12:55 am
    3. I’m still fairly new to the blogging world, so my experience with the paid part of the work is extremely limited. I just got my first PR pitch at A&P from Genuine Health (which I accepted) and I’m going to be doing affiliate programs and someday paid sidebar ads on WSN, so I’d like to get deeper into the arena of money for blogging, but I’m fearful of all the legalese that surrounds it. WSN has a big policies section which doesn’t yet include outlining disclosure. I’m not really sure what to write there, yanno?

      Bloggers also have the ability to say “no” to products and services that they feel don’t represent them or their message. Most of the people I know won’t accept ads, PR pitches, or anything unless it’s on-target with their site, and then only if it’s something they can express their real opinion about (in the case of negative reviews). That, I can get behind.

      I think that disclosing whether or not you’ve been paid for your opinion is important, and I still want to know if your review or mention of something is sponsored. I think it lends an extra awareness to the reader’s understanding.

      Again, though, my involvement in this arena is still new and largely uninformed. I’m strongly in favour of as little legislation dictating what people can and can’t do, but I also believe that, like Nelia said, there’s something to be said for the death of common sense. Some people need to be told everything – I just think it should be a moral compunction done naturally rather than a legal one that’s forced upon the bloggers.

      Such a complicated mess (at least for me).

      Comment by Ellie Di — May 20 2010 @ 11:07 am
    4. Nelia – re: common sense is dead. One thing about being around members of the media is that I discovered how many TACIT, unwritten rules they live by… and they get frustrated when bloggers don’t know about these industry bugaboos. I guess when suddenly media is a game anyone can play, the rules have to be spelled out in so many words, especially as bloggers don’t get to learn their chops through any sort of traditional mentorship process.

      Ellie Di – as you can see, I don’t have a big policies section. That stuff sort of baffles me too. The blog is an extension of me – I don’t have a policies manual as a human being, I have my conscience, and I like to think that this blog is a reflection of my conscience too. I always think that actions matter more than words, but when it comes to laying out policies, being direct and straightforward is much more admirable and, most importantly, reader-friendly than prickly legalese, in my opinion.

      Comment by Danielle — May 20 2010 @ 11:22 am
    5. In a perfect world I’d like for bloggers to not have any legal disclosure requirement. I think of them as citizen journalist we can trust who would self police and disclose but this sadly not the case.

      Disclosure has become necessary and I’d like to see it happen everywhere including gifting- the gifter, giftee and gift gets covered in the press, so absolutely the same rules should apply in the coverage of the story.

      The truth is it’s often obvious to the audience which celebrity is a true fan and which is just the billboard for the designer. Perhaps a blog story on guessing who the walking billboards are at the next red carpet event??

      Comment by leah Barrett — May 20 2010 @ 6:45 pm
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