A few weeks ago, Terry and I were invited (by a brand) to spend the weekend at… I’m just going to call it a particular type of luxury accommodation.
A very nice, very expensive one, which we’d really have loved to have experienced, but unfortunately for us, while the stay itself would have been free of charge (By which I mean I’d obviously have been expected to blog about it: there’s no such thing as “free” with this kind of thing…), we’d have had to cover our own travel expenses to the South of England, and we just couldn’t justify the cost at the time.
Anyway, we couldn’t make it ourselves, but the invitation had made it clear that the weekend we’d been invited on had been set aside for press (including bloggers), so I figured I’d get to read about it soon, and I was interested, not only in the … thing… itself, but also to see which other bloggers I’d have been rubbing shoulders with if I’d gone.
Sure enough, last week I was scrolling through my Bloglovin’ feed, when I came across a post by a very popular blogger who had obviously been invited to the same… thing. She’d posted about it in detail, and I read through the post, and it was only when I reached the end that I realised there had been absolutely no disclosure whatsoever to tell her readers that she’d spent the weekend in this luxury accommodation free of charge, on the understanding that she would post about it on her blog, and on social media. I scrolled back to the top of the post and read it again: nope, nothing. She’d basically made it sound like she and her boyfriend had randomly decided to have a weekend away, which she’d written about on her blog, and publicised on social media, complete with the official hashtags for the campaign the brand were running.
And, I mean, maybe she did spend her own money on it. It’s possible. It’s maybe not probable, but I have no proof that this blogger got the same offer I did, so in the interests of fairness, I have to concede that it might just be a coincidence that she and her partner decided to have their mini-break on the exact same weekend a bunch of other bloggers were staying there for free – and to hashtag it almost as if she’d been asked to. I suspect otherwise, though, and sadly, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Time and time again recently I’ve had offers of sponsored posts or gifted items from brands, and I’ve either turned them down or accepted and disclosed them, only to see other bloggers write about exactly the same thing, with absolutely no disclosure. And it makes me mad.
Why? Well, for one thing, it’s illegal. Bloggers are required by law to disclose any incentives they receive in order to promote brands or products on their blogs. That doesn’t just apply to sponsored posts, where you’re paid to write about the the thing – it also applies to free products which you receive in lieu of payment: they are also considered “compensation”, and they must be disclosed. In this case, a comped stay in very expensive accommodation has been exchanged for coverage on a popular blog: that’s very different from a blogger deciding to spend their own money on something, and then writing about it, and readers deserve to know that.
As well as being illegal not to disclose, it’s also highly unethical, and the main reason it bothers me is that I feel it’s ruining the blogging industry and giving us all a bad name. I, for instance, always disclose sponsorships and freebies, but so many bloggers DON’T that I know some readers probably won’t trust me anyway, because they’ll assume we’re all the same. In the example above, for instance, I found myself wondering what else this particular blogger has failed to disclose: because if she doesn’t know or doesn’t care that she should be disclosing a free holiday, she probably doesn’t know/care that she should be disclosing other forms of compensation either. How do you trust someone who you know will accept a free holiday, and make it sound like she paid for it? You can’t, can you?
That’s not, of course, to say that I don’t think sponsored content can be trusted. I have absolutely no issue with sponsored content, as should be evident from the fact that I do sponsored posts myself, and accept gifts from brands, which I then write about. It’s the lack of transparency that bothers me. As a blogger, your integrity is everything, and once you lose the trust of your readers, there’s really no coming back from that. That’s why it’s so important to be honest, and that means disclosing everything you’ve been compensated to write about.
I don’t intend this post to be a guide on how to disclose. Unfortunately, one of the issues with this is that the law in this regard is fairy fuzzy, and open to interpretation – also, most of what’s written about blogging and disclosure tends to relate to American regulations, which aren’t much use to those of us in the UK, or other countries. I’ve read countless posts lately, all promising to provide “the definitive guide!” to disclosure, and they’ve all said something different, so no wonder people get confused. I also suspect that this is one of the reasons some bloggers don’t disclose: in fairness to the blogger in my example, I’m sure she doesn’t INTEND to mislead her readers – it’s possible she just doesn’t know that this is something she should be disclosing, or that she thinks her post makes it clear enough that she didn’t pay for the accommodation herself.
I really want to be clear here that I’m not writing this to shame or expose anyone (and I will definitely not be naming and shaming, as a few people have suggested – that’s not what this is about: I used this example purely because it was the most recent, but it’s just one example of many) – I am not the internet police, and everything I’ve said here is pure conjecture. I also think it’s important to realise that not every blogger who fails to disclose adequately (or who appears to be failing to disclose) is some big baddie who is out to dupe their readers – I think a lot genuinely don’t know any better, or are struggling to interpret the very vague – and often contradictory – guidelines that are given to us.
I do my absolute best to be totally transparent in everything I post on my blog, but I’ll admit to losing sleep at times wondering if I’m doing enough, if I’ve interpreted the law correctly, or if something could have changed without me realising, leaving me un-intentionally breaking the law. It’s actually quite a difficult line to walk as a blogger, and even those of us who do our best to follow the guidelines can struggle to know what’s really required of us.
The problem with that, however, is that ignorance is no excuse. If you decide to start a blog, you’re becoming a publisher, and that comes with certain rules and responsibilities which it’s absolutely essential that you familiarise yourself with. It’s also important to realise that your actions can reflect on the community as a whole, especially if you have a lot of followers or influence. It makes me sad to think that some people no longer trust ANY bloggers, just because of the few who don’t play by the rules, and I don’t want to be part of an industry known for its lack of ethics.
As I said, I’m not going to provide a long list of rules regarding disclosure – to be perfectly honest, they seem to change so often and I’ve read so many pieces of conflicting advice, that I actually don’t trust myself to be able to do that with absolute accuracy. At its most basic, however, what I’d say to you is that if you’ve received some kind of inducement to write about a brand or product (whether that be financial compensation, or a free item), you MUST find some way to make that clear to your readers: if not for the good of your own reputation, at least consider doing it for the rest of us.
UPDATE: I’d really appreciate it if people could please not use the comments section of this post to name and shame bloggers. I was intentionally vague about the person in my example, and I also tried to make it clear that she’s one of many, and possibly has no idea that she should be disclosing freebies – I’m really not trying to play internet police here, and I will delete any further speculation or “naming and shaming”.