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Bringing bloggers to heel Part 2

The Singtel/Gushcloud saga is so interesting. It throws up all sorts of ethical issues in the media and about the nature of competition.  Is it kosher for a client and a social media marketing agency to get people to slam rival products? The consensus is that it is not and even Singtel’s CEO has come out to apologise for its “whack-the-rivals’’ campaign in the hope that people will subscribe to its own telco plan.

It’s like negative campaigning, except that you don’t know who’s waging it and don’t know who’s being paid to be part of the campaign. I think we see the parallels in politics – smear or whispering campaigns and poison pen letters denouncing the other party. It’s very hard to track down the source.

Some people will point to political ads in the United States which attack the other candidate’s character. But unlike a whispering campaign, we also know who is behind the ad. Hence, we imbibe information or misinformation with our faculties fully informed. At least, we have our antennas up.

(By the way, the campaign was for Singtel’s Youth Plan. That’s telling. It – or at least the staffer who got the sack – thinks that young people are like sheep, who enjoy reading about products being slammed and will follow their own-generation heroes of the blogosphere.)

The thing is, there seems to be no watchdog that looks over such marketing tactics. The Singapore Code of Advertising Practice doesn’t apply, says the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore which comes under CASE.

CASE executive director Seah Seng Choon was reported saying in TODAY: “As far as this matter is concerned, we are not certain whether the information put out by Gushcloud is an advertisement, because it is not clear whether Singtel authorised all the content released by the bloggers contacted by Gushcloud.”

This is so odd. So a client must endorse something before it becomes an “advertisement’’…

ASAS chairman Tan Sze Wee then said the campaign did not constitute advertising, citing the SCAP’s definition of an advertisement, which refers to any form of commercial communication for any goods or services, regardless of the medium used, including advertising claims on packs, labels and point-of-sale material.

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In this instance, the method employed by Gushcloud does not constitute advertising as it does not specifically promote Singtel’s services,” Associate Professor Tan added.

This is another odd thing. So the operative word here is “specifically’’. Although it is clear that Singtel wanted to promote its Youth Plan, the bloggers didn’t say so and went on attack mode instead. So clever. It seems to me that the SCAP has to be updated if it wants to take into account the kinds of creative advertisements that marketeers can come up with.

Paid bloggers have been around for some years but no one has said anything about ethical guidelines to protect the unwary consumer. I was thinking that this should be something for the Media Development Authority but I have since been pointed to the Infocomm Development Authority guidelines:

 A Licensee must not engage in unfair methods of competition. An unfair method of competition is an improper practice by which a Licensee seeks to obtain a competitive advantage for itself or an Affiliate in the telecommunication market in Singapore, for reasons unrelated to the availability, price or quality of the service or equipment that the Licensee or its Affiliate offers.

The clause above only applies to telcos but it seems to me it might apply to any type of commercial practice as well. The Federal Trade Commission in the United States, for example, has updated its advertising and endorsement guidelines for the blogosphere to make clear that even bloggers must be subject to disclosure practices.

“The issue is – and always has been – whether the audience understands the reviewer’s relationship to the company whose products are being reviewed. If the audience gets the relationship, a disclosure isn’t needed. For a review in a newspaper, on TV, or on a website with similar content, it’s usually clear to the audience that the reviewer didn’t buy the product being reviewed. It’s the reviewer’s job to write his or her opinion and no one thinks they bought the product – for example, a book or movie ticket – themselves. But on a personal blog, a social networking page, or in similar media, the reader may not expect the reviewer to have a relationship with the company whose products are mentioned. Disclosure of that relationship helps readers decide how much weight to give the review.’’

The commission also had some FAQs, including this:

 Isn’t it common knowledge that some bloggers are paid to tout products or that if you click a link on my site to buy a product, I’ll get a commission for that sale?

First, many bloggers who mention products don’t receive anything for their reviews and don’t get a commission if readers click on a link to buy a product. Second, the financial arrangements between some bloggers and advertisers may be apparent to industry insiders, but not to everyone else who reads a blog. Under the law, an act or practice is deceptive if it misleads “a significant minority” of consumers. So even if some readers are aware of these deals, many readers aren’t. That’s why disclosure is important.

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And it actually has some social media examples. Here are two:

1. A skin care products advertiser participates in a blog advertising service. The service matches up advertisers with bloggers who will promote the advertiser’s products on their personal blogs. The advertiser requests that a blogger try a new body lotion and write a review of the product on her blog. Although the advertiser does not make any specific claims about the lotion’s ability to cure skin conditions and the blogger does not ask the advertiser whether there is substantiation for the claim, in her review the blogger writes that the lotion cures eczema and recommends the product to her blog readers who suffer from this condition. The advertiser is subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made through the blogger’s endorsement. The blogger also is subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made in the course of her endorsement. The blogger is also liable if she fails to disclose clearly and conspicuously that she is being paid for her services.

2. A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or “blog” where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. Because his review is disseminated via a form of consumer-generated media in which his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious, readers are unlikely to know that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact likely would materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge. The manufacturer should advise him at the time it provides the gaming system that this connection should be disclosed, and it should have procedures in place to try to monitor his postings for compliance.

I have come across too many advertisers who will pay good money for a journalist to write something nice and positive as a disguised editorial. They don’t want their company logo displayed or for any sign that marks the article as an advertisement or editorial. This is to lull readers/viewers into thinking that independent judgement has been exercised and there was no lure of the lucre. The MSM has honed its rules and guidelines over the years but the blogosphere is the new cowboy town. So many companies are teaching people how to up their social media profile and market on social media these days… I hope that they will also include some ethical guidelines that everyone involved should adhere to. I know of at least one blogger who thinks it better not to disclose paid connections in case the reader gets turned off and actually conducts workshops on how to make money from blogging.

Frankly, I am appalled. I am even more appalled to read an ST report on what bloggers involved in the campaign said in their apologies.

A 21 year old said: “I…apologise to anyone affected for posting negative comments towards M1 (while on a Singtel campaign) and not explicitly stating or revealing that I was on a campaign with Singtel”. But he added that he had not lied, and that he had been “unhappy” with his service provider, M1.

Another 21-year-old said she too was fed up with her telco’s service : “I didn’t know that the techniques used in the campaign were against the law. I thought they were fine since those deliverables mentioned in the brief were already acknowledged and agreed upon by Singtel, an established corporation that has years of expertise in working with advertising agencies,” she said “All in all, I have realised my mistake and will do better next time by ensuring that all of my works are executed ethically.”

I wonder how long they have been doing this, that is, not disclose that they are being paid for certain posts. I guess their clients and Gushcloud are probably happy that they don’t. In fact, I wonder if social media marketing agencies have a set of guidelines that bloggers must adhere to – or risk getting booted out of the network.

Is this something for Case or the Competition Commission to think about? Or should these watchdogs adopt a buyer beware approach and stay hands-off? This cannot be, because there are standards on traditional advertising. Advertising/promotions/endorsements on social network are even more insidious.  To repeat what the FTC said: “..on a personal blog, a social networking page, or in similar media, the reader may not expect the reviewer to have a relationship with the company whose products are mentioned. Disclosure of that relationship helps readers decide how much weight to give the review.’’

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Because I am an old(er) person, I thought I was being too much of a fuddy duddy about requiring standards of bloggers. So I asked my class of undergraduates to come up with a code or some guidelines for paid bloggers.

Here it is:

1. Bloggers must disclose any commercial or personal connection with the product or service they are pushing. That is, that they are being paid by WHO/WHAT company or that it is their cousin’s restaurant.

2. This disclosure must be right at the top of the post. Prominent. Conspicuous. You need to be blind to miss it.

3. Better still, they should stick their sponsor’s logo or that of the social media agency they belong to as well.

4. They shouldn’t use any kind of euphemism to disguise their connection, like “in appreciation…”. So it must be XX paid for this or sponsored by XX or I got a free dinner or a $10 voucher for doing this. (There was some discussion about how specific bloggers should be about payment, like I got $10.20 cents but the class felt that this might be too intrusive. But the class thinks that readers should be made aware that click-throughs ecetera will earn the blogger a commission)

5. Bloggers must be specific in their review like compare what’s so good about XX compared to YY and ZZ. In other words, they should set some kind of benchmarks if they want to be “good’’ reviewers. They should also give an idea of how much time they spent reviewing the product/service so that readers can gauge if the review was intensive/extensive enough.

6. All reviews must be from “first-hand’’ experience, that is, it is not enough to take nice pictures and say this product/service is “great’’!

7. No smearing of rival products or services.

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8. Bloggers must not cherry pick good points but also include the bad points for an “honest’’ review.

9. Bloggers should admit if the blog is not written by them but by ghost-writers in the social media agency or by the sponsor (although which blogger would actually say so, I wonder)

Actually, the ethics the class espoused are the same for journalists. Except that journalists have a whole body of work they can rely on, plus editors to steer them right and a lot of institutional memory. They belong to an entity which can fight commercial interests on the same level. Most of them are probably salaried employees as well.

But young bloggers, some not even out of school, aren’t being schooled in any publishing/broadcasting principles. One of Gushcloud blogger cited earlier thinks “smear tactics are okay because she thought Singtel said so’’! I hazard a guess that most bloggers are simply thrilled to have an audience and to be able to make some money in the process. There is no bigger agenda than to get more eyeballs and make more money.

I AM a fuddy duddy so I will say this: If people read you, including people who don’t know you or who are less clever than you or who are over-trusting, you have an obligation to the truth in all its messy glory. You have to be worthy of the social influence you wield.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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