The FTC and Me

As a health care attorney, I’ve had to work with the Federal Trade Commission, as they are the agency that enforces the antitrust laws (along with the Justice Department).  Frankly, the FTC can be a royal pain in the ass, but I understand their purpose in the antitrust world.  The FTC also regulates advertising to the extent that it may be deceptive or misleading, and they just adopted new rules that require bloggers to disclose whenever they receive anything in value in exchange for a review.

Wow.

Now I believe in full disclosure, and in the one instance that I accepted a fully complementary meal, I disclosed that fact.  However, I also informed the restaurant that providing that gratis meal did not mean that I would review the restaurant and certainly did not guarantee that they’d receive praise.  Frankly, I really don’t write restaurant reviews for the most part.  In this case, however, I did write about the restaurant because I loved it.  If I didn’t like it, I would probably not have written anything at all.

But with the new FTC rules, bloggers like me have to be worried whenever we receive anything of value.  If I’m at a restaurant and the chef sends out an extra course, do I need to disclose that?  What about if the chef has no idea who I am?  I would argue that in the latter case, the extra course has nothing to do with providing something of value in exchange for reviews — it’s just a nice thing to do.  And in the first case, assuming the chef knows me, I would argue that the extra course was sent out with the hope– but not the expectation — that I might provide a favorable review.  That might fall short of the FTC’s requirement.  However, the bottom line is that the FTC wants to ensure that reviews are not bought, and if they are, then it should be disclosed.

So to ensure that I don’t run afoul of federal requirements (which, at this point, aren’t really law, just guidelines), I offer the following blanket statement that addresses everything I write about in this blog:

“I don’t write true reviews, but I do offer my thoughts on various aspects of the food and restaurant industries.  I also write about food and my family.  I sometimes may receive a discounted meal or free drink or a slab of bacon, primarily because I’ve pretty much immersed myself in the food world.  I generally only write about places I like, so if a restaurant gives me something for free, and it sucks, I won’t write about it.  If they give me something for free and I like it, I’ll probably write about it.  If they don’t give me a thing and I like it, I’ll probably write about it, too.  I also am biased in that I’m much more likely to write about places where my friends work.  I like to write about my friends who are chefs, and I have to admit that they have indeed given me something of value: their friendship.  From time to time, they give me a free dish.  I may not always disclose that, because I really think that what my friends do is our own business.  I am horribly biased by that relationship, so please do not be misled into thinking I’m fully objective when writing about their restaurants.  I try, but you know how friendships work.  So if I write about a restaurant or a food item, just assume that my objectivity has been compromised in some manner.”

And if that’s not good enough for the FTC, then I guess I better start boning up on my legal defense skills.

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5 Responses to The FTC and Me

  1. Dana says:

    These rules are stupid. If I get invited to a restaurant’s exclusive opening party, am I to disclose that as a gift? How about the free ribs and chicken wings I got at the Microsoft press conference last month? We’ll see if people like Walt Mossberg disclose just how much he is given by Apple.

  2. Varmint says:

    Note that as an eG Ethics Signatory, as evidenced on the bottom right of this blog, I’m obligated to disclose when I receive certain items of value. Ultimately, however, it’s up to me to determine where those gifts are pure inducements to write about a place. I’m on a number of publicists’ mailing lists and get invited to a fair share of special events. I rarely attend, and if I do, I might merely write about the opening, without any genuine criticism.

    I went to The Globe for lunch a couple of days before I worked there, and they comped my meal. Why? Well, I wasn’t going to write about a dining experience, but they certainly appreciated my willingness to write about the restaurant and my “mini-stage” there. My story was not about eating there, it was about working there. Should have I disclosed that free lunch? Per the FTC rules, I’d argue “No.” But should I disclose that comp if I eventually do a review-style post? The FTC rules may suggest that I should. I’m not so sure. The bottom line is, I’ll disclose things when I feel that someone is really trying to get me to write about a place. Herons did that, but frankly, the only way I was going to eat there again was with someone else’s money. I had lost faith in the place, and my faith was genuinely restored with the cooking of Scott Crawford. I’ll be working there next week, and I’ll write about that experience — good and bad.

    In the end, it’s all about common sense, and as long as you disclose blatant situations, you’ll be fine.

  3. jeremy says:

    i come from a school of “if there’s no proof, it didn’t happen”, thus, if it’s free (i.e. no paper trail) then… & maybe the honorable thing to do is disclose but simultaneously if it (full disclosure) is a rule, no longer does the honor rule apply?

  4. =R= says:

    Brilliant disclaimer, Dean!

  5. Michael says:

    I kept waiting for the punch line. This is a joke! Keep up the great work and enjoy the few free items you get.

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