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Why Should Fashion Bloggers Disclose Freebies, When Magazine Editors Rarely Do?

Why Should Fashion Bloggers Disclose Freebies, When Magazine Editors Rarely Do?


(This piece was originally written by me for Glammonitor in 2015 but I'm bringing it home and reposting it here on my own blog since a lot of my readers and friends are talking about the FTC guidelines, blogger freebies, and badly-behaving celebs - ahem, the Kardashians - who don't properly disclose paid content.)

For fashion and beauty bloggers, freebies are part of the territory. Free clothes, facials, dinners, travel—they’re some of the perks of doing what is essentially as much work as a job, but without a boss, benefits, or a steady paycheck.

While many bloggers maintain their sites as projects of passion rather than profit, others opt to cash in on the work they put in to make the interwebs a chicer place, and advertisers are increasingly keen to harness the growing power of popular bloggers. Beside traditional advertising partnerships such as banner ads, bloggers can also command fees for sponsored content, with partnerships taking several forms—from a picture shared on social media to a fully fledged blog post with original photography, reviews, and more. “In my experience, paid sponsorships are by far more effective and more lucrative,” says Kristen Philipkoski, the blogger behind Stylenik and the Editor-in-Chief at Independent Fashion Bloggers, an online community of bloggers that serves as a forum, guide, and resource library.

There are as many ways to collaborate as there are URLs, and with blogging being a quickly evolving medium with a relatively short history (and therefore a pretty sparse existing set of protocols) in comparison to its magazine counterparts, anything goes, even when it comes to disclosing freebies and sponsored content. “The problem with a free, fluid, global system, is that there aren’t any rules,” the illustrator, photographer, and blogger Garance Dore says about disclosures in an open letter on her website.

Most bloggers are at least vaguely aware of the Federal Trade Commission guidelinesthat require “clear and conspicuous” notification when an item or service was provided gratis, as well as if a blog post has been sponsored (meaning the blogger was paid by a brand to post about them). Yet it’s laughably easy to set up a blog—I made a new blog, named it, changed some of the settings, and then deleted it in under 30 minutes while researching for this piece—and unsurprisingly the FTC doesn’t issue a “Welcome” pamphlet with each new domain. It’s completely up to individual bloggers to familiarize themselves with such guidelines—all 53 pages (with bonus points for understanding legal jargon).

Even with the guidelines, it can be pretty hard to figure out when, how, and where to responsibly disclose information without killing the buzz of a well-written or beautifully photographed blog post. Still, many bloggers agree that disclosing freebies and sponsorships is a must, and one that fosters a healthy, trusting relationship with readers.

“When a blogger receives product or compensation for anything, it is the blogger’s responsibility to be upfront about it.” says Amanda Light, founder of the blog Prim and Propah. “When I say ‘upfront’ I mean at the very beginning of that blog post. There are ways to make it look prettier, like an image, but at the end of the day, it’s got to be there. If a brand is on top of their game, they will insist on it.”

And in terms of FTC compliance, Light is right on. From the FTC’s website: “Putting disclosures in obscure places—for example, buried on an ABOUT US or GENERAL INFO page, behind a poorly labeled hyperlink or in a “terms of service” agreement—isn’t good enough. [Readers] should be able to notice the disclosure easily. They shouldn’t have to hunt for it.”

However, doing the right thing isn’t always glamorous. “Sponsored posts can garner negative attention from opinionated folks on the ’nets,” explains Light. “But, if you respect your readers (which you should), then it’s only fair to them to be honest about why you are writing about something.”

There’s no preordained verbiage, but again, it’s all about being clear. The FTC suggests something like “Company X gave me this product to try,” although most bloggers use phrasing that fits with their own voice.

Brands, meanwhile, often provide suggestions for phrasing. Here’s what a rep for a brand included in an email offering me a gift card (names have been redacted):

“We of course know that bloggers are obligated to disclose information when provided a gift card for a post, but would love for it to feel as organic as possible. Please mention at the end of that post that <Company X> provided a gift card rather than within the post itself. That way the focus is more on the merchandise and readers can feel like they can find the same or similar items in stores, just like you!”

Some brands would prefer that the sponsorship is not even mentioned at all. One woman, the PR manager of a well-known heritage brand who asked to remain anonymous to protect her position with the company, says that her employer pays both bloggers and celebrities to wear its clothing and post online about them, but prefers that these deals be kept under wraps, rather than disclosed.

There’s been plenty written lately about so-called “guidelines for bloggers” (Refinery29 recently published an article titled “Why Those FTC Blogger Requirements Aren’t Working”)  but the guidelines are not, in fact, specifically geared toward bloggers. The FTC states that “the FTC Act applies across the board,” whether a publication is online or in print.

However, the truth remains that there seem to be higher standards of expectation for bloggers to be forthright in their disclosures than there are for magazines.

Public opinion expects fashion bloggers to be upfront about brand sponsorship, but magazine editors and celebrities are not held to the same standards. MaxFrost/

The FTC says on its website, “If the audience understands the relationship, a disclosure isn’t needed. [On] a personal blog, a social networking page, or in similar media, the reader might not realize that the reviewer has a relationship with the company whose products are being recommended. Disclosure of that relationship helps readers decide how much weight to give the review.”

This suggests that because blogging is a newer form of media, and because the medium is changing constantly (unlike magazines, which have been famously slow to evolve), audiences don’t yet understand the blogger-brand-reader relationship, and haven’t established how to differentiate paid content on a blog versus editorial content, as they might in a magazine. However, I’m not entirely convinced that readers are aware of the blurred lines between editorial and advertising that exist in magazines.

Where a blogger might be expected to include the subtext “sponsored,” “presented by” or “courtesy of” in a post, magazine editors don’t typically specify which products in their editorials, articles and product round-ups were provided as free samples. Nor do they tend to reveal which are there because the brands paid big advertising bucks, with the exception of multi-page advertorials.

Moreover, editors simply have more leeway to be creative with integrating clothing, accessories and services from their direct advertisers into editorial content, thanks to walk-in closets of samples from advertisers, big budgets and a network of professional photographers, models, and stylists who help take the edge off of “sponsored” content. And when a famous model appears in a spread shot by a celebrity photographer in an exotic location, it’s easier to forgive the magazine for not disclosing that a purse the model holds was selected above all the others that could have been chosen as the magazine tends to give priority to advertisers.

My PR manager source agrees that product placement is a pretty standard practice in magazines as a kickback for advertising dollars. “Our contracts with magazines and sites that we advertise with doesn’t explicitly include placement in editorial content. But there is an unspoken understanding that the publication will feature product or cover our brand,” she says.

This means it’s pretty common for readers to flip past a huge, expensive ad from a brand just pages away from a strategically placed product without realizing that the outfit they are coveting in an editorial shoot is part of an advertising transaction between the brand and the magazine.

There is also virtually no expectation that celebrities who are given an item gratis should disclose it publicly, nor are they called on to be transparent about clothing they are paid to wear while pumping gas, strolling the streets or receiving an award.

“Oh don’t get me started! It’s responsible for me as a blogger to add a #spon notice when I’m paid for something, but not the Kardashians?” says The Boston Fashionista founder Kristen Uekermann.

Where a blogger might have to reveal the provenance of their outfit on a photo on Instagram, for example, a simple “#blessed” from Kris Kardashian is enough for most of her fans to understand that she was given those two Hermes birkin bags for free, simply because of what we know of our culture and of celebrity.

image by Eli DeFaria

image by Eli DeFaria

It’s widely accepted that celebs and models are paid to wear clothing on red carpets and at appearances, but on-the-record examples of such partnerships (or “ambassadorships” as celebrity stylist Jessica Pastor calls them) are the industry’s most well-guarded secret; there are very few who will admit it openly and reports of six-figure payouts are almost always “speculation” or attributed to “a source.”

In fact, while the conversation about bloggers complying with FTC guidelines grows ever louder with talk of violations, hefty fines and corruption—when it comes to celebrity sponsorships, endorsements, and gifts, the attitude remains decidedly more laissez-faire.

Another celeb stylist, Brad Goreski, told Business Insider he questions why stars being paid to wear a designer’s clothing would ever have to make this public knowledge: “Why do any of us need to know how they’re making their money? It’s not like they’re trafficking drugs, they’re being paid to wear a dress.”

It all boils down to expectations, and understanding. Bloggers have proven to be more than just a flash in the pan in the fashion industry, but they still haven’t been around for long enough for readers to be certain about exactly what they do, why they do it, and how they make money (if at all). Most people realize magazines and even celebrities are generally money making ventures, while bloggers are still viewed as “normal people you wouldn’t necessarily expect to be getting freebies,” as Philipkoski puts it. Which makes many question why they receive these gifts at all. But many bloggers would argue that they, like everyone else, need to find a way to be compensated for their work. And at the very least the same standards should apply across the board.

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