Oct. 7, 2009 -- Mommy bloggers beware: Reviewing products online without disclosing that they were given to you for free could result in a slap on the wrist, or even a hefty fine, by the Federal Trade Commission.
For the first time in nearly 30 years, the FTC revised its guidelines Monday regarding the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising, which could affect thousands of bloggers.
"For bloggers, this means that if they are receiving payments or products to blog about from advertisers or companies, that relationship should be disclosed in their blog," FTC spokesman Richard Cleland said.
The revised guidelines also include new regulations that require celebrities who frequently tout the success of products they use on their social media sites or during talk show appearances to disclose "their relationships with advertisers when making endorsements outside the context of traditional ads."
For mommy blogger Colleen Padilla, who launched her blog, Classymommy.com, as a way to chronicle her life as a new mom more than three years ago but quickly saw it transform into a business venture, the FTC's decision means she must be diligent about disclosing where she gets the products she reviews online.
"I plan on being even more specific about who sent me what or where I bought this," said Padilla, a Philadelphia mother of two who has used her blog as an outlet to review more than 1,000 products, everything from diapers to toys to infant-safe creams.
Padilla told ABCNews.com in April that she was nervous about the impending FTC guideline change, and worried how a revision in its policies could affect her burgeoning business.
Mommy Bloggers Need to Know the Law
Since then, she said, she has employed a lawyer to ensure that the disclosure statement on her site is adequate and now plans to seek additional legal advice in light of the FTC's announcement.
Cleland said an $11,000 fine for people who don't obey the disclosure guidelines is likely only in "extreme" circumstances. But Padilla said other mothers may not understand the new rules or may not be able to afford a lawyer.
"Some mommy bloggers are out there worrying, "$11,000 for a free yogurt, no way," Padilla said, describing mothers who aren't interested in a huge fine as a result of accepting a freebie that they later review on a blog.
But the larger burden of proof will rest on the advertisers and corporations who Cleland said should be held responsible for making sure people to whom they distribute products understand that they must disclose their relationships.
The FTC revision was born out of the revelation that the marketplace had transformed since 1980, when the old guides were put in place.
The advent of things like blogs and Web sites presented a handful of new issues for the FTC, which seeks to prevent the violation of good business practices, Cleland said.
"These types of communications that appear to be just one mom to another mom are pretty effective," Cleland said. "Consumer endorsements and testimonials have always been viewed as extremely effective types of marketing.
"But the concern is about those instances when [testimonials] are delivered and it is not made obvious that it's an advertisement for a company."
How to Protect Yourself If You're a Mommy Blogger
Sam Bayard, the assistant director at the Citizen Media Law Project, developed by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society in Cambridge, Mass., said that while liability issues in connection to product reviews and blogging is fairly new territory, there are several things bloggers can do to protect themselves.
"Generally, the advantages of [setting up as] an LLC is that it makes you part of an organization," Bayard said of limited liability companies. "If someone else you work with says something defamatory, then it's the company, not you, that is held responsible."
Using common sense may be a blogger's best defense, he said.
"You shouldn't lie about your experiences with a product," he said. "If they're hiring you in a way or paying you to write the review, you may consider asking them for some background information on the product.
"Ask the company to tell you what a fair or accurate way to describe the product is, to avoid any trouble."
Other good guidelines include transparency about your blogger-company relationship, along with refraining from publishing extravagant claims, such as saying that a product cured an ailment, Bayard said.