Food bloggers that take compensation (in any form) for promoting content are legally obligated to disclose it. This can include:
- free products
- free trials or subscriptions
- quid pro quo arrangements
- having trips or expenses paid for
- publicity, backlinks, exposure
There is no exhaustive list of what "compensation" counts as, and if there was, someone would find an edge case or some obtuse way to skirt it.
- Where to disclose
- Feast Plugin Disclosures
- Don't be Afraid to Disclose
- Our advice is to embrace it
- Content and Substance
- It's Not Noticeable
- Include Pros and Cons
- Your Honest Opinion
- Penalties for Non-Disclosure
- Disclosure Requirements for Search Engines
- Additional Reading
- Dealing with brands
- Disclosure about this Post
If you write about how much you like something you bought on your own and you’re not being rewarded, you don’t have to worry. However, if you’re doing it as part of a sponsored campaign or you’re being compensated – for example, getting a discount on a future purchase or being entered into a sweepstakes for a significant prize– then a disclosure is appropriate.FTC Endorsements Applicability
Of course, if you don’t have any relationship with the advertiser, then your posts simply are not subject to the FTC Act, no matter what you show or say about the product. The FTC Act covers only endorsements made on behalf of a sponsoring advertiser.FTC Endorsements Applicability
This means that government agencies and companies give themselves leeway to interpret "compensation" more loosely, and revise it in the future to suit their purposes, often applying it retro-actively.
Your disclosure must be noticeable: Your disclosure cannot be styled to be less noticeable than your regular content; this includes using tiny fonts, pale font colors and so on. Your disclosure must be clearly noticeable to your audience.
If you're purposely trying to make it less noticeable, you’re not compliant with FTC guidelines — even if all other aspects of your disclosure conform to the rules.https://marketingland.com/ftc-disclosure-guidelines-affiliates-merchants-need-know-184719
Where to disclose
Where in my blog should I disclose that my review is sponsored by a marketer? I've seen some say it at the top and others at the bottom. Does it matter?
Yes, it matters. A disclosure should be placed where it easily catches consumers’ attention and is difficult to miss.
Consumers may miss a disclosure at the bottom of a blog or the bottom of a page. A disclosure [at the very top of the page, outside of the blog], might also be overlooked by consumers.
A disclosure is more likely to be seen if it’s very close to, or part of, the endorsement to which it relates.FTC Endorsement Guidelines
Feast Plugin Disclosures
The Feast Plugin makes managing these disclosure requirements simpler.
Your exact requirements may vary by region.
Don't be Afraid to Disclose
Many bloggers are concerned about appearing inauthentic or hurting their brand reputation by disclosing paid content.
People or companies that say you can "get away with it" are either working on outdated information, or not big enough to have to take it seriously. You don't want to take advice from these people, unless those people are the ones you want to emulate.
You're legally required to disclose compensation, which leaves no room for debate over whether you should or shouldn't. Having anxiety or being concerned about how it looks is wasted time and energy. Instead, embrace it.
Our advice is to embrace it
Having companies value your work so much that they're willing to pay for it is a signal that you're putting out quality content. This is a positive association, and one you should be flaunting with testimonials, not trying to hide.
According to an article from The Atlantic, some "influencers" have gone so far as to fake sponsored content and ad income as a form of "social proof".
Content and Substance
Just because you were paid by BigBrand (TM) mac and cheese, doesn't mean your readers are really going to be influenced by it. With few exceptions, products from different brands are interchangeable, and if I have OtherBigBrand (TM) mac and cheese in my cupboard already, I'll be using that instead.
Of course, part of the sponsored post should include why BigBrand (TM) mac and cheese is superior - how their ingredients and flavour balance and company ethics make them the best choice for this recipe. This helps to inform and educate the reader about the distinctions between products, and is a great way to add content.
To me as a reader, I still get the value of the recipe I came looking for.
It's Not Noticeable
The truth is that consumers are so overwhelmed with ridiculous disclosures and warnings that in most cases, they're blind to it. You read articles and posts daily, and while looking for specific information on topics, completely disregard non-pertinent information.
This isn't much different from California's Proposition 65, which basically tells everyone that everything causes cancer, including breathing air. Similarly, cookie notices tells everyone they're being tracked, and disclosure notices tells everyone you may have a biased opinion. The sheer quantity and frequency of these disclosures effectively make them... ineffective.
Whether people are selling you food products, or their political ideology, everything you read should be thought of as one point of view on a complex topic. Even seemingly unbiased articles contain subconscious biases - your opinion about your employer are impacted by the fact that they pay you. Your opinion about the city you live in is biased by the fact you want it to thrive, so that you can too.
At some point in the future, society may be wise enough to realize that everything you read comes from a person or organization with an agenda and we won't require these useless "notices", but that's not the situation today.
Disclose your compensation.
Include Pros and Cons
Conversely, have the humility to realize that just because you don't like something, somebody else still might. Taste preferences vary widely between people depending on their culture and biology.
If I visit a Caribbean restaurant and find the jerk chicken way too spicy, I might disclose that, but also tell people who love spicy things that they'd love it.
Similarly, somebody stating that they find an unflavoured greek-yogurt-based ice cream to be too bland because there's no sugar added, may indicate to me that I might like it.
Certain mega-online-retailers have come under fire recently for blatantly falsified reviews, with thousands of fake 5-star reviews for products. Real reviews contain pros and cons.
Your Honest Opinion
Regardless of whether you've been paid for something, you should have a personal policy to never put up opinions that aren't your own. This is a great way to reclaim the authenticity of sponsored posts.
This can sometimes mean returning or refunding money to partners or sponsors, if a disagreement or tensions arise out of an honestly negative review. You're under no obligation to post, and sometimes it makes sense to cut your losses and go your separate ways. Simply accept that once in a while, things don't go smoothly.
Note: I'm not a lawyer. You may be under legal obligation to perform certain actions depending on the contract you sign. Always consult a legal professional.
Penalties for Non-Disclosure
What happens if you don't disclose? The severity can range from relatively innocuous to severe, depending on who you're dealing with. You could:
- lose visitors trust
- tarnish your personal and brand reputation for future work
- have your ad account disabled
- become shadow-banned (become invisible to networks and platforms, without being told)
- become outright banned from ad networks
- have your related accounts closed (eg. Google)
- this can be especially interruptive, taking months to recover from (if ever)
- get fined by government agencies
- have to waste time reviewing and revising past content for re-consideration
- in severe cases where you've angered a regulator, possibly see jail time for fraud
The really scary situations are the ones where you don't know you've been impacted (an article calling you out, shadow-banning), and are forever working against an impediment you don't know is there.
If you're earning money from your blog, just disclose it.
Disclosure Requirements for Search Engines
Here are the guidelines for disclosing paid/sponsored content from Google:
- Use the nofollow tag where appropriate. Links that pass PageRank in exchange for goods or services are against Google guidelines on link schemes. Companies sometimes urge bloggers to link back to:
- the company’s site
- the company’s social media accounts
- an online merchant’s page that sells the product
- a review service’s page featuring reviews of the product
- the company’s mobile app on an app store
Bloggers should use the nofollow tag on all such links because these links didn’t come about organically (i.e., the links wouldn’t exist if the company hadn’t offered to provide a free good or service in exchange for a link). Companies, or the marketing firms they’re working with, can do their part by reminding bloggers to use nofollow on these links.
- Disclose the relationship. Users want to know when they’re viewing sponsored content. Also, there are laws in some countries that make disclosure of sponsorship mandatory. A disclosure can appear anywhere in the post; however, the most useful placement is at the top in case users don’t read the entire post.
- Create compelling, unique content. The most successful blogs offer their visitors a compelling reason to come back. If you're a blogger you might try to become the go-to source of information in your topic area, cover a useful niche that few others are looking at, or provide exclusive content that only you can create due to your unique expertise or resources.
Even if you aren't physically located in a specific region, you may be subject to laws and regulations in that region if your visitors come from that region.
- Influencer Marketing Disclosure Guidelines from the Canadian Industry Ad Standards
- Advertising Best Practices from the Australian Association of National Advertisers
- Influencer Guidelines from the UK Advertising Standards Authority
The FTC clarified their guidelines in 2023, specifically targeting influencers and online media companies (including food bloggers).
Dealing with brands
Check out this video from Jamie at Hashtag legal from the Mediavine Conference on understanding your contractual obligations for sponsored content.
Disclosure about this Post
This post is a prime example of hidden biases, and is simply my (researched and informed) interpretation of the topic. While intended to inform, it was written as a promotion for the "Disclosures" module in the Feast Plugin we recently launched. Money being involved shouldn't have any impact on your posts can't containing useful and educational content.