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Why the ASA should leave bloggers alone

Jon Silk, head of digital at Bite, argues that legislation on blogging is both unnecessary and unfair

This month the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) felt it was important to remind bloggers who are paid to write positive reviews of products to make clear that they’re doing it for the money. Apparently an evil PR agency or two were not only paying bloggers to write glowing posts, they were actively encouraging them to keep the money secret.

I’m sure there are bloggers on your influencer list if you’re running any kind of marketing campaign, in whatever industry. You can find blogs on anything from My Little Pony to enterprise resource planning, and the good ones wield a lot of power with your audience of potential buyers.

Under the Advertising Code ‘chequebook blogging’ is a clear violation of Section 2:

2.3: Marketing communications must not falsely claim or imply that the marketer is acting as a consumer or for purposes outside its trade, business, craft or profession; marketing communications must make clear their commercial intent, if that is not obvious from the context.

2.4: Marketers and publishers must make clear that advertorials are marketing communications; for example, by heading them ‘advertisement feature’.

Now, here’s my problem. Bloggers are normal people, who write about stuff for free. Journalists are normal people, who write about stuff for money. When journalists write about products they have been given, and are taken out for a nice lunch, they aren’t forced to disclose it. We assume that the journalist is being objective because they write for a recognised publication, and that they will adhere to the NUJ’s code of ethics because they’re nice, ethical people. Some journalists, I imagine, might not be.

Bloggers, however, are being forced to disclose everything because of a few dodgy ones who take money to write positive reviews. If you look at the gigantic amount of blogs out there, there are bound to be some crooks writing them. The number of decent, trusted blogs with large audiences is negligible in comparison. Why should we legislate for the crooks, when the top bloggers are as ethical as the journalists, if not more?

As blogger relations becomes more commonplace, decent bloggers are being forced to disclose every last interaction had with the company they’re writing about. They disclose that products were provided for free. They refuse to accept travel or subsistence for press trips. They plaster their blogs and social media platforms with disclaimers. Newspapers don’t have to do this.

If we’re really going to take blogging seriously, we need to let it evolve without being stifled. Everyone can spot a ‘puff piece’ of journalism, and we’ve all learnt not to trust some of the newspapers (because we’re not stupid). Over time, the decent publications stick around, while the others find their own niche.

The ASA makes a good point in its statement on the issue:  ‘bloggers can hold great sway and influence amongst their followers. It’s important, therefore, that they treat their followers fairly.'

I completely agree. So let’s encourage the good ones to join the NUJ, and understand the importance of journalism ethics. And let’s start speaking about the business of writing stuff for money as an equal playing field, rather than singling out bloggers as a dodgy subsection of the (already dodgy) internet.

All that is doing is showing how backward marketing and its watchdogs are when it comes to understanding the way the world works.