Open Disclosure in Athlete Product Reviews – Astroturf is Not Okay

As part of the Wattie Ink Elite Team, I wrote a lot reviews this years about some of the great gear I use as part of the Team and in cooperation with our sponsors. I also tweeted about racing, training, and man other things sport and triathlon, often mentioning sponsors.

The latest Blade Light Run 2, compliments of our sponsor K-Swiss, in a very highly visible yellow. The photo was posted to Twitter.

This is, of course, all a part of supporting your sponsors (who in turn support you) and exactly the kind of thing you are supposed to do as a sponsored athlete or even as a member of a running, cycling, or triathlon club.

What few athletes realize is that the Federal Trade Commission actually has regulations and guidelines, with plenty of examples, about this kind of activity. It also has a useful FAQ guide. Phony product reviews became a much more publicized issue this year. The practice is known as “astroturfing,” because it is intended to make a product or service advertisement look like it is coming from a grassroots participant. Companies have gone so far as to hire marketing companies to write fraudulent online product reviews. The New York Attorney General has started pursuing legal action against companies based in New York and Yelp started filing lawsuits against companies posting fraudulent product reviews to its website. Even National Public Radio ran a segment recently about product reviews on Amazon.com by people who get the products for free from Amazon. 

The FTC’s primary concern is ensuring endorsements and testimonials are truthful and not misleading. An “endorsement” is any advertising message that a consumer would likely believe reflects the opinions and beliefs of a person other than the sponsoring advertiser (who, for example, might be a bike, shoe, or nutrition company), even if the views expressed are identical. An advertising message does not have to be on TV. It can be verbal statements, print, a signature, or likeness. However, an endorsement only occurs when some kind of representation is being made. A photograph of yourself riding a bike you got through a pro deal is not, on its own, an endorsement, but if you Tweet the photo or post it to Facebook with a statement about how fast the bike is, you are endorsing the bike.

The FTC treats endorsements and testimonials the same way. In regulating truth in advertising, the FTC focuses on three elements –

  • Endorsements must be truthful and cannot be misleading. How often have we heard the bike ridden by the world time trial champion described as the “world’s fastest bike?” The bike is “fast,” because the person who won happened to be riding it, but the implication of the endorsement is that the bike itself has a quality that makes it the world’s fastest.
  • If the advertiser lacks have proof that the endorser’s experience represents what consumers will achieve by using the product, the ad must clearly and conspicuously disclose the generally expected results in the depicted circumstances. After all, not everyone takes 15 minutes out of their Ironman bike split just by switching to another bike.
  • If there is a material connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed. A material connection can include getting paid to use and/or promote the product, getting the product at a discount through a “pro deal” or ambassador program, or getting the product for free, all with the expectation that the endorser will express positive views and opinions of the product. There is no material connection if you have no association with the endorser and you buy it yourself, use a generally available coupon, win the product in a contest, or get the product for free through a loyalty program. However, a disclosure is only necessary if a material connection would not be reasonably expected by the audience. For endurance athletes, saying you are an ambassador or sponsored by the endorser should be sufficient for the audience to understand that you have a material connection with the endorser and what that connection likely entails.

It better reflects on you, as an athlete, blogger, and brand ambassador, if you present your blogs and reviews in an honest and open way. With this in mind, as you blog, Tweet, and update your Facebook status to your heart’s content, but keep in mind the following –

  • Don’t say anything that is not true.
  • Avoid making performance claims you can’t prove. Instead, attribute the claims to your sponsor or to someone who has actually performed testing.
  • Only say you have used something if you have in fact used it.
  • List your sponsors on your website. Make them visible and obvious.
  • If you mention a sponsor’s product in a race report, product review, or blog, mention your relationship with that sponsor, even if you have a sponsor page or sponsors listed in your sidebar. You don’t need to go into great detail. If you say you are a brand ambassador or sponsored by the company, your audience should understand the relationship.
  •  If you are using Twitter, include a hashtag like #ad, #spon, or #sponsored.
  • Don’t worry about special legalistic language. Just say you are sponsored or that the company sent you the product to try.
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