Ethics and disclosure rules for wine bloggers #WBC16

Like other journalists, many wine bloggers rely on product samples or invitations to events to get what they need for their writing. The ways bloggers disclose these relationships are as varied as the wine blogs on which they appear. Here is a quick guide to the rules that bloggers should follow, especially to stay within bounds of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations.

In guidelines first published in 2013 and reiterated in 2016, the FTC makes clear that there is no ambiguity: FTC rules apply to bloggers. It doesn’t matter whether anyone reads your blog. It doesn’t matter whether you get paid to blog. It doesn’t matter if it is merely a hobby.

If you are a blogger, you must disclose every time you write about a product or service and you receive compensation or something of value from the provider of that product or service. This includes free product samples, meals, or any other item of value that is not generally available to all consumers. 

If a winery pours free tastes to all visitors, you do not have to disclose that you had free tastes. However, if the winery sent you a free bottle because you are a blogger, you must disclose.

Where many people get mixed up is social media. The FTC does not distinguish between social media or a printed magazine or any other media. This even includes within a 140-character tweet. But it’s not that difficult. The FTC website has a thorough guide that shows how to do this with as few as three characters. Google also has a simple guide for online reviews.

In its most recent update, the FTC has reiterated earlier guidance that disclosures cannot just be a separate page on your website or buried at the bottom of the page. “It does not convey the importance, nature, and relevance of the information to which it leads,” says the federal agency. But simply putting “AD” in a tweet may be enough.

“You have to disclose that you were paid or got a free sample before you mention the product,” says Jana Seitzer aka Merlot Mommy. The disclosure has to be “clear and conspicuous,” according to the FTC guidance on native advertising, which applies to many kinds of blog posts, including reviews.

Here are five things wine bloggers should do:

  1. Disclose that a review is based on a free sample from a winery at or near the top of your review. Some bloggers put a short note above each post. Others include this detail within the text. Either is ok, provided that a reader sees it before the product mention.
  2. If you link to a web page where consumers can buy a product you wrote about based on a free sample, the disclosure must appear before the link. This applies even if you do not get a share of the sale. However, no disclosure is needed if you are mentioning a product or service just as a convenience to your readers and you have no relationship with the seller of that product or service.
  3. On Twitter, Instagram, or other platforms that limit characters, tags like “Paid Ad” or “Ad” are sufficient disclosures. “Affiliate” or “affiliate link” is not, because not every consumer will understand what that means. Sending a separate tweet with a disclosure does not satisfy the requirements.
  4. The disclosure rules apply to all platforms, including audio and video.
  5. Any links related to paid or otherwise compensated content must use the “nofollow” tag. This should be used anytime a link is included because you received a sample or compensation. “nofollow” tag.

Here is how I handled a wine tasting for which I received a free (expensive) bottle of (very good) wine and a set of wine glasses:

The “Ad” tag before the hashtag that the sponsor asked me to use followed the FTC guidelines. However, the recent update suggests that the tag now should precede the product mention. If I were to do this now, the tweet would look more like:

Tasting notes: High tannings, med acidity, blackberry & leather in (#Ad) @minerwines 2011 The Oracle. This #wine needs time. #TheOracleHasSpoken

I also did a tweet at the beginning of the series that disclosed exactly what the winery provided. Note that the disclosure tweet does not satisfy the FTC guidelines. The “ad” tag or another explicit disclosure within each tweet that mentions the product is mandatory.

For more about “nofollow” tags, refer to Google’s Search Console or WordPress. There are many blog plugins to simplify this, but it’s really just a matter of adding rel=”nofollow” to your hyperlinks, like this:

<a href=”” rel=”nofollow”>Doug Levy’s blog</a>

(Bonus: Google’s Louis Gray and artist Jeannine Schafer created a handy set of disclosure icons.)

Disclaimer: Although I am an attorney licensed to practice law in Maryland, this blog post is for information purposes only and not intended as legal advice. Consult your own attorney for advice specific to you.