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04.19.2010

Rodney Strong and the Utter Stupidity of the FTC

I'm in a pissy mood. At first I thought it was because I ordered a Pinot Noir tonight at a restaurant that wasn't as nuanced as I had hoped. But the more I leveled with myself, the more I realized it was really because I got the following e-mail today that I've been gnashing my teeth over, so to speak, for a number of hours:

Dear Alder,

In accordance with the Federal Trade Commission, below is Rodney Strong's digital influencer agreement. To receive future releases of Rodney Strong Wine Estates wines for possible review, please review and reply YES to this email. To decline, reply NO, but understand I will no longer send you wines.

Please do not alter the subject line. Please know that I am sending this to all my media contacts, whether you blog or not. Everything seemingly gets online one way or another.

RODNEY STRONG WINE ESTATES
DIGITAL INFLUENCER ENGAGEMENT & CODE OF CONDUCT AGREEMENT

Rodney Strong Wine Estates is committed to compliance with laws and regulations that govern the prevention of unfair, deceptive or misleading marketing practices between brands, bloggers and other digital influencers.

Our goal with these guidelines is to continue to work in a transparent manner with influencers like you who share our core values. This 'Digital Influencer Engagement & Code of Conduct Agreement' document merely codifies our current best practices.

Please know that we greatly appreciate your voluntary participation with us and we do not require any influencer to blog or discuss Rodney Strong Wine Estates, its labels, products, initiatives or events related to the company regardless of any material compensation.

Because we believe true advocacy can never be purchased, we do not pay for editorial placement. However, we do provide free product, host regional meetings and sponsor Sonoma County wine education trips for qualifying journalists, bloggers and other digital influencers.

In order to remain compliant with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) blogger guidelines, Rodney Strong Wine Estates respectfully requests that you adhere to the below listed disclosures and best practices.

Standards of Conduct in Working with Rodney Strong Wine Estates:
* We ask that you disclose in each post if you received free product, a trip, or any other material compensation received from Rodney Strong Wine Estates.
* We have always stressed honesty in reviews and ask that you give your true opinion of our wine. We will not tell you what to write, we encourage you to state your personal findings, beliefs and experiences.
* Any blogger who receives any material compensation from Rodney Strong Wine Estates shall comply with the Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising published by the Federal Trade Commission.

Tips on compliance:
* Disclose in each post.
* Create a disclosure policy that is visible and easy to read on your website, blog or Twitter account.
* Include brand affiliation and /or your likelihood that you will receive compensation in the future in your bio.

We want to have a long, mutually beneficial relationship with you and would be happy to answer any questions you may have about the FTC disclosure guidelines.

If you are in agreement with the above guidelines, please reply YES to this email.

Robert Larsen
Public Relations Director
Rodney Strong Wine Estates

This well written letter is, of course, in response to the recent FTC ruling that so many of us in the wine blogosphere wrote about a few months ago. In case you missed it, the FTC stated that it would henceforth be able to fine and prosecute both the bloggers who fail to disclose when they are writing about a product that they received for free, as well as the company that provided the product.

Of course the thing that galled so many about this ruling is that it specifically exempted print journalism, in a truly mind-numbing double standard of gargantuan proportions.

It's no wonder then, that Rodney Strong, perhaps one of the more frequent shippers of wine samples to bloggers, feels the need to offer this bit of (quite well done) ass-covering digital contractualism. If I were them, I'd do it too.

The requests that they make of bloggers are quite reasonable given the FTC ruling, and for most serious wine bloggers, something they've been doing already.

It pisses me off to no end, however, that they aren't forced to do the same with the print journalists of the world, who in turn, have no obligation to meet any such standards of conduct.

Not that it's their fault, but it also pisses me off to be talked to this way by a winery, as if thanks to the FTC we now need to have some sort of contractual relationship, when that is the last thing I want to have with any winery. Despite the very appropriate language about how the winery does not expect anything but honesty, and never requires anyone to write anything even if they do receive a sample, they damn well are requiring what amounts to a verbal contract with various terms and conditions.

I'll be interested to see whether this becomes a common thing, or whether it is merely the overly cautious action of a large company that suffered some unanticipated public controversy in the past for a sample campaign to wine bloggers.

But until I start getting letters like this from everyone that wants to send me a wine sample, I've decided it feels far too... yucky. Which shouldn't be a reflection on the winery, just a reflection of the overall situation caused by our friends in the government. So for now, that's a big NO, from me, Mr. Larsen. I'm sorry you felt compelled to write it, but you did a good job considering the utter inanity that prompted it.

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