Of free lunches, free phones, junkets, waterparks and the FTC

June 5, 2014

This morning my social media streams blew up with mentions of Great Wolf Lodge New England. The facility is – from what I gather based on the multiple updates – a water park and recreation area for families. The tweets and status updates from folks were the first I heard of the park and I started looking at the #GWLNewEngland hashtag to find out what was going on.

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 2.05.26 PM

To the casual reader, it looked as if the Lodge was doing a great job attracting people to the park. For some reason, dozens of people I follow had decided to visit the recreation facility on the same day – a rainy day – in early June. I’m not sure I’d head to a water park on a rainy day, but these people must have known something I didn’t.

Turns out Great Wolf Lodge New England was having a grand opening today and they had compensated a bunch of ‘influential’ bloggers and social-media-aware people to visit the facility and talk about the event.

In itself, the whole effort to draw people to their location and tweet about it wasn’t evil. Nor was it a particularly bad plan as a large audience got to see the myriad updates and hashtag flowing across the Web. What was inadvisable – or maybe a mistake – was not requiring and requesting that the attendees to their water park junket disclose that they had been invited and compensated to take part in publicizing the grand opening.

Am I annoyed? Slightly. But not because I wasn’t invited. I’m annoyed because as a journalist I try to bend over backward to keep perception in line with reality. If I’m invited to a restaurant for dinner, I tell readers and followers repeatedly that the food and event was a promoted situation and that I was provided access so I could write a story.

In fact, when I’m just acting as a social-media influencer I also try to be overt in my mentions of sponsorship, payment and my involvement in different commercial promotions. A prime example would be the Nokia #TeamLumia event in which I played a bit part this past May. During that three-day event, I was provided a Lumia 1520 phone and treated to a series of content-friendly experiences. I took photos, shared updates and visuals and generally took my followers on a journey of discovery made possible by Nokia.

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 2.10.19 PM

I also disclosed this each day and many times during the day so that readers, viewers and followers would know the true situation. I have yet to see anyone disclose their connection to Great Wolf Lodge and I wonder why.

In a fantastic article on Social Media Explorer, Stephanie Schwab explains the new requirements that content creators have to adhere to when accepting renumeration or material products or services from commercial entities. Schwab includes the following in her piece.

She first explains that the newest set of disclosures have been put in place to “assist readers and viewers in determining whether a blogger or endorser has a material connection to the brand about which they’ve produced content.”

She then follows up with a great explanation on how much disclosure is necessary.

“Importantly, the FTC has also made it clear that all disclosures must be in “Understandable Language” – which means that using a hashtag #spon or #spons may not be readily understandable to all viewers. The FTC suggests using “#Ad” “Ad:” or “Sponsored” in tweets to be ultra-clear that a tweet or link within a tweet includes compensated content.”

And then adds that it’s a situation that should begin now (date of the piece was April 24, 2013)

“Starting now, bloggers should be labeling all tweets, Facebook updates, and sponsored Pinterest pins or Instagram photos, as well as videos and Vines, with the appropriate clear-language disclosure designation: at the minimum, Ad or Sponsored.”

In my eyes, Great Wolf Lodge didn’t require their team to do this or I’ve completely missed it. If the playing field is supposed to be level for anyone accepting material gain for sharing their ‘opinion’ and experiences as they relate to a product or service, then we should all play by the same rules. Again, as a journalist I adhere to higher standard, but if nobody says anything about their freebie trip to Great Wolf Lodge, then how can we believe that it was the best rainy grand opening ever?

Your thoughts?