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I received two toys from a popular parenting question and answer site with no obligations, only the suggestion other than to ask any relevant and appropriate questions about the toy with the name of the toy in the question title.

I could probably come up with suitably high-quality questions for almost any toy, but not all such questions would benefit from a mention of the specific product name.

This question is driven by ethical considerations, but it also has legal aspects. In the US, the Federal Trade Comission (FTC) requires disclosure when endorsing a product Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising when free merchandise or other compensation has been provided to the author. (See NYTimes article regarding the law and online media)

I do not have the legal expertise to parse the law, and it is more the integrity of myself and this site that I would like to protect. I was a little surprised that, unlike SE site promotions, there has been no discussion in Meta about this particular product promotion.

What type of disclosure, if any, would be appropriate for such questions?

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TL;DR Version: No disclosure should be necessary because Stack Exchange is not the manufacturer of these items, nor are we inherently an advertising platform.


For those curious, the promotion was a late-term idea that CHAOS had. Since we had two weeks or less until the American holiday season, I decided to choose the top ~20 users here who had

  • been active in the last two weeks from the date I looked, and
  • were located in the United States and Canada

The former was to ensure that we had active participation, and the latter to ensure that delivery would/could occur prior to the holiday itself.

The email itself read as follows:

Hello, top Parenting.SE users!

The holidays have arrived, and that means it's time for gifts, specifically 2011's hottest toys. These are the toys that parents everywhere will be asking about in the coming weeks.

We are going to give them to you.

We hope that you will ask questions about them, but not just any questions. We're hoping you might provide gift buyers (read: people searching on Google) with the most intelligent, analytical and helpful perspectives on a subject that usually receives little more commentary than a one-word response on a forum. We can't think of a community better suited to this task.

So here's what we're giving away:

  • Let's Rock Elmo (age 18 mo. - 3 years)
  • I Am T-Pain Auto Tune Mic (7 years - 14 years)
  • Lego Alien Conquest (8 years and up)
  • Lego Ninjago (6 - 12 years)
  • LeapPad Explorer learning Tablet (4 years - 9 years)
  • Angry Birds Knock on Wood Game (5 years and up)
  • Poppin' Park Elefun Busy Ball Poppers (9 mo - 3 years)
  • Razor Bogo (8 to 10 years)
  • Fijit Friends Interactive Toy (6 - 9 years)
  • My Keepon (6 - 11 years)

Pick one (or two, if you're super motivated!), and we'll ship the item to you in the next week or so. Unwrap it as soon as it arrives and give it a test play with your child. If any questions come to mind that you think are suitable for the site, ask them! We only request that you include the toy name in the question title.

While it would be great if you asked some questions about these toys, we don’t expect you to ask anything that doesn't live up to the standards of our awesome Parenting site. Quality is our focus here!

And don't worry, we're not about to become a toy site. This is a one-time holiday campaign in honor of Parenting.SE’s first holiday season.

Please send us your request(s) and your shipping addresses, and then give the world a perspective on the hottest toys that they can't (and won't!) find anywhere else. =)

--

All the best,

Aarthi Devanathan

Director of Community Partnerships: Parenting.SE

The idea was to do a one-time giveaway to the Parenting users because this was Parenting.SE's first holiday season. I felt parents would respond positively to the idea of celebrating a "first" of the community, and because the holiday season is as good a time as any to be doing a giveaway. I had been discreet about the process because I couldn't offer it to the community at large and accomplish our goal of getting things out by the holiday season. I do intend to offer Cool Things to the users who were ineligible for this giveaway, but I hadn't decided on when or what just yet. The list above was culled from the "hot toys of 2011" lists that the major media outlets had been releasing in early December.

Now, to address the heart of your actual question, should there be a disclosure. I'm reading through the FTC document when this stood out at me:

When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed.

Stack Exchange is not affiliated with any of the retailers or producers of these toys. That is likely completely without debate. Given that the motivation for this giveaway was user-focused (with a timing aspect) I believe no disclosure is necessary given the FTC's rules. Furthermore, the document's language is entirely about advertising, which our questions are not.

Basically: we have questions that discuss specific types of strollers, specific fitness equipment, specific games, specific social media sites, and so forth. I don't feel questions about specific toys are materially different. Yes, Stack Exchange provided the toys to our users -- but we aren't asking for a product review, nor are we Mattel/Hasbro/Milton-Bradley/etc.

Furthermore:

The manufacturer should advise him at the time it provides the gaming system that this connection should be disclosed, and it should have procedures in place to try to monitor his postings for compliance.

The onus is on the manufacturer, not the content creator, to make sure that disclosures are made clear.

We do, however, abide by this rule network-wide:

An online message board designated for discussions of new music download technology is frequented by MP3 player enthusiasts. They exchange information about new products, utilities, and the functionality of numerous playback devices. Unbeknownst to the message board community, an employee of a leading playback device manufacturer has been posting messages on the discussion board promoting the manufacturer’s product. Knowledge of this poster’s employment likely would affect the weight or credibility of her endorsement. Therefore, the poster should clearly and conspicuously disclose her relationship to the manufacturer to members and readers of the message board.

The above is why we require, for example, those who work with Trello to disclose their affiliations and identities. (This is true network-wide.)

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  • I hope this answers your question -- if not, let me know what I've missed and I'll do my best to address your concerns! :)
    – Aarthi
    Jan 2 '12 at 19:56
  • 1
    Thanks for the explanation and clarification, that all makes sense to me. Jan 2 '12 at 22:29
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I am not familiar with this promotion that you are referring to. But when you're not actually reviewing or praising the product but just asking smart, useful questions that the product generated, and as long as you're not getting any (future) benefit from this, I don't see why a disclosure would be necessary.

It would be necessary, in my opinion, if you were providing affiliate links or getting other kickbacks. If I were obviously going to get more free products because you asked these questions, then I'd disclose the origin.

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The guidelines specifically refer to divulging material connections between the endorser and the seller, if a seller provides the endorser free products.

If the products are provided from a company that does not sell the products, or generate any revenue from advertising those products, and you are not asked to review or rate the products, then it does not seem like it would qualify as an endorsement or testimonial covered by the FTC's guidelines.

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  • I edited my answer to address your revised question.
    – user420
    Jan 2 '12 at 13:42

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