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An expert on puffery weighs in on social media authenticity

Bali Hai Golf Club, Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of via Flickr

Bali Hai Golf Club, Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of via Flickr

Some years back, the PGA Championship had an understated motto: “These guys are good.” Modest and statistically verifiable, it embodies what Ivan Preston has been encouraging in advertising for years: authenticity and the omission of puffery. It’s a message with renewed importance for communications professionals in the era of social technologies, where communities expect us to spare them the superlatives about how great our offerings are. Preston, a professor emeritus of advertising at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has dedicated his life to the study of puffery in promotional messaging. In short, he thinks it doesn’t work very well and in advertising (though rarely in public relations) sometimes falls afoul of the law.

Photo courtesy of rwkvisual via Flickr

Photo courtesy of rwkvisual via Flickr

When something’s a fact, it’s by definition not puffery from a legal standpoint, Preston explains. So if you claim to have the world’s largest rubber band ball and someone comes along with a bigger one, they can successfully challenge in court that your claim amounts to false advertising. A judge can force you to stop calling your rubber band ball “the biggest” and award monetary damages in some cases. So while comparing rubber band balls in court is straightforward (and entertaining!), courts can also rule on more qualitative questions, such as whether ingredients are really “better” in one pizza chain than another. Actually, the more general your claims, the more legal protection you get; in ads, you’re better off claiming the whole restaurant is better than merely saying it has better ingredients; more variables make the statement broader and more difficult to disprove.  However these federal guidelines don’t apply to story placements in news media.

“We revere competition but there is this side effect that you’re selling not a product but a company’s version of a product,” Preston says. “Don’t look like you’re trying so hard.”

New guidelines about sponsored commentary on blogs were finalized by the Federal Trade Commission this past week, which are separate from the FTC guidelines governing advertising. In short, bloggers who receive cash or free products in exchange for reviews will be required to disclose the compensation. PR professionals who send out products for review should take care to make clear whether the products should be returned and encourage disclosure of any freebies.

Legal issues aside, Preston asks, who is ever inclined to believe someone who claims to be the very best at anything? It’s far more convincing when it comes from someone else. So where on the social Web could people be making those claims about your organization?

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