#Freebie #Invite – Brush Up On The Guidelines

In 2013 the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission outlined some guidelines for bloggers, content producers and businesses when it comes to disclosure online for reviews, free samples, invites or gifts. The issue is being kicked around by some UK beer bloggers at the moment so now is probably a good time to refresh our understanding of the guidelines in Australia.

It’s a subject that gets raised reasonably frequently but looking through social media on any given day I spot a number of people in the beer world failing to disclose correctly. In fact, re-reading it leads me to believe I’ve possibly been in breach recently too. And it’s not just consumers, but businesses and employees that need to be aware of these guidelines.

Follow this link to read the full policy in PDF form. If you don’t want to wade through the document, I’ve pulled out the points I think are most relevant to the Australian beer industry below.

https://www.accc.gov.au/system/files/Online%20reviews%E2%80%94a%20guide%20for%20business%20and%20review%20platforms.pdf 

For content creators the biggest takeaway should be this on page 4:

Reviews may mislead consumers where they are presented as impartial, but were in fact written by:

Someone who has used the good or service but who writes an inflated review because they have been provided with a financial or non-financial benefit of some kind.

Where things get more interesting is what constitutes a review platform (emphasis mine):

Review platforms are sites, sections of sites or software tools (e.g. apps) which publish reviews about a range of goods, services or businesses and whose predominant audience are consumers seeking product or business information to inform a prospective purchase.  Review platforms generally publish reviews on their own site. Sometimes review platforms are engaged to collect and publish reviews on another’s site. Blogs or other sites which publish reviews as discussion threads or in another format are also used by consumers to inform purchasing decisions. The guiding principles apply equally in those circumstances.

So outside of blog or video reviews; Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit and Untappd (or any other social media) are all covered under these guidelines. That means a five star rating on Untappd for a free sample may be in breach of these guidelines (I’ll talk more about subjectivity below).

Breweries and their employees need to also be aware of the guidelines and if you have employees but haven’t discussed a social media policy then you should absolutely do so, and include these points. It’s businesses that are more likely to attract fines, be it rating their own beers under personal accounts; or throwing shade at competitors.

Reviews may mislead consumers where they are presented as impartial, but were in fact written by:

• the reviewed business

• a business competing with the reviewed business

Now a lot of this comes down to what the definition of “misleading” a consumer is in such a subjective industry. If a brewery employee gives a competitor a low rating, it may in fact be a breach. I’m sure that isn’t easy to prove but if the competitor feels like they are being wronged then they may have a case. And we’ve all seen brewery employees or brewers giving their own beers 5 star Untappd ratings. Again, likely not a breach but something to be aware of at least.

Likewise the concept of an “inflated” review for content makers. I know for a fact a lot of freebies aren’t disclosed and get excitable reviews. I’ve seen many sub-par beers get all sorts of accolades that I’m 100% sure they wouldn’t get had the person paid for the product. There is absolutely no way of proving that of course, which is why it’s probably a low risk thing to do.

If you follow closely enough of social media you will see the buzz a few well placed freebies can create. Likewise for restaurants that do blogger dinners (and that is admittedly a far murkier industry, with “dine free for a positive instagram post” being commonplace). But if you are accepting anything, then you need to be careful with how you talk about it.

On a personal level; yes, I do take free stuff. Yes, I do have professional relationships with some parts of the industry. I can reasonably say I don’t always give free stuff a glowing review and some of my harshest commentary has been as a result of free samples. However I will acknowledge it’s much harder to be critical of brands with whom you have good relationships. I’ve always taken a critical stance, and made sure to be brutally honest when it’s necessary. However it would be naive of me to think that friendly relationships with brewers and brands don’t at least subconsciously influence my own, and other’s, opinions. Which is why disclosure is so important.

So if you work in the industry, or are getting free samples in any capacity, then make sure to think about how you disclose, rate, discuss and praise. Even without these guidelines and risk of fine, it’s just good practice.

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