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Why the FTC Should Sue Harper's Bazaar Over Its Fashion Spreads

If the FTC sued Harper's Bazaar magazine for not disclosing that its advertisers influence its editorial features it would do readers of women's magazines -- and the fashion business in general -- a huge favor. All it would take is a set of consent decrees between the feds, Conde Nast, Hearst and their advertisers to clean up Dodge City. It would force both publishers and apparel houses to be honest with their readers again.

It won't happen, of course. But the legal framework exists to make it a possibility, and the FTC has shown interest in bashing the fashion biz before. Remember when it wrote a chilly letter to Ann Taylor for its blogger payola promotion?

The FTC will likely be curious about the Harper's list recently unveiled by Racked, a fashion blog. The list was left on the desktop of a major hotel's public lobby computer, and found by one of Racked's readers. It shows that advertisers' clothes are to be used in a 10-page "editorial" fashion shoot "in priority order." Then, below a black line, is a list of "non-advertiser" labels that may also be shot:

Here's why this could get the women's magazine business into hot water with the FTC: The list appears to be a blatant violation of the FTC's new guidelines for advertisers. Those rules state:

Advertisers are subject to liability for false or unsubstantiated statements made through endorsements, or for failing to disclose material connections between themselves and their endorsers [see § 255.5]. Endorsers also may be liable for statements made in the course of their endorsements.
A fashion editorial is clearly an endorsement, but does Harper's disclose the "material connections" between its fashion shoots and the advertisers who buy ads and provide the garments? Not online. In Harper's December shoot with Iman, the items are identified by designer and price but it doesn't say whether the Michael Kors fur scarf in shot 1 was selected because Kors is No. 2 on Harper's list of advertisers.

The FTC rules were initially thought to apply to bloggers and celebrity endorsers in commercials. But the feds are interpreting it broadly. In August they forced Reverb PR into a consent decree after its staff used their iTunes Store accounts to post positive reviews of their clients' apps. They could easily require the same level of disclosure from Harper's, or indeed any women's magazine featuring editorial fashion spreads.

Of course, readers of women's magazines know that most of the editorial is either made up or bought-and-paid for by advertisers, so it's tough to argue that consumers are "damaged" by them. Still, wouldn't it be nice if one area of the fashion world wasn't complete fiction?