PhotoSomeone unfortunate enough to become President once said that if you want a friend in Washington, you should get a dog.  It was good advice then and may be even better today, when the D.C. definition of friendship seems to have spread virally across the cybersphere.

Not too long ago, a friend was someone who offered not just occasional facetime and frequent tweets but was also someone you could count on to stand by you in good times and bad -- you know, somebody who would offer sympathy, support and honest advice.

But increasingly, a friend is just a "friend," meaning someone who has managed to hook up with you on Facebook Twitter, Google+ and so forth.

In fact, there are now people who spend quite a bit of time amassing huge lists of "friends" for reasons that aren't quite clear, although it seems that we're coming to regard "friends" as something akin to airline miles or bonus points on a credit card.  

In other words, they're not worth much now but maybe we'll find a use for them one of these days.

A friend indeed

Sensing which way the wind is blowing, two young lads, Ryan and Andrew Landau, have left their presumably cushy posts at Google and IBM to launch something called PowerVoice, their P.R. person told us recently.

Believe it or not, PowerVoice promises to "automate the ability to measure the influence of a particular individual."  This should at the very least come in handy when deciding who gets an organ transplant or who gets to board the airplane first.

Better yet, if you believe in selling out your friends, PowerVoice promises to enable you to do just that. Here's how the company describes its noble mission:

"PowerVoice negotiates a marketing agreement with companies and their brands. PowerVoice then provides a paying customer (or sale) to the brand for a fee. Lastly, PowerVoice takes part of that fee and passes it along to the original consumer that acted as a conduit for the transaction to occur."

In other words, you'll be able to tell your friends how great that new super-whitening toothpaste is, how much you loved the taste, how white it made your teeth, etc., etc., and get paid for it, even if you keep your teeth in a drawer at night.

Everyman's payola

The possibilities are pretty much endless, as the Messrs. Landau presumably see it.  Why stop with "friends," after all? Maybe they'll sign up members of the clergy, who can use their time in the pulpit to make some real money instead of just storing up pennies in heaven. Will parishoners be told to "go forth and buy a Ford?"

Or maybe psychiatrists will recommend specific vacation spots, airlines and car rental companies to their depressed patients.  Car pool partners will have a daily opportunity to importune their carmates about the latest and greatest Starbucks flavor, now on sale in the office building lobby.

It is, in other words, payola for the masses.  Now everyone can be a lobbyist. Why should Jack Abramoff make all the money?  Oh well, sure, he's in prison now, but he did pretty well back in the day, all by talking to his "friends."

And speaking of prison, there is one little problem with being paid to endorse products without disclosing that fact: It's illegal.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has for years enforced prohibitions against deceptive and undisclosed endorsements.  Simply put, says FTC attorney Lesley Fair, "Any material connection between the seller and endorser that prospective buyers wouldn’t normally expect must be disclosed."

In other words, if your friends think of you as, well, a friend and not just a "friend," they're not likely to think you're being paid to tell them what a great time you had on your last visit to Match.com.

The FTC has managed to stay outfront in most areas of Internet advertising and already has rules and guidelines in place that would seem to anticipate what the Landau lads have in mind.

As the agency says in one of its publications: "If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed."  Failure to do so can fall under the rules prohibiting deceptive advertising, which can result in pretty unpleasant fines and other penalties.

Now, of course, it's quite possible the Landaus themselves might not be directly liable, since they are probably not going to be endorsing products, other than their own.  But individual consumers hoping to make a buck off their friends?

Well, you might want to think again.  Or at least be sure that after you tell your "friends" how much you really loved that NutriSystem diet and how you shed pounds like dandruff, you add a simple little phrase along the lines of: "These and other comments of a similar nature made by me during the course of what appears to be a non-commercial conversation between us may constitute a paid endorsement."

They'll love you for that.

Lastly, today's consumer tip:  If you find yourself growing suspicious of your "friends" constantly babbling on about what a great time they had during their Sheraton weekend, you might want to take an occasional peek at the PowerVoice Advertisers page, just to see who's doing the pay for play game this week.  


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