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Is It Advertising or a Bona Fide News Story?

Recently in his news feed of consumer-related stories, MrConsumer got a link to an USA Today article questioning whether the bargain website, Temu.com, was offering legitimate deals.


Scroll down the story.

The story ended in part with this:

To sum up, Temu is real and safe to shop on. Its commitment to customer satisfaction, secure transactions, and quality assurance make it a reliable platform for online shopping.

So the next time you’re looking for a bargain online, remember to compare prices on Temu.

That sounded a little too promotional and commercial to me. And then the clincher came.


USA Today disclaimer

One might see a disclaimer like that on “commerce content” which is a story specifically written by a different section of a publication designed to help the publisher earn money from the links contained in the story. They tend to be written in a positive manner and have the effect of promoting the product or service reviewed.

The above story is labeled “Contributor Content” but there is no explanation of what that means. There is no disclosure that USA Today or perhaps even the author make money in some manner from the story, or that this “story” really is advertising or “sponsored content.” If this really is an ad, that needs to be disclosed to the reader at a minimum and even that may not be enough according to the FTC.

For example, companies shouldn’t give the impression that a ranking or review is objective and unbiased if it is based on or affected by third-party compensation. And if an advertisement strongly resembles editorial content such as a news article, or appears formatted as native content in a publication with a strong journalistic brand, it is unlikely disclaimers will overcome the deceptive net impression. — source: FTC

Even USA Today’s own ethical principles state:


We will not blur the line between advertising and editorial content. We will provide appropriate disclosures, exercise transparency and avoid actual or implicit commercial endorsements by our journalists.

We wrote to the author asking about her piece, but she did not respond. We contacted USA Today/Gannett twice asking for an explanation of what “Contributor Content” is and suggested that some type of notification to readers might be required if this was advertising. We got no response.

Here are other stories that USA Today labels as “Contributor Content.”

In a twist, another publisher, Dow Jones, has appended a refreshing footnote to some stories in the Wall Street Journal.


WSJ disclaimer

As consumers of news, we deserve published content that does not blur the line between bona fide news content and advertising.

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Amazon Raises Free Shipping Threshold to $35 Depending on Location

You may now have to spend more at Amazon.com in order to qualify for free shipping if you are not a Prime member. (Prime members pay $139 a year for free shipping with no minimum order size.)

For years, as long as a non-Prime member made at least a $25 minimum purchase, you got free shipping. Now there is a new $35 minimum but it does not apply to everyone. Who has to pay more? Believe it or not, that seems to depend on the delivery address — the zip code where you live.

For example, if you live in downtown Seattle where Amazon is headquartered, free shipping comes with only a minimum purchase of $25. If you wanted to buy this test item, you would need to purchase two packages to avoid shipping charges.

Amazon in Seattle


But, if you live in the next city over in Bellevue, Washington, you would need a $35 minimum purchase and would have to buy three of them to get them shipped free.

Amazon Bellevue

The same is true across the country, in certain geographic regions and in some neighboring towns. So for example in New York City, Manhattanites are treated to the lower $25 threshold, while those in Brooklyn have to spend $35 or more.


NY shipping charges vary

Live in Beverly Hills? You get the $25 minimum. But reside in Westwood right next door and you will need a $35 purchase to get delivery there free.

If you call Lincoln, Nebraska home, you have to spend at least $35 now to get free shipping to your house. But, if you live in Omaha, just 58 miles away, your minimum purchase threshold is only $25.

In Massachusetts where MrConsumer lives, customers in Revere only need a $25 purchase to get free shipping, while those in Lynn, the next town over, have to spend at least $35.

We asked Amazon why they implemented the higher free shipping threshold in some areas. Is this some type of market test? Is this just the first step in extending the $35 minimum to all non-Prime members? Or are they planning to make this two-tier system permanent?

In a statement to Consumer World, a company spokesperson said, “We continually evaluate our offerings and make adjustments based on those assessments. We’re currently testing a $35 minimum for non-Prime customers to qualify for free shipping.”

It is unfortunate when consumers are still struggling with inflation and higher product prices that Amazon has chosen to pile on and charge for shipping that previously was free.

What do you think of Amazon’s change?

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WSJ Goofs Reporting Walmart+ Discount for Seniors

On July 20th, The Wall Street Journal published a story claiming that Walmart was offering a 50%-off discount on its Walmart+ membership program to recipients of various government assistance programs including those on Social Security. Wow!

Walmart+, which is regularly $98/yr, is similar to Amazon Prime giving members free shipping even on small orders and other benefits such as a free Paramount+ membership.

WSJ - Walmart+ half price for Social Security recipients

At just $49, even MrConsumer, who refuses to pay $139 for Amazon Prime, might consider a Walmart+ Assist membership. But being a good and suspicious consumer, he wanted to review the fine print terms and conditions first.


Walmart+ Assist terms

In that alphabet soup of government programs, Social Security is not listed. And even in Walmart’s press release announcing the Walmart+ Assist program, there is no mention of Social Security recipients being eligible for it.

So why in the world did the Wall Street Journal, right in its headline, say that those on Social Security qualified? The reporter, a summer intern at the paper, probably thought that SSI meant “Social Security” when in fact it stands for “Supplemental Security Income” — a program that provides monthly payments for those with disabilities or blindness.

But, within two hours of our writing to her, the headline was corrected, and a note about the error was appended to the end of the story.

New Headline


WSJ correction

So the lesson here is… if a news story sounds too good to be true, sometimes it is.