Keeping on my journalistic-ethicist hat for the moment: To illustrate the slipperiness of this slope, I'm going to propose some hypothetical but plausible scenarios, and then say how I as a reader (as opposed, say, to an FTC lawyer) would feel about whether there was a "material consideration" that should be disclosed. Try them on for yourself... what do you think?
Scenario I: Photo-tech blog A, which routinely tests new equipment, receives a sample of a new camera from the importer, subjects it to their usual series of tests, publishes their findings, then returns the sample to the importer. My take: No disclosure required; anyone who reads photo tests probably realizes that this is a reasonable and standard practice.
Scenario II: Photographer/blogger X, who writes about his personal impressions on a variety of photo topics including equipment, receives a sample of a new camera from the importer, gives it a field test, publishes his thoughts, then returns the sample to the importer. My take: No disclosure required; as with Scenario I, this would seem a reasonable and standard practice.
Now it gets trickier...
Scenario IIb: As with the above, photographer/blogger X receives a sample of a new camera to try. In addition to using it for test photography, he uses it for some of his professional assignments. He then publishes his thoughts and returns the sample. My take: It's a close call, but I would want this to be disclosed. After all, one of X's competitors who wanted to use the same camera on a job would have had to rent it, so there's a "material consideration" involved. The fact that X was willing to trust his livelihood to the test camera actually would make his report more credible in my eyes, but I think disclosure would be appropriate regardless.
Scenario IIc: As with Scenario II, X tries the sample, publishes his conclusions, and sends the sample back. He likes the camera so much that he then goes to his dealer and buys one with his own money. My take: No disclosure required. Again, the fact that he liked the camera that much might add credibility, but what he does with his own money is his business.
Scenario IId: Again as with Scenario II, X tries and returns the sample. He likes the camera a lot and wants to buy one -- so he contacts his importer contact, who gives him the opportunity to buy one at a discounted price. My take: I'd definitely want disclosure on this one. Even though it doesn't seem much different from Scenario IIc, the fact that he received a price that isn't generally available to the public constitutes a "material consideration." It might lead me to conclude that he's got an especially cozy relationship with this manufacturer, and I'd want to take that into account when evaluating his writings.
On to another scenario:
Scenario III: A manufacturer is introducing a new line of equipment at a news conference at its headquarters in Gheg, Albania. Blogger Z, who writes regularly about this manufacturer's products, receives an invitation to attend. The manufacturer pays the airfare of the press attendees, including Blogger Z. My take: Close call, but I'd want disclosure. International air travel is such a PIA that the airfare is almost a penalty rather than an inducement! But since presumably there might have been other bloggers who wanted to attend, but couldn't because they did not receive free airfare, the manufacturer's accommodation to Blogger Z constitutes singling him out for special treatment, and I'd want to know about that.
Scenario IIIb: Same as above -- except that in addition to airfare, the manufacturer invites Blogger Z to spend a long weekend in Gheg testing the new equipment, picking up the tab for his lodging, meals and incidentals, hiring some models for him to photograph, etc. My take: Come on, we've got to have full disclosure on this one! The manufacturer might argue that it simply was facilitating a field test, but such a cushy arrangement surely is a textbook example of a "junket."
Something different but very recognizable:
Scenario IV: Blogger A is a well-known professional shooter, how-to author, and workshop instructor whose popular blog features entertaining accounts of his experiences, snippets of his philosophy of photography, how-to tips, etc. He's well-known as a user of gear by Manufacturer B and mentions its equipment frequently. Recognizing the value of this, Manufacturer B furnishes him with free and loaner equipment for his own use and at his workshops and provides him with other services not generally available to the public. My take: A's relationship with B has to be disclosed, and that's not just my opinion; it's exactly analogous to one of the situations in the FTC guideline, the one involving the race-car driver endorsing a brand of tire. Since the public is likely to recognize the endorser as a racer, not simply as a product pitchman, the guideline says any material consideration he receives must be disclosed.
I can think of others, but that's enough to get started...