Journalism and marketing debate: Blogging for payola

Payola has always hovered in the background of journalism. Until the last generation or two, it was common for newspaper reporters to receive gifts or even side jobs from businesses, promoters and other hoping to curry favor.

Even today, travel journalists often take free trips and lodging from resorts, cruise lines and others whom they may be writing about. Glossy, high-end magazines catering to fashion, entertainment and gossip audiences traditionally have had much looser restrictions on freebies than their newsier counterparts.

So it’s no surprise to hear that the new world of blogging is grappling with the issue of pay-to-play. Marketers have rushed to build relationships with bloggers, many of whom have developed substantial followings.

And in building those relationships, the bloggers sometimes get — or demand — free products and even cash payments. Earlier this year, Ann Taylor Loft held an “exclusive blogger preview” event for its summer clothing collection, offering gift cards to bloggers who wrote about the event.

I recently exchanged e-mails with a blogger who writes about the home construction industry, hoping to get him interested in a new product from my client, a major Minnesota-based manufacturer. The blogger replied with a note informing me that henceforth, he’d only be doing “sponsored blog posts,” and helpfully enclosed a price list.

Targeting ‘mommy bloggers’
So-called “mommy bloggers” have become an industry unto themselves, with advertisers scrambling to get a piece of this online real estate where millions of women discuss products. A recent New York Times story on mommy bloggers featured a discussion on how best to monetize one’s blog.

Now the Federal Trade Commission has stepped in, issuing guidelines that require disclosure by bloggers who receive money or freebies in return for reviewing or endorsing products.

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with requiring this sort of disclosure. In the world of commercial speech, more information is almost always the best option. But I question how the FTC could possibly enforce these guidelines. With millions of blogs on the Internet, the only plausible outcome would be a few high-profile cases meant to serve as a warning to others. It would play out much the same way as in the recording industry, which sued a mere handful of the millions of people who downloaded copyrighted music without permission.

And what’s wrong with a blogger making a living, anyway? God knows there are few enough secure, long-term jobs remaining in our modern economy — it seems that we’re all contractors these days, with a duty to ourselves above all else. So if a mommy blogger in Toledo gets a few free boxes of Pampers because she’s got 10,000 loyal readers — well, isn’t that free enterprise at work? She built an audience — why shouldn’t she make a buck off her efforts?

And if the federal government is going to require mommy bloggers to disclose their free Pampers, perhaps it could also require bankers to disclose their next round of toxic investments waiting to wreck the world economy.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Paul Scott on 03/22/2010 - 10:56 am.

    Oh my goodness I very much disagree with your conclusion to this otherwise very interesting post.

    What’s wrong with a blogger making a little money? Nothing of course. But is that really the right question? Shouldn’t the real question be, what’s wrong with a blogger passing off their commentary as unpaid and objective when in fact it is paid promotional commentary? And if you ask that, I bet 9 out of 10 of your readers would say, “everything”.

    Even your comparison to the banking issue seems unhelpful, given that financial writers can be sent to jail tif caught advising the purchase of stocks in which they have an interest without disclosing that information to readers. (Read some of James Cramer’s caveats sometime, the guy is terrified of not telling all.)

    Do you really want to promote the day when we have no more ability to ascertain the difference between advertising and journalism? Or give help to the loser who stuck his hand out when you asked for him to write about your client’s product? It all sort of makes me want to unplug everything.

  2. Submitted by John Reinan on 03/22/2010 - 11:20 am.

    Wow, that’s a great comment, Paul. I admit I was stirring the pot a little with the “bloggers gotta make a living” comment. I don’t have any objection to requring disclosure for paid bloggers — it’s just that I don’t think it’s realistically enforceable.

    I kept thinking of that woman from Brainerd who got socked for $20 million, or whatever the number was, for downloading music. It eventually got reduced to some much smaller (but still frightening) figure that she can’t possibly pay. Meanwhile, millions of others merrily keep downloading illegally.

    The digital world is so vast and all-encompassing that efforts to regulate it are bound to be very difficult.

  3. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 03/22/2010 - 12:09 pm.

    Actually, I wish the FTC (or the FCC) would require Fox News to have some disclaimers. For instance, Fox News is run by a former active member of the Repulican Party whose sole job was propogand and is owned by a known right-wing nut job who also owns other right-wing news sources, such as The Wall Street Journal. I worry less about this micro communication than I do the mass comunnication.

  4. Submitted by Lynn Nelson on 03/22/2010 - 02:22 pm.

    John, you always have an interesting point of view. I plan to share your column with my class at the School of Journalism. We just studied the ethics of PRSA and AdFed. Transparency is key to credibility. If I get a free ticket to an event or a product trial, it just takes a few key strokes to convey that, and I maintain my credibility. The new FTC guidelines are helpful, not onerous. Let’s honor them. Lynn Nelson, iwrtw.blogspot.com

  5. Submitted by Richard Parker on 03/22/2010 - 04:05 pm.

    Yup, credibility is the keyword. If “sponsored” matter becomes (or is) common in blogs without disclosure, then why should I believe anything I read in a blog? A big reason blogs will never replace newspapers, even if they outlive them.

  6. Submitted by Trish Van Pilsum on 03/23/2010 - 10:31 am.

    I’m not sure why “monetize” has become such a dirty word. If a mom blogger can find a way to make a living and stay home with her kids, more power to her. I wish it had been an option when my kids were young.
    But, selling ads and doing sponsored reviews are two different things. Consider two high profile examples. Before Christmas both Dooce and Pioneer Woman had big giveaways. Dooce reviewed and gave away several Xbox systems. It was a sponsored giveaway. She disclosed that. She got a free game. Her blog included shots of her husband playing the game, baby plopped on the couch next to him…great parenting moment. She raved about the system. As a reader I’m somewhat suspicious. She has to say she loves the system. They gave her the damn things for free. Pioneer Woman buys all her prizes. In this contest she gives away five cameras. She raves about this particular model. She goes out of her way to say that she’s never talked with the folks at the camera company (I don’t remember which company, now), that they’ve never given her anything for free and that they could care less whether she lives or dies…you know how she writes. As a reader I believe she truly loves this camera and has no other motive to say she does, except that she really does.

    I am a blogger…a “mommy blogger,” in fact. I give away prizes because it’s fun and it encourages readers to comment. I, with one exception, have purchased my own prizes. In that one exception Ia photographer gave a reader a photo session. I got nothing myself.

    I am also a journalist. I know how hard it to write when you have conflicted loyalties. When I write that I like something I want my readers to know that I really like it.

    This does remind me of the early days of radio…payola, plugola and all. The web will be much, much harder to police. Readers will have to be very discerning. More importantly, writers will have to protect their own credibility.

  7. Submitted by Christina Brown on 03/24/2010 - 10:20 pm.

    I’m one of the mom bloggers you’re writing about. I have done sponsored posts and sponsored giveaways but I have always disclosed the relationships. I spend upwards of 20 hours a week making a pittance. Getting a little “payola” helps me justify the amount of time I put into my site.

    I think it is good that the FTC requires disclosure – I think readers should know what relationship a blogger may have with a company.

    What I object to is that the FTC has chosen to target bloggers, while completely ignoring the magazine industry.

    You can’t tell me that Parents Magazine isn’t deluged by toys or that Oprah Magazine bought all the make-up and clothing it features on its pages.

    I’d like to see magazines disclose their relationship to the products they’re showcasing.

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