LA Times: Blogging for dollars raises questions of online ethics. Payments by advertisers to bloggers for writing about their goods, critics say, blur the line between opinion and product placement.
This is not a close call. To take money for touting products in a blog and not disclose it — prominently, and in context — is not ethical. No amount of thumb-sucking justifications can change that.
The lead anecdote in the LA Times story hints at how pernicious this situation has become.
The story cites a blogger who takes this kind of compensation. In a posting about a new movie, the blogger praises the picture and the studio. Nowhere in the posting is there the slightest hint that the blogger has been paid for this posting.
The disclosure, such as it is, comes on another page on the site, where the blogger says, in part:
This blog accepts forms of cash advertising, sponsorship, paid insertions or other forms of compensation.
The compensation received may influence the advertising content, topics or posts made in this blog. That content, advertising space or post may not always be identified as paid or sponsored content.
The compensation influencing content “may or may not be identified”? Good grief.
Then the blogger says:
The owner(s) of this blog is compensated to provide opinion on products, services, websites and various other topics. Even though the owner(s) of this blog receives compensation for our posts or advertisements, we always give our honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experiences on those topics or products. The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the bloggers’ own. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer, provider or party in question.
Let’s unpack some of this.
First the blogger says the revenue may influence the content. Then she says the content is her honest opinions. That sounds contradictory, but let’s assume for the moment it’s true.
Even if it is true, there is absolutely no reason for a reader of this blog to believe it. In fact, there is every reason not to believe it. The lack of genuine transparency is blatant, and it makes mistrust the only rational reaction.
Equally disappointing is the rationale from Tim Draper, a Silicon Valley investor in the company paying the blogger. The story reveals his indifference to the ethical issue, or lack of understanding of its importance:
“This is a new way of looking at advertising,” Draper said.
Draper likened sponsored blogging to product placement in movies: “You put an ad inside the text and it’s more of a subtle way of advertising. It doesn’t take away from the blogger.”
In Draper’s universe, apparently, everything that’s published is entertainment. Would he be so indifferent if newspapers did product placement in their news columns?
(Wow, maybe there’s a great idea for a new business model for the newspaper industry! The current one is disintegrating, after all.)
The bloggers obviously don’t consider themselves journalists. But they are pretending to do something that resembles journalism. So they don’t get a pass from me. They shouldn’t get one from any of their readers.
I consider the companies in this business — the ones paying the bloggers — repellent. They are media polluters.
PayPerPost, the “leader” in this field, made one step in a positive direction — after being correctly pilloried for its initial stance, which said, essentially, “It’s entirely up to the blogger” — by insisting on some disclosure. But it made the disclosure almost meaningless by giving blogger the choice of whether to make the disclosures clear, in the individual posts, or, as in the case of the blogger in the story, obfuscated in a statement that leaves readers guessing.
If these companies insisted on full, in-context disclosure, they’d reduce the “value” of what they promote. Maybe that’s why they don’t.
In the end, despite the contempt we should feel for the companies brokering this stuff, it’s the bloggers who should be looking in the mirror.
I’ll leave the last word to Jason Calacanis, who’s quoted in the LA Times article. He said, “No one with any level of ethics would get involved with these clowns.”