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Pay-for-Play Bloggers Pollute Media Ethics

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.”

26 Comments on “Pay-for-Play Bloggers Pollute Media Ethics”

  1. #1 Krissy
    on Mar 9th, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    Interesting post, Dan — I hadn’t heard of PayPerPost. I’m going to be on the lookout. I read a fair amount of blogs, and have seen some blogspam, but nothing that didn’t seem computer-generated.

    This sounds like the Gawker-on-YouTube guerilla advertising. I could imagine this getting a lot worse, over the years.

    Right now, I don’t think it’s a big problem.

    Yet.

    Krissy

  2. #2 Pay-Per-Post is Still Evil | The Last Podcast
    on Mar 9th, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    [...] Thanks to the Center for Citizen Media for picking this (old but still relevant) story up again from the LA Times. 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. [...]

  3. #3 John Dowdell
    on Mar 9th, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    Lots of people believe what they’re told, but they really shouldn’t.

    Some people thought Abu Ghraib was news, for instance, just because it received so much coverage.

    That’s a habit we’ve got to break. Pay-Per-Post and other obvious frauds may be of use in this goal.

  4. #4 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 9th, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    For a slightly different perspective on The Screaming Of The A-listers, you may enjoy the column I wrote about this:

    http://technology.guardian.co.uk/weekly/story/0,,2012714,00.html

    “In a way, influence is being
    disintermediated from an elite few BigHeads at the top of an attention
    hierarchy, and then re-intermediated in an advertising agency which acts as a
    middleman. It’s ironic to believe that old ways of doing business in terms of
    directing attention are immune to disruption. The same marketing money that
    would pay a single A-lister’s travel expenses to an expensive conference can
    be used to supplement the budget of many hungry students. And the ability of
    Internet communication to facilitate outsourcing and freelancing makes such a
    strategy switch very efficient. Which leads to a type of class warfare
    between the white-collar A-list jet-set and blue-collar blog writers.”

  5. #5 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 9th, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Does this mean you defend the non-disclosure?

  6. #6 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 9th, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    Nonsense. But I think the disclosure issue functions as kind of proxy and quasi-ritual for all sort of deep murky complicated matters of monetizing attention, many of which reflect very badly on the conference-crowd. I mean, I don’t think Bill Clinton should have lied about his affair, but that really wasn’t why his critics were going after him on the topic.

  7. #7 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 9th, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    Care to explain the Clinton reference? It’s pretty murky in this context.

  8. #8 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 9th, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Many of Bill Clinton’s opponents hated him for deep power structure related reasons, that institutionally, he was part of a political faction opposed to their own (n.b.: this didn’t make him necessarily good or a champion of the oppressed, it’s just descriptive). When he lied about the affair, that lie was a political football in the whole fight between his attackers and his defenders. Similarly, “disclosure” here is a political football between A-listers and the blog product payment agencies. But it’s not what the argument is really about – just a loud symptom of it.

    Saying “Does this mean you defend the non-disclosure?” is like “Does this mean you defend Bill Clinton lying about his affair?”. Well, no, but that’s not what’s driving this at heart.

    You know what the party line would be if the BigHeads were cheerleading this: people-powered payola – it’s citizen-conversation against the elitist priest gatekeepers of attention-selling, democratizing peer-pimping :-) .

  9. #9 Martin Stabe » links for 2007-03-10
    on Mar 10th, 2007 at 4:22 am

    [...] Dan Gillmor: Pay-for-Play Bloggers Pollute Media Ethics “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.” (tags: blogging ethics) [...]

  10. #10 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 10th, 2007 at 9:36 am

    No, disclosure is not a football. It’s a fundamental principle of doing things honestly.

    I’m opposed to undisclosed pay-for-play in any journalistic circumstances. I don’t care if it’s a random blogger or a major media company. It’s wrong, period.

  11. #11 Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound
    on Mar 10th, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    All those bloggers who are willing to write nice things about a company in exchange for a few bucks are obviously unaware that there are many far better ways to use a blog to really make an impact, and a much bigger profit.

    They include:

    —Becoming a true expert in your topic, and using the blog to demonstrate that expertise.

    —Offering opinions on a variety of controversial issues of interest to your target audience.

    —Frequent commentary on emerging trends in your field.

    —Using the blog to serve as an educator and interpretor

    —Welcoming conflicting views at the blog, and criticism from others about things the blogger writes.

    —Referring to products or services the blogger sells that will help readers solve a particular problem or dilemma.

    Do all those things, and the blogger will start fielding requests from readers who want the blogger for big-ticket consulting assignments, speaking gigs, one-on-one coaching, corporate training seminars, etc.

    All those other bloggers who are doing it the far easier way— taking a company’s money and saying nice things about their products or services—are, in truth, content to collect a bunch of spare change.

  12. #12 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 10th, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    Yeah, just like faithfulness is a fundamental principle of marriage (I’ve sure you’ve heard that Newt Gingrich confessed to having an affair at the same time he was spearheading Bill Clinton’s impeachment).

    A conflict of interest is not nullified by disclosing it. I’ve said that before. From an outsider’s prospective, much of the moralizing looks like a cartel protecting its dominance of the attention-market. Appropriate disclosure is defined by the cartel, and you just know anyone outside the cartel is going to be in violation of it, while anyone inside will be vociferously defended. I don’t want to go into specific examples, because it’ll sound too harsh, but the subject has been controversial many times.

    Joan: Read my column linked above. The problem is that “big-ticket consulting assignments, speaking gigs, one-on-one coaching, corporate training seminars, etc.” is a VERY SMALL SET. That’s basically “being an A-lister”. But like everyone can’t be above average, we sure can’t all be in the top 1%, and that tiny elite is who gets those “big-ticket” gigs. Some people prefer doing odd-jobs for reliable money, than devoting effort to lottery-like situations where there’s 90%-99% odds of complete loss.

  13. #13 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 10th, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    No, the conflict isn’t erased with disclosure. But it’s disclosed, giving the reader the option of believing what’s said or not (or, more likely, refracting the disclosure through a skeptic’s lens).

    This has zero to do with cartels. And no cartel defines appropriate disclosure. Standard-issue honor does.

  14. #14 Anne 2.1 » Blog Archive » Ten Things I Hate About You, Web 2.0
    on Mar 10th, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    [...] should journalistic ethics apply to mombloggers trying to make a little income on the side? How can Dan Gillmor say with a straight face that bloggers described in this article are practicing something like journalism? Does he think the [...]

  15. #15 Rick Calvert
    on Mar 10th, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    Seth I am certainly no “A-lister” but I understand the simple concept that not disclosing you are getting paid to promote a product is deceptive and unethical.

    Simply disclosing you are paid, or acknowledging that you accept advertising in itself does not make you ethical and in some cases is still deceptive.

    For example Advertorial’s in magazines and newspapers, infomercials and “paid programming” on TV and radio, all disclosed to cover their asses with the law but all intended to deceive and appear to be news reporting when they are advertising.

    With all the gray area and potential for unethical behavior that comes with accepting any advertising of any kind; there is no gray area when you fail to disclose your editorial comments are paid for. It is deception, it is unethical, and it is wrong, period.

    Your Bill Clinton analogy is pretty far afield but since you brought it up he was impeached (not convicted) for “lying under oath” thats called perjury and is a far more serious offense than having an affair and lying about it. Ask Scooter Libby.

  16. #16 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 10th, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Sorry Dan, that’s exactly what I mean by “appropriate disclosure is defined by the cartel”. I’m at a disadvantange here because if I go into further details, it’s both harsher than I want to be, and I risk personal attack from “on-high” (which is another reason it *is* about cartels). If you really care, I’ll put it in an email.

  17. #17 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 10th, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    I await your email.

  18. #18 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 11th, 2007 at 12:26 am

    Rick: If you read carefully, there is blanket disclosure by the blogger, but the claim is that it’s not sufficient and visible in each post. I am not saying this is justified. I’m saying I have a hard time getting worked up about the magnitude of the sins in terms of “Pollute Media Ethics”, when it looks to be used as a protectionist cudgel. It’s quite possible to commit a minor ethical breach, which while it is a breach, is used by opponents who have agendas far different from defense of ethics. Bill Clinton’s impeachers didn’t really care about anything they charged him with, it was all a means to an end.

    [spam-note: Second post, without URL, since the spam-filter seemed to have eaten the first]

  19. #19 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 11th, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    Sorry about having to post twice. I’m now being hammered by spam — hundreds per day — and can’t check every in-queue comment anymore.

  20. #20 DP Dan
    on Mar 12th, 2007 at 8:53 am

    Excellent points Seth, as always. The Clinton reference is an interesting analogy.

    I invested in PPP largely on the disintermediation opportunity and the team’s commitment to helping the masses access what the elites have gotten via passes, product, cash, meals, travel and exclusives for some time — compensation for their efforts/influence. When such a direct business model exists it brings more diverse people/perspectives into the blogosphere conversation and encourages discipline/frequency that may have been absent as a hobby — with world-changing potential. The response from the masses (support) and the elites (fear) is about what I expected.

    It has surprised me a bit that the elites trash positive innovations such as prominent, sitewide Disclosure Policies — a framework that drives transparency beyond any other medium and has the flexibility to handle various/future scenarios (e.g. conference speakers who get selected/comped largely on the expectation of some blog coverage/influence peddling, online indie filmmakers who fund their movies via product placements). Given that a robust Disclosure Policy framework requires elites to disclose all of their direct and indirect conflicts, I probably shouldn’t be surprised.

    If groups like Citizen Media want to help drive transparency going forward, let’s pull together to improve and expand Disclosure Policies for all conflicts. Some folks are already creating DP plug-ins. Wouldn’t it be terrific if every TV station, newspaper and radio station had a standard button audiences could push on-the-fly to understand conflicts, biases and practices? They can’t, but we can do that here — if transparency is really the goal and not just protecting cartels…

  21. #21 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 12th, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    DP Dan and Seth continue to say, without any evidence, that pushing for genuine disclosure is cartel behavior. Perhaps they believe if they say it enough times it’ll be true. It won’t.

    Where is the evidence that the masses support quasi-disclosed pay-for-play? Or are you talking about the bloggers who’ve signed up? Hardly a mass phenomenon.

    The “elites” you disdain don’t fear your model from any competitive point of view (or if they do they’re idiots). If you’re including me in your elites category, which is absurd at this point, I’ll tell you what I fear: that even more people will get the idea that ethically challenged behavior is appropriate, that making trust even murkier is good for us. It’s not.

    A sitewide disclosure policy as vague as the one you let your bloggers use is a tiny bit better than no disclosure at all, but no more than that. It says, basically, “Much of what you read here is written for pay, directly or indirectly from companies I’m talking about, but I’m not going to say which ones.” Transparency? No, more like obfuscation that invites the reader (assuming the reader spots the disclosure statement, which is not a given) to disbelieve everything. How that will help your bloggers get more traffic is a mystery.

    I and may others have called for greater transparency in all kinds of media, traditional and new. I’d love to see higher standards prevail, and would be happy to see lots of ways for audiences to understand the conflicts where they exist. When PPP starts requiring a disclosure policy that has actual teeth, I’ll gladly work with you. Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath in anticipation.

  22. #22 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 12th, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    Dan, did you get my email on this topic? I had very specific evidence there.

    There’s a different issue about understanding what PayPerPost actually does – read my column! This is about search engines, which *don’t* *care* about either BigHead fulminations, or mass support. Also see my blog post:

    PageRank/Link-Buying Doesn’t Care About Blogger Ethics.
    http://sethf.com/infothought/blog/archives/001087.html

    Don’t think I like these people. I looked at some “Posties”, and thought “human splog” (spam blog). But it’s “markets are conversations” with a *vengeance*. It’s exactly the sort of attention-selling commercialized by A-listers, except PPP is the intermediary, not cartel members.

    Pushing for genuine disclosure? HA HA HA! There’s so many things I’d like to know about the A-list deals, that it’s downright absurd to be waving that as an ethical banner. “Disclosure” is what the A-lister says it is, obfuscation is what the A-lister says it is. And I can’t put details here (I sent them to you) because personal attack is what the A-lister says it is too :-( .

    Related quote (sorry, can’t link, the spam-filter ate an early attempt, it’s from Valleywag):
    “Unfortunately, despite blog-media’s near-sexual fixation on transparency, disclosure is not a means toward absolution for ridiculous acts. Disclosure is actually a test of your audience’s tolerance for chicanery. Most embarrassing is the naive assumption that simply disclosing the payoff somehow made it kosher”

  23. #23 DP Dan
    on Mar 13th, 2007 at 5:48 am

    @DanG: I’d love to see your model Disclosure Policy “with teeth” that applies to all bloggers large and small, and all forms of conflict direct and indirect (including comps, passes, product, cash, travel, meals, exclusives etc.). I’ll even try to get your wording added to the Disclosure Policy Generator over at DisclosurePolicy.org.

    Even though PPP isn’t the blogger or the sponsor, it never hurts to encourage best practices. I thought you’d enjoy the CEO’s latest/timely post:
    http://blog.payperpost.com/2007/03/disclose-disclose-disclose.html . This is a message I don’t hear from the multi-billion dollar affiliate industry (Amazon, Google, others) and I even see elites such as Calacanis trying to deny their conflicts. Help make Disclosure Policies an audience expectation and we have a shot at everyone playing by the same rules — assuming you want that ;-)

  24. #24 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 13th, 2007 at 6:34 am

    Seth, I didn’t get your email. I’ve sent you an email from another address. Please reply there.

    DP Dan: So you won’t have a disclosure policy that means anything until everyone else does? Nice dodge of the question.

  25. #25 Seth Finkelstein
    on Mar 14th, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    Dan, I replied, just checking, if it got through (spam-breakage is a big hassle these days)

    DP: To be fair, mark each post which is paid (“sponsored”), is not a complicated proposition. I just don’t go into high dudgeon that some small-fry cut corners on it (it doesn’t matter much anyway in practice, since the post is for the search engine linkage, not the human readers). Some A-listers do have general disclosure page, but the problem is that it’s hard to get context from that.

  26. #26 Dan Gillmor
    on Mar 18th, 2007 at 7:33 am

    Seth, I did get it. Will be thinking through what you’re saying –