One of the things I always loved most about social media was the transparency it created. If a product, service, hotel, etc. was terrible, you could be sure that you’d hear about it from plenty of bloggers. On the other side of things, small companies and talented individuals were able to get noticed because of word-of-mouth marketing online. It used to be so easy to get really honest, unfiltered views of products, services, etc. on the web as people were writing reviews because they felt strongly about the product. Now the water has been muddied by PR folks and the people who feed at their swag-giving teat. Some people are writing reviews of things not because they bought a product and loved it or hated it, but because someone either paid them or gave them a freebie. And others aren’t reading to get honest reviews — they’re reading to get freebies from the manufacturer. It gives power back to the big corporations who can afford to spend the most on incentives, trips, etc. for bloggers. It’s such a sad perversion of what social media can offer.
I’m relatively new to the “mommy blogging” world. While my husband and I have a blog to keep family and friends up-to-date on Reed (which we’re terrible about actually updating), I don’t consider myself a “mommy blogger.” But I do read mommy/daddy/parenting blogs. Until this week, I was pretty well out of the loop regarding the brouhaha with compensated reviews and the chummy relationships between companies and bloggers, probably because the few blogs I read tend to be ones that don’t go for that sort of thing. Then, out of nowhere, the other day, on a blog that had never contained anything of the sort, I saw a disclaimer at the top of a post reading “This is a compensated review from BlogHer and x company.” Huh? So apparently, the bloggers were paid to try out a product (which they were also given for free) and write about it. And I should trust that review why? I noticed that there were about 60 comments on the post, so I assumed that their other readers were equally horrified by this post and were telling the writers about their disgust. Well, no. They were commenting in order to get a chance at a free sample of the product!
Little did I know how common this sort of thing was in the mommy-blogging world. Coming from a blog community where compensated reviews are anathema, I have a strong sense of disgust when I see people getting money or perks from a company whose product they are reviewing. It makes me not only not trust what they are writing about that product, but what they write about everything else becomes suspect. So it was surprising to me to see a post like this show up on an otherwise great blog without anyone batting an eyelash (other than to try and win some free stuff).
I started to look a little more into the world of mommy blogging. There are tons of bloggers out there who will write a positive review for pretty much anything they’re given for free (or are otherwise compensated for). Just do a Google search for the statement “compensated review from BlogHer” and you will find blogs that do nothing but review things in exchange for free products, gift certificates, and even trips to faraway places (I just read a bunch of blog posts from some mommy bloggers who got a free trip to visit the Smuckers headquarters and almost lost my lunch). And you’ll almost never find a negative review on any of them. What’s amazing is that some of these blogs have huge readerships. Maybe it’s for the freebies they often dole out from these companies, or maybe some mothers are still willing to trust a review from a blogger who is being compensated by the company whose product they’re reviewing. Scary thought.
I never looked much into BlogHer, though I thought it was an organization/community devoted to empowering and highlighting women in the blogopshere. I knew they had a conference, which sounded awesome. After seeing that “compensated review” statement, I checked out their site and found that they were not only about empowering women, but also connecting advertisers with female bloggers to review their products online. Maybe I just have an over-inflated sense of ethics, but this really bothers me. It feels like they’re taking advantage of their network to make money off the women who blog and read their blogs. Their Advertising kit (PDF) says “BlogHer’s unique relationship with its audience provides the ideal platform for marketers to reach and engage this valuable audience in this exciting new medium.” It’s one thing for companies to advertise on the BlogHer network, but they offer “Product Reviews and Custom Widgets – Our selected bloggers will review your products or web-site and provide a fair and balanced review which will be shared with the 15MM women in our network. A widget containing the reviews creates scale and immerses our audience in your brand through these reviews.” I’m not quite sure how promoting a company’s product for a quick buck is empowering to women.
Reading mommy blogs this past weekend, I found a lot to be disgusted by. Here’s a sampling of some choice statements from disclaimers and policies (sans names or links, as I’d rather not give these blogs any sort of promotion):
“This blog accepts various types of advertisements and is open to any suggestions. Payments are all to be made via PayPal.
Pricing are as follow:
Sponsored Post (minimum 200 words) $20.00
Product Review (send sample) $20.00
Product Giveaway (additional to the review rate) $30.00″
“Products I cannot find anything positive to include in a review will not be included on this blog. Why? I’m not a negative person.”
“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.”
“I write a personal blogsite called ___, and somewhere along the way I realized that I could offer my opinions to others because I’m a visible entity on the web, who deals honestly with others. If I say it, you can trust that I mean it.”
“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.”
“If I feel that your product does not meet quality standards, I will contact you before posting any comments. I also reserve the right not to post a review if I feel in any way the product will not relate to my family nor my readers. To date, I have not received an item for review that I did not feel fit my website or readers.”
“I am married with three children in each of the core age ranges, 2, 10, and 16.”
“FULL DISCLOSURE: This is an uncompensated review. Warner Bros. sent a copy of this video game for me to review and has kindly offered to provide a giveaway prize. Thanks Warner Brothers!”
– Passing out of any swag that you would like to send (not required) and business cards while at the conference
– A shirt will be made just prior to the conference with your logo placed nicely in view to wear for a full day of the event (logo must be approved by sponsor and by blogger)”
“If during the testing process, we are not satisfied with your product – you will be contact to discuss matters privately. _____ does not publish negative reviews on companies and products. The purpose of this blog is to be a beneficial resource.’
Disgusted yet? I guess one could take from all of this that women are a powerful force in social media and that’s why the media is courting them so aggressively. What I take from it is that these women (certainly not all) are susceptible enough to compromise their ethics in order to get free stuff, make a few bucks, and/or get attention from big manufacturers.
I find this particularly frustrating because parents are often so anxious about finding the best and safest products for their children, and frequently rely on the social web to make purchasing decisions. I know I researched every product ad nauseum on the Web when I was pregnant with Reed. It scares me to think that people might actually make a purchasing decision based on what they read on one of these blogs.
I’m pleased to see that the FTC is starting to pay attention to the social media world. Starting December 1, 2009 —
the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.
Awesome! While I doubt this will be enforced, I’m glad the government is trying to impress on people the fact that blogs are influential media and bloggers should be held to the same ethical standards as journalists and other media personalities.
How long will it take for the IRS to get in on the game? I sincerely doubt that most of these people are claiming these freebies on their taxes. If a blogger receives a free stroller, they need to claim it on their tax return. For mommy bloggers who get products on an almost daily basis, that would end up being one heck of a tax burden (and not much fun to keep track of either).
All this “blogola” makes the blogosphere less about building community and sharing stories and more about getting freebies from companies (for the blogger and the blog readers). And while it might make bloggers feel special to get all this attention and/or compensation from big companies, these companies are using them for “word-of-mouth advertising” that costs significantly less than any sort of magazine advertising they do.
There are still some great parenting blogs out there. One I particularly value is Z Recommends, which is both a parenting and consumer advocacy blog. While they do get products to review — in an effort to provide advice about specific classes of products like sippy cups — they give away everything they receive. And most of their posts are devoted to child safety issues like BPA, lead, and other chemicals in products for children. They have broken a lot of big stories on their site and represent for me the best of investigative journalism and blogging.
As Z Recommends has shown, parenting blogs have the power to change things for the better. Just like in our little corner of the blogosphere, parenting blogs can be a space for parents to connect around shared experiences, to help people make informed decisions, and to create powerful change. And I know the parenting blogosphere isn’t all bad. I’ve seen strong communities built around the experience of having multiples, having miscarriages, and saving money/time (shoutout to Rachel!), and those blog networks are full of wonderful women and men who blog to connect, share with and support others. It’s not all disgusting, but sadly, the disgusting is so darn visible.
I just want to say how grateful I am to be part of a blog community where people contribute to share ideas, connect with others, and contribute to the profession. I know that I’m getting “the straight dope” from the library bloggers I read. Some people might be more diplomatic or politic than others, but they don’t write about or review things simply because a company asked them to. I can count on one hand the number of posts in my five years of blogging that were written by library bloggers because a company or individual gave them something. And I love that I can believe in the bloggers I follow and trust in their integrity. Thank you for being the ethical people you are.
I get lots of emails from publishers, authors, software developers, etc. asking me to review their products in exchange for a free copy. My answer is always no. Always. Because I don’t want to lose your trust over something so meaningless. These folks not trying to send me things because I’m cool or they like my writing, but because I have a good-sized audience and Google rank. Just like my negative posts about Pottery Barn were highly ranked in Google searches, a positive post about a technology or book would also end up towards the top of the Google results. I don’t see that as an opportunity to promote companies that give me stuff; I see it giving me a greater responsibility to be ethical, honest and always write things with my audience in mind. If people are going to find my writing on topics first, I need to do my best by them. I may not post as often as I should, but I promise you that I will always be an ethical blogger.
Another interesting place to look at this is in the music blog area. Music companies have been giving away albums to bloggers in exchange for reviews. I’ve personally accepted a number of albums, but with quite a lot of research beforehand – I’m pretty selective about what I take and review, and it’s generally positive because it’s something that I’ve liked already.
That being said, I think it’s up to the person who’s reviewing. For me, a copy of the album isn’t necessarily a free pass to a positive review – I try and remain impartial when it comes to music, highlighting what I like and dislike about the music that I review. I have to say, a couple of people who’ve sent me stuff have stopped, or not even acknowledged some of the reviews that I’ve written because they weren’t positive.
I do like the requirement for bloggers to announce what they have been given, but just because of that, I don’t necessarily think that compensation provides a good review, at least in the music world.
Providing review copies of CDs, and books, and DVDs and…back in the day…CD-ROMs is fairly standard practice, and not inherently fraught with ethical problems, given two rules: First, the provider has no expectation that a review will actually appear; Second, the provider has no expectation that the review will be positive. As soon as there’s a quid pro quo, it’s ethically questionable, no matter how many disclaimers you use. (That’s why, in looking for a Cites & Insights sponsor, I specifically say “someone in an area that C&I doesn’t cover.”)
This kind of issue is why Blog with Integrity came about (http://www.blogwithintegrity.com/)…
It’s not a solution to the problem as such, but an indication that the person displaying the badge understands the issue and takes it seriously.
There’s a piece missing here: this is one way for parents who stay home with their kids to make money while staying at home. Blogging is their job and their source of income. Without the sponsorship or support, many of these parents couldn’t afford to stay at home. They are professional bloggers.
I think required disclosure is excellent, and that’s all I need, for the time being.
Think of this as a way to empower families to have more choices in child care.
(And, I have indeed read negative reviews of items given to the blogger for free.)
Daisy, does the reasoning that someone is doing something to stay home with their child make it ok? If I took of my clothes in front of a webcam so I could stay home with my son, I would still be doing something morally questionable. For me, the ends don’t justify the means, but that’s everyone’s individual choice.
There’s a big difference between making money through advertising/sponsorship/Amazon and tailoring the content of your blog to the companies who give you things and then still claiming that you are honest and independent. I don’t have any problem with people making money off their blogs so long as the content isn’t dictated by the people giving you money. I never said that all bloggers who get free products only write positive reviews, but many of the ones I looked at do. If someone wants to be known as a trustworthy source of information, they will not accept payment from a company for a review of their product. Because it doesn’t matter if they are honest; many people will not perceive them as being honest.
What a great post! I admire you for writing it. I love blogging as a way to connect with people who share my reading interests. I would be horrified to think that anyone is involved in commercial sponsorship or otherwise commercial activities related to blogging, as it is primarily a venue for like-minded people to share thoughts and ideas on a common topic (in our case, reading). Unfortunately, blogging was not invented when I had my children, as I would have found blogging to be a supportive activity when my children were babies, particularly when I was quite isolated at home in the “maternity leave” phase. But if blogging had been possible then, I would have shared your viewpoint 100 per cent. Good for you to write this post!
Meredith — Thanks for the shout out :). But I think there’s a very fine line here — as a “mommy blogger” and a frugality blogger, I’m approached fairly often by companies to do these types of reviews/giveaways/word-of-mouth marketing. I’ve set up my own personal guidelines for this sort of thing (receiving a product to review, I’m absolutely OK with — I see this as akin to book reviews, and you can see a mixed review I posted today of an iPhone app that I got the code to d/l for free: http://www.mashupmom.com/?p=13412 ). I don’t do pay-per-post, because IMHO that crosses a line. I don’t do blogroll link exchanges (my blogroll is composed of sites I personally recommend, though I do need to update it).
I do post sponsored giveaways, and do sometimes receive the same product to review from the company that’s running the giveaway — but will say if I don’t like that product. (Ran a giveaway on Nature Valley Granola Nut Clusters recently, got some for myself from the company, didn’t like them, said so; I’m posting one tonight for a Crayola product I wouldn’t personally buy, and will say so.) What I also find interesting is that I’ve made several negative comments about the policies at a local grocery store — every other local mommy blogger I follow recently ran a giveaway for a gift card to that store and a promo touting their new (ha!) low prices, which I wasn’t offered. But that’s tangential…
I do have affiliate links — and one thing I find fascinating, is that I’m signed up with some affiliate aggregate sites where I pass up posting 90% of their offers as irrelevant or spammy or scammy. I see the same links I’m offered show up on a number of the mommy blogger sites I read, which does disappoint — but if I weren’t informed, or didn’t bother to hover over the links to see if they’re affiliate links, I’d never know.
I have a longer post on this brewing myself, but just some initial thoughts. Basically, if an affiliate link or giveaway or whatever is something I’d post regardless, I’ll post it as the affiliate link. If it’s not something I’d post if it weren’t affiliate, I don’t. I’ve unsubbed from some of these blogs because they’re over the top with the blatant money-making strategies, and I think that in the long run they’ll lose readership if the more solid content isn’t there.
Great and thoughtful post, Meredith. I would like to point out, though, that some of these issues do indeed arise in mainstream media as well – some of the networks have been caught (and probably not caught!) running “stories” that are really just video news releases from corporations, packaged to look like reporting. They are given to the stations free, and they look like “real stories,” so for short-staffed local affiliates they are sometimes irresistible as a way to fill a few minutes. I’m not sure whether FTC charges have ever been laid, but a few stations have been outed and shamed.
Also, there’s a long tradition of giving freebies to journalists. One of my journalism profs used to joke that a good ethics rule of thumb was, “Never accept anything you can’t consume on the spot.” I suspect that many traditional publications in areas like fashion, travel, music, sports, food, etc. have some conflicts of interest that they aren’t being totally open about. As some of the commenters above point out, it has long been tradition for reviewers to receive free copies of books, CDs, etc. Obviously these aren’t high-value items and so there isn’t the same implied “buying” of a positive review. Most reputable news outlets have codes of conduct for staff; maybe the community of consumer products bloggers needs to collaborate on a code of conduct, something like the Health on the Net code, that bloggers could abide by. I have a feeling that reverse disclosures will be necessary in the end – i.e. “This blog does not accept freebies from any of the companies whose products it reviews.”
Coming from the world of radio where it’s more unusual to purchase the music played on the air than to receive a free copy from the artist/label, it never occurred to me that reviewing products provided for free by the creators would be considered “dirty” in some way. Sure, if you’re expected to write glowing reviews of things and/or are paid in addition to receiving the review item, that might be ethically questionable. However, I spend a lot of time and effort in listening/reading/watching the things I review, so at the very least, getting a “free” copy of it to work with should be reasonable. I have never written a review that stated anything I didn’t believe in, whether it be positive or negative. I’m sorry if accepting free stuff to review means you think my opinions are tainted.