To Disclose Or Not To Disclose, That Is The Question

In 2009 disclosure became a big deal in the US when the FTC mandated that blogs detail what is advertising and what is not.

It’s the links or tweets that are in areas that generally aren’t used for advertising and aren’t labeled as advertising, that will be most likely to cause problems.
[Search Engine Land]

So the government insisted there be disclosure. For some that means 1500 word essays detailing the 16 ways they can get paid for a post. For others it’s a simple mention at the end.

It’s not just blogs that are seeing a blurring line. The age of persuasion is looking for more subtle ways to interject brand messages into our daily lives. It’s no longer an interruption, brands want advertising to be look like content.

I’m watching a Sportsnet panel and each commentator has an extra large McCafe sitting on the table next to them. Watch American Idol and it’s Coke cups, XFactor and it’s Pepsi. When James Bond started to drive a BMW, it wasn’t an accident.

I’ve written a number of essays recently on the fuzzy relationship between brand and blogger, specifically the mommy blogging sphere. Disclosure is there, but it’s there too often. Brands are hijacking the blogs and the writers are becoming little more than shills.

The PR Friendly tag is becoming ubiquitous. It’s a way for the blogs to reach out to brands with a wink and a nudge.

What started as an online storytelling medium, a place for people to diarize their lives, tell their stories, share information and offer up opinion is being turned into an infomercial. We are constantly being pitched and you just have to look at the way Mommy Bloggers are attacking the world of marketing to understand that what you see isn’t always an authentic message.
[PR Friendly Blogs Are The New Infomercial]

Jian Ghomeshi and Q tackled the topic of influence in the world of fashion blogs. The program featured an interview with Haley Phelan of Fashionista, author of a recent post called “Can You Trust the Editorial Integrity of Personal Style Blogs? A Closer Look at How Bloggers Make Money.”

In the piece Phelan alleges disclosure is being swept under the carpet as once independent bloggers swoon at the attention being paid to them by major brands.

Whether it’s by partnering with brands, styling shoots, receiving payment (or free product) for writing posts or getting commission on the sale of items they post about, some bloggers are seriously cashing in on their influence.

But as blogs make the transition from personal style diaries to profit-turning businesses, some readers have begun to feel that original and unbiased content, once the keystone of what made blogs so relevant, has taken a hit.

The 17 minute interview between Ghomeshi and Phelan is a great listen. Here are some of the quotes that stood out for me:

“A lot of bloggers don’t know better. It’s not like they went to journalism school… The line between advertising and editorial is non-existent.”

“Readers don’t want to be tricked, I think that’s why some of them don’t disclose they’re being paid.”

“Blogs start out very independant. Brands aren’t aware of them until they reach a certain level, and then brands want to send them things and use them as a vehicle to promote their brand. It’s hard because readers get attached to a blogger. It feels more like a friend than a publication.”

“That’s when you lose the unique voice of the blogger.”

We all started writing blogs as a hobby. Then someone told 2 friends and so on and so on and so on and next thing you know a free coffee machine is on our doorstep.

It’s enticing to toss a few bones to a company. You want to be PR Friendly. You want to be treated like a “real journalist.” Ahhhh .. but a real journalist wouldn’t accept these gifts, let alone give ink in response.

“At the CBC we’re not allowed to go on those junket trips,” Ghomeshi tells Phelan. “And I think the reasons are obvious. If Walt Disney Studios fetes me and puts me up in a nice hotel and am I going to be as forthcoming with my critical review of their latest. Also there’s newspapers that won’t take free tickets, they’ll always pay for the concert they’re going to review.”

Ads are ads. Editorial is editorial. In a new media world where we live our lives in an over-sharing era, advertorial will exist and those relationships need to be identified.

It’s okay to try and make money with your blog. It’s okay to court affection from brands, but try to do it on client level.

PR companies send bags of treats to dj’s all the time hoping for plugs on air. But if we were to give a plug in exchange for free donuts every time they showed up, we’d be devaluing the real clients who actually pay for access to the audience via commercials.

When you’re Advertiser Friendly, you’re actually placing more value and legitimacy in your content.
[Make Your Blog Advertiser Friendly]

It’s not just the bloggers that are getting wooed by the PR pitch, mainstream media can be seduced into the world of subtle promotion too. This week Cialis has been all over the news as they released a survey about the sexual habits of Canadians.

The CBC, Global, Huffington Post, and The Vancouver Sun were among more than 30 outlets to publish the survey results – and the brand’s name.

Producers, looking for a titilating tease, inserted the story in nearly 3 dozen outlets. The stats were mentioned, as was the brand. No investigative journalism was done, the sexy numbers were allowed to speak for themselves.

There was no disclosure, because none was needed. The news outlets weren’t getting a financial kickback from the brand, they were just getting an easy story to sell. The same thing that many bloggers get when a PR company comes knocking.

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