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Blogging for dollars (and goodies, and freebies, and demo units, and...)
February 5, 2010 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Much has been made of the ethics of bloggers who receive compensation -- usually in the form of demo units and trial versions of products -- in exchange for reviewing those products, often with the implicit understanding that the review is a positive one. These questions prompted an FTC investigation, and last fall the agency revised their formal guidelines governing endorsements and testimonials to include bloggers or other "word-of-mouth" marketers. The Interactive Agency Bureau maintains that the guidelines are unconstitutional, and is calling for the FTC to rescind the rules as they apply to bloggers and other online outlets. The latest casualty? An intern at TechCrunch asked for a MacBook Air in exchange for a post. In the wake of this revelation, TechCrunch fired the intern and issued a formal apology. To his credit, the intern has posted his own mea culpa.
posted by shiu mai baby (69 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Word of mouth marketers should rot in hell, its the worst kind of marketing imaginable, having people sell through their personal friend networks without disclosing it. It's like a formal version of the worst shit from Amway.

I fully support the FTC guidelines and they only came up because so many people and organizations (PayPerPost, etc) have tried to poison the well of online writing so intently for the past five years. I'm obviously biased in that we remove 3-5 fake testimonials from Ask MeFi every week ("Oh, I found this great product called ___ that does the job" where their new account maps to an IP at the company, etc) and it drives me crazy the lengths people go to sell their garbage.
posted by mathowie at 8:06 AM on February 5, 2010 [29 favorites]


Of course, some companies just get creative and do things like fake raffles for gift cards in exchange for positive blog posts.
posted by muddgirl at 8:07 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, "word of mouth" marketing is the scourge of mommy blogs. It's really hard to find well-written, interesting blogs when 95% of them are "I had this horrible problem with my baby, until I found this magic product that solved everything!"
posted by muddgirl at 8:08 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I will pay you $1 to favorite this comment.

* payment in Zimbabwe dollars only
posted by blue_beetle at 8:12 AM on February 5, 2010 [13 favorites]


I'm glad you brought up the mommy-blogger aspect, muddgirl, because it was largely all the reviews in that particular sector that prompted the FTC investigations in the first place.

There was one blogger I've read recently -- and forgive me, I've completely forgotten who it was -- who has an open policy that if any freebie sent to her has a value >$50, she gives it away to one of her readers in a random drawing.

It's a complicated issue, though, because I believe there is value in "average joe" reviews for certain products, but it's disgusting to know how easily (and cheaply) a good review can be bought. The whole damned thing is tainted by a bunch of greedy, greedy folks.
posted by shiu mai baby at 8:13 AM on February 5, 2010


This post (outraged/delighted) me so much I spilled my delicious Mountain Dew all over my Logitech keyboard and yet it continued to function! I guess I won't have to take it to the fantastic repair people at my local Best Buy and can instead use the money to buy more delicious Mountain Dew. I'm so glad I got this job as a Stealth Marke...

...wait, whaddayamean I'm fired?
posted by griphus at 8:18 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Does this mean my beer blogger buddy is in trouble for reviewing the latest bourbon barrel brew? See what I did there? Seriously, is he OK as long as he occasionally says something sucks? He also reviews really expensive single malts, well above some hypothetical $50 cutoff.
posted by fixedgear at 8:21 AM on February 5, 2010


Also, "word of mouth" marketing is the scourge of mommy blogs. It's really hard to find well-written, interesting blogs when 95% of them are "I had this horrible problem with my baby, until I found this magic product that solved everything!"

My wife is big into the mommy blogs. Apparently she's a bigger-than-a-nobody name (I don't know how much bigger than nobody because I'm not allowed to read hers and I don't follow any others). She even does reviews. But she puts them on separate sites where it is clear she has been compensated for the review. She doesn't feel compelled to do a positive review, but. While she can post any review she wants and gets paid for it, they only link to the positive ones which makes the negative ones harder to find.

On her personal blog she sometimes mentions products, but not for compensation. Just in the natural course of discussion.
posted by DU at 8:22 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm kind of surprised by how well this is being handled and how fair it is. Rock on, FTC!
posted by PunkSoTawny at 8:23 AM on February 5, 2010


PunkSoTawny: agreed, and I was also surprised by the Tech Crunch's reaction, and their intern's, both of which were very civilized...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:25 AM on February 5, 2010


Does this mean my beer blogger buddy is in trouble for reviewing the latest bourbon barrel brew?

As long as he states up-front that the brewer supplied the brew in-question, there shouldn't be an issue. He should also reveal whether said brewer is an advertiser/supporter of the blog. All it takes is a little up-front transparency.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:26 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Our attorneys have advised us not to disclose the name of the individual because the person is not a legal adult.

So, they were an illegal adult?

I am amused at how the TechCrunch apology for an anonymous teen intern and Dan's own blog compliment each-other so well. TechCrunch avoided mentioning the kid's name but clarified some of his actions, while Dan said "it was me" but skipped the details. Archive.org doesn't have any of Dan's posts linked, but google around and you can find some cached articles (for now).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:47 AM on February 5, 2010


The "rescind the rules as they apply to bloggers and other online outlets" link is interesting in that it directly addresses the "bloggers are different from off-lin media" question. A book review published in the NYT is not "sponsored advertising," but it is if it's published on Some Guy's Blog and he got a review copy of the book in order to read and review it. Even if he gave it a bad review. Even if he disclosed that he got a free review copy. Really? Hmmm.
posted by rtha at 8:50 AM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think it has to do with our expectations, rtha. We collectively "know" that the book reviewer for the NYT got a screener copy of the book, or that a movie reviewer went to a free advanced screening. We "know" that they're getting paid by the newspaper, not by the company that is potentially benefiting from the review. We also don't, generally, interact with movie reviewers outside of their reviews.

On the other hand, there is a fine fine line between bloggers who happen to review products, and bloggers who are paid to promote products and also construct a persona that will sell those products more effectively. We expect movie reviewers to be neutral (despite the free copies of books) because they aren't being paid by the publishers. Until we can expect the same neutrality from bloggers, they need to make their allegiances clear.
posted by muddgirl at 9:03 AM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is this something I need to read blogs on my Apple MacBook to understand?
posted by troybob at 9:04 AM on February 5, 2010


I'm kind of surprised by how well this is being handled and how fair it is. Rock on, FTC!

Okay, let's offer you my case as an example then. I have several websites, with two weblogs among them, that are hosted in the US. The main reason for this being that in the late 20th century hosting plans were a lot cheaper over there, than in my home country, the Netherlands. And they still are.

However, I write in Dutch on my non-commercial weblogs, and do not aim to get an American public. Still, because they're hosted in the US the FTC rulings apply.

One of my weblogs is a booklog. For which I sometimes get books to review, for free. So this FTC ruling would oblige me to mention a publisher send me to book. But, does this make it mandatory for me to mention that fact in all the archived reviews as well? Do I still know which books I got for free? And what do I do with the fact publishers send me more books than get reviewed?

Since magazines don't fall under this FTC ruling, I applied for an ISSN for my booklog. Which the national ISSN agency will not grant me, simply because they never grant ISSNs to weblogs.

So, even though none of you are my lawyers, should I sue the national ISSN agency now because their unwritten rules leave me vulnerable to criminal charges elsewhere? Or should I just suck it up, move my weblogs elsewhere, or just obey the FTC rulings even though none of my visitors will understand an iota what they're all about?
posted by ijsbrand at 9:12 AM on February 5, 2010


"In some way or another, a line was crossed that should have never been."

Boy, I find the use of the passive voice and weasel clauses in apologies infuriating. "I crossed a line. I should not have [abused my position]."

Take ownership of your mess.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 9:13 AM on February 5, 2010 [13 favorites]


Word of mouth marketers should rot in hell, its the worst kind of marketing imaginable, having people sell through their personal friend networks without disclosing it.

Ah, slimy folks like BzzAgent and the [Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA)]

Previous FPP: The Hidden (in Plain Sight) Persuaders.
posted by ericb at 9:21 AM on February 5, 2010


On the other hand, there is a fine fine line between bloggers who happen to review products, and bloggers who are paid to promote products and also construct a persona that will sell those products more effectively.

Yeah, this. Agreed, muddgirl.
posted by rtha at 9:23 AM on February 5, 2010


Ijsbrand, while I'm sympathetic to the potential issues involved, I think you are being unduly paranoid. Some international police force isn't going to kick down your door because of a review you wrote five years ago. If I were you, I would just switch to local hosting, which is probably much more affordable now.

In spite of problems like this, and as messy as new regulations always are at first, such oversight is necessary to protect consumers as new media overtake the old as the primary source of product information.
posted by PunkSoTawny at 9:24 AM on February 5, 2010


Ijsbrand: Sorry, I missed the bit where you said that US hosting is still cheaper.

This is turbulent now, but I think it's still good to see the government taking action now, before the problems--and the pain of adapting to new regulation--become even greater.
posted by PunkSoTawny at 9:31 AM on February 5, 2010


Our attorneys have advised us not to disclose the name of the individual because the person is not a legal adult.

So, they were an illegal adult?



Apparently, dude is 16 years old
posted by orville sash at 9:36 AM on February 5, 2010


I keep a blog about comics. A kindly, well-connected friend stuck me on the Norton's review list, and since Norton distributes Fantagraphics' titles to bookstores, I get plenty of fun.

But I still feel like I write honest reviews, whether I've paid for the book or if I got it for free. So I resent these rules, especially since the free books I've received haven't meant that I'm raking in a ton of money. It's not like these reviews are ads at all (and I was once told by a website I wrote music reviews for that most labels didn't care if a review was good or bad -- they just cared that things got reviewed).

I have other questions about these rules, like what if a publisher sends PDF? A label sends you a link to a streaming album? Do you need to disclose that?

I've also been tempted to start adding "I paid for this book with my own money" when it's relevant. Just you know, for full disclosure.

I just think there's a difference between being given a free trip to Disney World with the understanding you're going to say how awesome Disney World is and being given a free copy of a book that you are expected to review fairly. But I also think I'm being naive about all of this and probably expecting too much from people.
posted by darksong at 9:38 AM on February 5, 2010


Seriously, the FTC guidelines were the best thing to happen to blogging since the creation of HTML. It was getting weird and downright scary out there for awhile.

From year one, we have been offered some seriously crazy, weird free stuff by marketers hoping we'd blog about their product. Free replacement windows for our house. Power tools. A CIRCULAR STAIRCASE. Having been disgusted about how marketers tried to mess with my fieldwork during the dot com era, I wanted no part of it. At one point, we accepted a free paintbrush that was unique and interesting, but also arranged to have ones sent to five other bloggers in the network who we knew were pretty straight shooters in order to get a diverse critique and we stated on the blogs that we received the product for free (a $14 value!) However, this was the last time that I did this because, even with the transparency, it felt kind of gross.

To muddgirl's comment, I think that SOME of us know that magazine publishers and reviewers of books (or power tools, or anything) are provided with those products for free, but many of the general public do not or do not realize how this affects reviews. Even if you work for a magazine, are paid a salary, and don't get to keep that shiny power drill, I wonder what the subtle pressure is to keep the review from being scathing if a) you depend on manufacturers to KEEP sending you their products to review, and b) that manufacturer advertises with you. The spectrum for me in my content area looks like Consumer Reports (where they pay for all of the products they review and do serious product testing), Fine Homebuilding/Woodworking (I don't know their policy on accepting products to review, but they seem to do some pretty serious testing), and This Old House (where they are really in bed with advertisers and have given some advice that doesn't seem balanced at all).

A long way, BTW, from when I stood up during a Q&A session at BlogHer and called for more transparency when it came to accepting items/services for review, and everyone looked at me like I had three heads and I felt like I was caught sticking my hand in the punch bowl. Soured me on ever going back to that conference. So, when the mommyblogger swag stampede of '09 happened, and then they quickly threw together a Blog With Integrity! in its wake, I was at least somewhat happy that they had begun to come around. But kinda sorry that it took a baby getting an elbow to the head to push that idea forward there.
posted by jeanmari at 9:39 AM on February 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


Sorry, I meant to say:

This Old House (where they SEEM really in bed with advertisers and have given some advice that doesn't seem balanced at all).

Who Tom Silva sleeps with off-camera is no business of mine.
posted by jeanmari at 9:42 AM on February 5, 2010


Last time I mentioned that I fucking loathe and wish ill upon SEO marketers, their bullshit spammy blogs, and how it's getting to be damn near impossible to find honest information about things, I had a half-dozen MeFi SEO assholes all up in arms. "Oh, we're just struggling writers," is their excuse. No, fuck you: fuck you all for participating in the destruction of a valuable resource.

Not that I'm bitter or anything.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:43 AM on February 5, 2010 [8 favorites]


But I still feel like I write honest reviews, whether I've paid for the book or if I got it for free. So I resent these rules, especially since the free books I've received haven't meant that I'm raking in a ton of money.

Isn't it really easy to say, "Hey, this publisher sent me a review copy of a book. Here's what works. Here's what doesn't. Here's where you can get it." If that's indeed the truth? If you're honest and clear about the source of the products you're reviewing, no one's gonna dump on you.

But if, like many bloggers used to do before these rules were in place, you start a blog post with, "OMG I was SO CRAVING an awesome story about Superheros from Mars, when I saw this awesome comic in the store! I read it and it was perfect! If you want to read it, just go to this link!" but the whole story was fabricated and the publisher sent you a copy of the comic, then there IS a question of how balanced your review could be. Why hide or deliberately lie about the source of the review copy?
posted by muddgirl at 9:47 AM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wait, you used to be able to get free services for blogging reviews? Why the hell didn't I know about this? Do you have any idea how much money I could have saved on hookers and hit-men?

Shit, the tax implications alone are pretty staggering.
posted by quin at 9:49 AM on February 5, 2010


ijsbrand: I don't think it has anything to do with where you're hosted, rather where you live. Otherwise U.S. bloggers could just host their spamblogs oversease.
So, they were an illegal adult?
The other possibility would be a legal non-adult.

But I still feel like I write honest reviews, whether I've paid for the book or if I got it for free.
Well, it's good that YOU feel that way but why not let other people make that determination for themselves?

I don't know if this is actually reasonable from a first amendment perspective but it seems like a pretty reasonable rule.
posted by delmoi at 9:50 AM on February 5, 2010


ijsbrand: I think you're fine!

From the FCC's site: "the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement." Very clear.

The books you get aren't "in-kind payment". The value of a review copy of a book just isn't so great, and the value of your time so small, that you'd write a book review and accept only the book as the payment. So your reviews aren't endorsements.

The intern got one computer and was trying for another - that's hundreds of times greater value than your books.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:53 AM on February 5, 2010


Or should I just suck it up, move my weblogs elsewhere, or just obey the FTC rulings even though none of my visitors will understand an iota what they're all about?

Yeah, cause it's so hard to understand "Company X provided a free sample for this review."

In fact, I have no idea what I just typed. Something about… words?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:57 AM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sometimes I wish I didn't have to type in this little text box, because I would really like to use my extremely cool Steampunk RayGun Fountain Pen© from Melvin Sneeter @ melvinsneeter.com. Only three easy payments of $39.95! Sounds like a great deal, so I am getting a couple of dozen to give to friends and colleagues and Xeni.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:00 AM on February 5, 2010


The title of the apology blog entry: "A line was crossed." Nice use of passive voice!

From the post: "Since 2006 when I first got into the internet"
posted by mecran01 at 10:01 AM on February 5, 2010


And a Macbook Air, huh? At least he wasn't selling his soul for free Crocs.
posted by jeanmari at 10:05 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]



At least he wasn't selling his soul for free Crocs.

From the above blog:

“I could pick up my phone here and get in contact with so many people and tell them what just happened that you would be afraid to go near your computer, let alone attempt to blog again.”

Wow, chilling look at the cutthroat world of mommy blogging.
posted by mecran01 at 10:30 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Man public apologies are such an incredible waste I wonder why people even bother.

I have other questions about these rules, like what if a publisher sends PDF? A label sends you a link to a streaming album? Do you need to disclose that?


Why not? It doesn't tarnish your review in any way to add a damn disclosure to it. The people who read your site are still going to read your site with disclosures, and the handwringing over it seems like pure nonsense.
posted by graventy at 10:34 AM on February 5, 2010


I came up with a solution to this problem on my last flight cross country. I wrote it down in my Moleskin.
posted by yeti at 10:34 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah, slimy folks like BzzAgent

The BzzAgent "campaigns" say to be open about your participation and they send you little cards to give out to anyone you talk to about the product. I got soda from them about two years ago and didn't like it, so that was the end of that.

I'm a writer and part of my job is writing reviews for a couple of diverse outlets. In each case, it is clearly stated on the site in some form that products are received or requested for review. Getting items to review is fun, I admit, but these FTC rules are common sense to me. It doesn't take much to say, "Publisher sent me a copy of this game to review...."
posted by cmgonzalez at 10:35 AM on February 5, 2010


I'm not anti-disclosure -- I'm sorry if that was unclear -- but I do think the FTC ruling sort of treats all bloggers as being inherently dishonest. (And before, there was some muttering from some bloggers who had print publications backing them saying the disclosures made some bloggers look "unprofessional" since it read tantamount to showing off about "look at all the free stuff I get." I thought that was silly, but I could kind of see the point.)

The FTC's rules aren't bad in principle, but they seem to have been created by people who don't quite understand the Internet. I'm hoping they're still evolving and become clearer over time.
posted by darksong at 11:10 AM on February 5, 2010


The problem here isn't that companies are sending review samples to bloggers. It's that some bloggers have so little integrity that they cravenly talk up any damn thing they're sent.

Starting the review with "Company X sent this to me" isn't going to change that. It's just going to mean that the boot-licking starts out with a disclaimer. Then it's right back to boot-licking as usual!

It's not like the old media is free of this problem. Gaming magazines are notorious for grading video games on a scale from 9.1 to 9.9 out of (realistic) fear of losing their advertisers. And we all know TV movie review personalities who never met a movie they didn't like.
posted by ErikaB at 11:22 AM on February 5, 2010


Starting the review with "Company X sent this to me" isn't going to change that. It's just going to mean that the boot-licking starts out with a disclaimer. Then it's right back to boot-licking as usual!

But it protects readers like me from wasting time on boot-licking blogs. I just have to read one glowing article on a free product to realize that it's a crappy marketing blog, rather than reading half-a-dozen or so.
posted by muddgirl at 11:27 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


> But I still feel like I write honest reviews, whether I've paid for the book or if I got it for free. So I resent these rules

Why? When I review books I got free from the publisher, I mention that upfront. What's so hard about that?
posted by languagehat at 11:31 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


I have to say I'm not impressed by the TechCrunch apology or the blogger's apology. Passive voice everywhere, and nowhere do they actually say who paid for the publicity, or whether he gave the MacBook back. "A line was crossed. Things were done, for which people are now sorry. Apologies are rendered." Yeah, ok. Whatever.

Back in the day, John Sundman (who is now a friend) emailed me out of the blue to ask if I'd review his book, and offered to send me a copy. I said no thank you to the free review copy, but that the book looked really inteersting, so I'd be happy to buy one and review it if I felt like it. And I did buy a copy, and I did end up liking it enough to write a review.

The point of that is, it was entirely obvious to me that accepting a freebie at the very least obliges me to review the product. I may write a negative review, but any publicity is good publicity. Taking freebies is unethical, period full stop end of sentence. No, there is no special circumstance where it isn't. Hopefully you state that you received a freebie to review from the company, and that will mean I ignore your review. It has no value.

I'm glad there are FTC rules. I predict they will be almost universally ignored.
posted by rusty at 12:19 PM on February 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


The point of that is, it was entirely obvious to me that accepting a freebie at the very least obliges me to review the product.

Also, I would think that particularly for higher-priced items, even if the reviewer makes an effort to be unbiased, the perspective of the review is going to be different from that of someone who spends his or her own money and effort to acquire it.
posted by troybob at 1:28 PM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I read a number of blogs through RSS, and one of the blogs I follow happens to be written by a lawyer (Corporette). Her interpretation of the FTC rulings led to her placing little disclaimers at the end of every blog post stating how many (if any) 'affiliates' had paid her to write about them in that particular post. For a more coherent explanation, see her's.

I was initially quite enthusiastic about it, glad to see transparent disclosure, and ready to basically ignore the little reminders. As it turned out, those disclosures really do color how I feel about the post and about the blog as well. I'm more likely to pay attention (and feel less slimy about paying attention) if there's a little '0' notation at the end of the post signifying there were no paid sponsors. It's negatively affected my perception of the blog.

So it'll be interesting to see how other bloggers roll out their disclaimers and how that changes my view of their blogs. It's sad, because for a while you could sort of pretend that the internet was still uncommercialized, but with the disclaimers it's once again obvious that the advertising field is determined to be everywhere.
posted by librarylis at 1:33 PM on February 5, 2010


troybob: Damn, yes. I meant to include that point too. If you spent nothing on a product, that can seriously color your judgment of its worth.
posted by rusty at 1:44 PM on February 5, 2010


The point of that is, it was entirely obvious to me that accepting a freebie at the very least obliges me to review the product.

Except it doesn't.

Taking freebies is unethical, period full stop end of sentence. No, there is no special circumstance where it isn't.


Incorrect.

And even if this particular belief of yours were the magical case, then expect any and all reviewers, especially those who would do this for a job, to be limited to the wealthy. Is that ethical?

For example, without getting too much into it, one place I write for receives products for review all the time and if they don't love the product, they simply don't review it. It's never mentioned.

Hopefully you state that you received a freebie to review from the company, and that will mean I ignore your review. It has no value.

A pity that you'll ignore honest work because of your unfounded biases.
posted by cmgonzalez at 2:33 PM on February 5, 2010


A pity that you'll ignore honest work because of your unfounded biases.

And herein lies the problem that I have with personal blogs that take on review "work" without disclosing it to their readers.

I just want to know in advance if a blogger is making money off my page view.
posted by muddgirl at 2:36 PM on February 5, 2010


But I still feel like I write honest reviews, whether I've paid for the book or if I got it for free. So I resent these rules, especially since the free books I've received haven't meant that I'm raking in a ton of money.

I'm sorry, darksong, but I don't see why you're resentful. To me this is just the most honest way to write.

i write reviews on my blog. I write negative ones and positive ones, and I always disclose when I got something from the company to review. I don't accept monetary compensation for a "good" review.

If I don't like it, I say so, and I've been dropped from blogging campaigns for this. It's right there in my guidelines for anyone approaching me: if you send me something, you get my honest opinion, period. Don't send a sample if you can't live with that.

I also give away any review samples I receive, either on the blog or to charity, just to keep myself honest, whenever possible. Books I review go to the library or the thrift store. Perishables, well, I eat them, but I disclose that I got them. Coupons, too. When I went to Blogher two and three years ago, I took pictures of all the swag I got and reviewed it all on the blog, so my readers would know.

I don't have a sponsored blog, and though I have ads on it they barely pay for the postage to send out prizes to winners when I give them away. When someone sponsors a giveaway on my blog, I ask them to send the prizes direct to the winners whenever they can, to cut my costs. I don't even want to deal with them.

I write a lot of review posts, and I hold a lot of giveaways, and I like being a "mommy blogger." But I'm not going to sell my soul, and I'm really glad the FTC is cracking down on those who shamelessly hawk anything they can just for the free swag.
posted by misha at 2:56 PM on February 5, 2010


where's Jeff Gerstman in all this?
posted by shmegegge at 3:00 PM on February 5, 2010


Doing quality work over at Giantbomb.
posted by graventy at 3:16 PM on February 5, 2010


Word-of-mouth marketing might be the scourge of mommy blogs, but mommy blogs are the scourge of the internet.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:20 PM on February 5, 2010


Back in the day, John Sundman (who is now a friend) emailed me out of the blue to ask if I'd review his book, and offered to send me a copy. I said no thank you to the free review copy, but that the book looked really inteersting, so I'd be happy to buy one and review it if I felt like it. And I did buy a copy, and I did end up liking it enough to write a review.
Interestingly, John Sundman did send me a free copy of his book to review. I thought it was terrible though, and did end up writing a review because I didn't want to be mean.

But seriously that book was terrible.
posted by delmoi at 6:13 PM on February 5, 2010


Doing quality work over at Giantbomb.

I suppose what I'm really asking is: what about sites like Gamestop, who we now know beyond doubt accept advertising revenue in exchange not only for reviews but for FAVORABLE ones. do they fall under the auspices of this agreement? do they qualify under blog or are they some kind of magazine classification or what?
posted by shmegegge at 7:13 PM on February 5, 2010


And to continue that line of questioning, shmegegge, when will print media be held to the same FTC guidelines--article by article--that blogs are being held to now that a lot of their content also appears online? Or television? Or radio (have you ever heard morning disc jockeys trying to awkwardly fit faux conversations about a service or product into their on-air banter? God, that's painful to listen to.)
posted by jeanmari at 7:57 PM on February 5, 2010


Metafilter CS geeks, I have a task for you. Write a blog indexer that watches for product placements, and flags them. You could think of it as slopregator--an aggregator for blogs that shovel slop. Over time the worst offenders would be plainly visible to everyone.

It would be absolutely fascinating to watch the ad firms roll out their campaigns in real time.
posted by Decimask at 8:00 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Damn, that would be interesting and, I suspect, relatively easy. Pick up product names from corporate sites by searching for ® symbols and whatnot, then parse the blogs.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:37 PM on February 5, 2010


From year one, we have been offered some seriously crazy, weird free stuff by marketers hoping we'd blog about their product. Free replacement windows for our house. Power tools. A CIRCULAR STAIRCASE.

I'm clearly doing it wrong.

My daughter wants us to have a new yellow car. Anyone? Anyone?

The FTC's rules aren't bad in principle, but they seem to have been created by people who don't quite understand the Internet.

These rules look like they were created by people who understand the Internet very well. It appears you're the one with comprehension problems...
posted by rodgerd at 12:59 AM on February 6, 2010


Fascinating. I'm glad this subject has been brought up and discussed. I was recently in a situation where I was offered the opportunity to look at a particular service for a very large well known brand whom I respected immensely. No monies were exchanged, and I made clear that I was under no obligation to write anything other than my genuine opinion. After finally accessing the service, being deeply dissapointed and then choosing to write the absolute minimal negative review ("it seems to be designed for their manager's approval rather than the user's needs" ;p) with the caveat that I was choosing not to say anything further due to my respect for the organization, all hell broke loose behind the scenes as I started recieving nasty comments and emails from the so called developers of the service. One result was they offered me a job (NDAs anyone?) which I turned down.

the bottomline is that for a writer who reflects on such things, one's good name and reputation are the only assets we have. if we sell out, what remains of our credibility? How do we choose between silence and giving voice to the needs of the poor user? Where do we draw the line?
posted by infini at 2:54 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


> Taking freebies is unethical, period full stop end of sentence. No, there is no special circumstance where it isn't. Hopefully you state that you received a freebie to review from the company, and that will mean I ignore your review. It has no value.

I'm glad there are FTC rules. I predict they will be almost universally ignored.


I'm glad you're so full of your own righteousness. I predict it will be almost universally ignored.

Seriously, your beliefs are adolescent. Get over yourself.
posted by languagehat at 8:15 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


languagehat: Well-argued. I can see you've got a lot of logical firepower on your side here. You might want to expand that a bit and throw in a "sophomoric" or a "naive."

In case it wasn't clear (and clearly it wasn't) I'm talking mainly about individuals reviewing products on what are billed as "personal blogs." Larger organizations hiring writers to review things changes the dynamic somewhat, as there is at least an extra layer of remove between the company pitching the product and the person reviewing it. While the motivation for the review may still be mainly commercial, at least the person reviewing is unlikely to directly benefit from just doing their job. And I'd imagine the distinction gets gray somewhere in the Gizmodo range of group websites that may in fact resemble magazines more than personal blogs.

How about this for a standard: Does the reviewer keep the item given to them to review? If so, they were paid by the product's maker, and their review cannot be considered neutral. Walt Mossberg's ethical statement would be a pretty good place to start if you wanted to develop or think about your own ethical guidelines:

"The products I review are typically lent to me by their manufacturers for a few weeks or months. I return any products I am lent for review, except for items of minor value that companies typically don't want back, such as computer mice or inexpensive software. In the case of these items, I either discard them or give them away to charity."

Adolescent? Perhaps, but I wouldn't want to try to be the one to argue that.
posted by rusty at 7:16 AM on February 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


> languagehat: Well-argued. I can see you've got a lot of logical firepower on your side here.

Ah, killer sarcasm! Well, let's take a look at your "logical firepower." You say:

> The point of that is, it was entirely obvious to me that accepting a freebie at the very least obliges me to review the product. I may write a negative review, but any publicity is good publicity.

It may be "obvious to you," but that doesn't make it any less wrong. I don't review every book I'm sent, and it strikes me as slightly loopy to imagine that there is any such obligation. Furthermore, when they send me books it's always with the express statement that there's no expectation, let alone obligation, to review them at all, let alone favorably. You can't make stuff up and take it as given. And "any publicity is good publicity" is tired-ass bullshit: tell it to Toyota.

Here, let's take a concrete example, if you can bring yourself to get off your high horse for a moment. I was sent a copy of Christopher I. Beckwith's Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present, a book I couldn't have afforded on my own hook. I wrote four detailed posts about it (1, 2, 3, 4). Are you telling me that my lengthy analysis is equivalent to "**** A++++ Would shill again!!!"? Do you think Beckwith and his publisher enjoyed my remarks about his denunciation of "Modernism" ("Yes, he capitalizes Art and Beauty, and yes, he sounds exactly like the clichéd guy complaining that his six-year-old daughter can paint better than that.... He's welcome to bend the ear of the patrons of his neighborhood bar about such things, and he'd doubtless find sympathetic listeners. But it boggles my mind that he considers it relevant, let alone vital, to a history of Eurasia")?

You seem to take it as axiomatic that any product that hasn't been paid for is automatically going to be accepted with slobbering gratitude and raved about. Well, there are other forms of corruption than getting something free. Do you ever review something a friend has recommended? Well, your review is obviously biased and should be ignored, on the same principle that forbids MeFites to post about their friends' projects. Did the outer appearance of something attract your eye? Forget it, you can't be objective. Your knee-jerk attitudes are not only adolescent (and sure, throw in "sophomoric" if you like), they're insulting. Anyone who thinks I shill for publishers who send me books can go straight to hell. My mind and words are my own. If you think otherwise, that's your privilege, and it's my privilege to use that as a means of judging your capacity for intelligent thought.
posted by languagehat at 12:34 PM on February 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Just so we're perfectly clear:

"I personally choose not to accept freebies for review; it violates my principles"—perfectly OK.

"I don't accept freebies for review, and anyone who does is a shill and should be ignored"—assholish.
posted by languagehat at 12:57 PM on February 8, 2010


I suspected I had pissed on your personal self-image there. I'm sorry it's so fragile. If it makes you feel better, I didn't read your reviews before because I never heard of you, but now I won't because, well, you're sort of a dick.

I'm enjoying your dudgeon though. Do carry on, if you have any more.
posted by rusty at 5:06 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


By the way, you make money via Amazon referral links in your reviews, right?
posted by rusty at 5:08 PM on February 8, 2010


If by "pissed on your personal self-image there" you mean "been a complete asshole," you're right. And if by "I'm sorry it's so fragile" you mean "I'm sorry I was such an asshole," apology accepted.
posted by languagehat at 9:35 AM on February 9, 2010


whoa there... I hear (read) what languagehat has just said and I feel the same way as these following snippets,

I don't review every book I'm sent, and it strikes me as slightly loopy to imagine that there is any such obligation. Furthermore, when they send me books it's always with the express statement that there's no expectation, let alone obligation, to review them at all, let alone favorably.
[...]
You seem to take it as axiomatic that any product that hasn't been paid for is automatically going to be accepted with slobbering gratitude and raved about.

This last bit actually has me quite pissed off today since its a far more commonly held thought than imagined and worse when its held by employees of corporations who think that if they say jump, one will simply ask how high.
posted by infini at 9:50 AM on February 9, 2010


The point of that is, it was entirely obvious to me that accepting a freebie at the very least obliges me to review the product.

Your point of view is apparently coming from the land of tech/gadget reviews, and not book reviewing, where this point of view is just...wrong. As an editor, I wrangled freelance reviewers, and as a reviewer, I myself have been wrangled, and even after I stopped being a (book review) editor and book reviewer, I still got free copies of books from publishers sometimes. Before the Great Publishing Crash of...whatever year, most of the big houses had flocks of interns or junior editors whose sole job was to send out review copies - hundreds and hundreds, in some cases - in the hopes of garnering reviews, and the expectation was that the vast majority of those review copies would not end up being read for reviewing purposes. That's just how the business work(ed)(s).

In the world of book reviewing, getting a free copy of a book doesn't oblige you to do jack shit. It certainly doesn't oblige the reviewer to disclaim having gotten it for free, if she does choose to review it (as opposed to having it assigned by an editor). What book review editors worry about is not "Has my reviewer been compromised by receiving this book for free?", it's "Can my reviewer give this an honest review in spite of his relationship with the author/publisher of this book?" or "I hope my reviewer is being honest with me about not having a conflict of interest." That's not an issue than can be addressed by the FTC rules.

You made a sweeping statement about people who write reviews, and it was pretty wrong about a portion of that population. I'm not surprised languagehat got pissed off.
posted by rtha at 11:06 AM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]


rtha: I am happy to pretty much exempt book reviewers from anything I said above -- if nothing else they're working for the one branch of marketing that I'd be sorry to lose (or am sorry we've lost, depending on your level of cynicism/despair). I realize this whole misunderstanding came from my fairly unfortunate choice of personal example, which happened to be a book, but the overall milieu was that of tech blog, where a freebie novel is by far the exception. That event was just, for me, the first time I realized I could be an attractive tool for marketers and had to think about whether I wanted to be one. I decided I'd rather not. The vast, vast majority of what I intended to refer to is stuff like gadget reviews, audiovisual equipment, and the festering mommyblog swamps, not book reviewers and by all means not high-flown academic book reviewers, who need all the help they can get.

But then languagehat jumped in with such gusto that it would have been a shame to admit all that and end the thread prematurely. And what he said was interesting to me, as it turns out. I don't think he realizes that he is in the book marketing business.

His example: "I was sent a copy of Christopher I. Beckwith's Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present... I wrote four detailed posts about it..." This was deployed in an effort to convince me that receiving free books did not affect what he writes about. I maintain (without intending any criticism) that it proves the opposite. That publisher certainly got more than their money's worth out of that gift. I'm not trying to equate "wrote about the book" with "shilled the book" here -- I'm just making the point that reviewing stuff you got for free (and intend to keep), not to mention getting a piece of sales generated by your review, means you are in the book marketing business. He may be (and surely is) in it for his own intellectual reasons, and he may be (I have no idea at all) not that successful at it, in monetary terms. But neither of those changes the commercial nature of the activity. A book marketer who doesn't know he's a book marketer and doesn't make much money at it is nonetheless a book marketer. We desperately need more readers and more (good) books, so I cheer his work. But I suspect he will not be pleased to be described as a book marketer.

That's a little odd, don't you think? From your perspective, does it seem as clear to you as it does to me that reviewers are part of the book marketing business? Or that the specific content of a review has much less to do with its value to the publisher than the organ that review appears in? A neutral or even negative review in a well-regarded and widely-read academic blog might still be the best exposure a niche academic book will ever get. I have no doubt that languagehat writes what he thinks, and writes about what he chooses to. But neither of those facts changes his relationship to the business of book marketing, which brings us back around to my original point, but hopefully in a more subtle way and without anyone being able to accuse me of accusing them of anything so crass as shilling.

As for my follow-on assertion, about languagehat being a dick, I stand by that. I realized later that I have heard of him before, by way of his whiny, flailing, and rather sad attack on (pardon me, "DEMOLITION!" of) David Foster Wallace's Harper's article about the Dictionary of Modern American Usage. So, languagehat, I never thought you were a shill, I still think you're in the book marketing business, and I have apparently thought you were a dick for more than half a decade.

So hopefully that covers everything.
posted by rusty at 2:21 PM on February 9, 2010


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