Lay Off the Mommy Bloggers

The New York Times gets downright giddy when it can blast bloggers.  So was it any surprise that the Times published an article this week calling out mommy for being corporate dupes?

Hmm. Should I carve up the children or blog about skin care products?

"Hmm. Should I carve up the mainstream media or blog about skin care products?"

The story centered around bloggers – particularly mommy bloggers – who received free products from companies to review.  Some bloggers are in the habit of revealing that the products were free – others don’t.  But the real issue isn’t free products – it is the rare practice of some bloggers being paid to write good reviews.  It is this practice that has caught the attention the Federal Trade Commission.

“Consumers have a right to know when they’re being pitched a product,” said Richard Cleland, an assistant director at the Federal Trade Commission, told the Times.

I agree wholeheartedly.  But let’s be honest here.  It isn’t only bloggers who get free goods and services – it’s also journalists.  In fact, when I was co-leading the global communications for One Laptop Per Child in 2007, we customizarily provided a free XO laptops to reporters – including a columnist at the New York Times.  And he gave us a sparkling review – and did not pay for or return the laptop.  He probably still has it.

When I was a newspaper reporter it was a common practice for reviewers to receive goods for free.  Anything from screenings of movies and plays to new albums and recently released books.  I never saw one book reviewer read a novel and then mail it back to the publishing house.  The book went on their book shelf.  The music reviewer at the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester (MA) used to get so many music CDs that he used to hold mock yard sales to give extras away to fellow reporters.

So why is it a surprise that bloggers do the the same thing?  And let’s not even get into the paid junkets to destinations like Disney World that many journalists take every year.

Do I believe the newspaper reviewers I worked with for many years were influenced to write positive reviews because they received free products?  No, I don’t.

I know how it works because I’m one of those bloggers the Times is criticizing.  I recently ran a culture blog that did books reviews and received boatloads of free books from authors and publishing houses hoping I’d review them.  If I didn’t like a book I gave it a bad review.  If I liked a book, I gave it a great review.  And, quite frankly, most of the books I didn’t have time to read.

But whether the book was free didn’t enter into the equation or effect my review.

Now there’s no doubt that sponsored blog posts – bloggers paid to write positive reviews by corporations – should come labeled that way.  I’m not supportive of that practice.  It’s really a paid placement – an ad.  And if a reader isn’t told that it’s a paid placement then that is dishonest.

We love Harry Potter!  And the tickets sales this story will generate!

We love Harry Potter! And the tickets sales this story will generate!

But the FTC should also look at the same practice of newspapers and magazines – many that are owned by larger corporations.  The practice isn’t as overt as it is at some blogs, but when TIME magazine devotes a cover to a story called “Why Harry Potter Rules” or gives the Hollywood movies rave reviews shouldn’t it be noting prominently that Time Warner – which owns TIME magazine – produces the movies?

I believe there is a big distinction between getting free products to review and being paid to give those products good reviews.  The FTC should crack down on the latter, but I see nothing wrong with the former (especially if the blogger tells her readers that they received the product for free.  But then again when was the last time you read a CD review in a magazine that mentioned that the CD was sent to the reviewer for free?).

I agree with Katja Presnal, a blogger at Skimbaco Lifestyle:  “There is this misconception that bloggers write product reviews to get free stuff,” Pesnal told the Times.  “I don’t blog about a product if I don’t really like it.”

What’s wrong with that?

And perhaps the traditional media should look in the mirror first.

4 Responses to “Lay Off the Mommy Bloggers”

  1. There are, however, many reporters who politely but firmly refuse any gifts, for review or otherwise.

    I recently placed a story on local farming. After the story ran the farmer tried to hand off a small bunch of lettuce and other greens to the reporter. (Farmer did this on my own without my suggesting he do so.) The reporter refused, emphatic that he never ever wanted to create an opportunity for people to say he was in any sort of ethical quandary.

    Whether the item is given pre, post or pitch, media will have their own standards. Readers will usually be able to see through the writing to distinguish whether bounds have been broken.

  2. Awesome post and you are so right–when you read a book or movie review do the journalists disclose that they didn’t pay for their ticket or buy the book? While I do have some problems with bloggers who make no bones about the fact that they are in it for the money and free products and will not do negative reviews because it might end the gravy train (I have seen many discussion threads dedicated to this very topic and plenty of bloggers freely admit to the practice of only writing positive reviews for free products or sponsored posts)–I do think this whole debate in large part an attempt by mainstream media to demean bloggers.

  3. Maggie, since when is a junket to Detroit or a free set of appliances the same as a review copy of a book or CD?

    You’re missing the point by more than a mile; in fact, your own post reinforces the entire thrust of the Times story: “…plenty of bloggers freely admit to the practice of only writing positive reviews for free products….”

    There’s a difference in ethical standards among many non-journalist bloggers. Period. No demeaning intended.

  4. Hi Jeremy:
    Some newspapers and magazines do have gifting policies, but those usually address gifts given directly to individual reporters – not the practice of getting free products and services to review. I definitely think that a “no gifts” policy for a reporter is a good practice – and one that I strictly adhered to while a journalist.

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