A Blogger Takes Me to Task on Freebies

Nov 022009
 

You know how sometimes things come back to bite you in the butt? It just happened to me.

Recently I wrote a piece about accepting a free water purifier. At the end, I pointed to Katie’s  Nesting Spot, where Katie wrote a long, enthusiastic post about the pitcher and offered it as a giveaway. I wanted to show that even though I was not willing to do this, hundreds of other bloggers were, and here was a good example.

Being new to blogging, I forgot that Katie could see where her hits were coming from. After a few days, she sent a comment to the blog post:

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“I have been watching this comment thread with some interest. I have to say that I do not consider the pitcher a freebie. I consider it a form of payment for the PR post I wrote and giveaway I managed. I consider it along the lines of an advertisement, and unlike ad buttons this one wasn’t up front and center for an extended period of time.

“As one of your readers pointed out, I did clearly state that I was given the pitcher to review and that the opinions I gave were uninfluenced by the sponsor. In fact, I was told to post whatever I wanted even it was negative. No parameters were put on the content.

“I have turned down several compensated posts and review offers because they are not something I would really use or are not appropriate for my family. In terms of review blogs I am very, very, small potatoes so I was rather shocked to be “called out” on this. My blog is not even primarily reviews. If you had a problem with my post, you should see what some of the bigger blogs put out. I always add some personalization to my posts, but a lot are straight from the PR materials.

“It seems to me from your replies that you did not even bother to read the full post and to the bottom before deciding to criticize it and by extention me. Are you opposed to all sponsored reviews by bloggers? What is it specifically about mine that you picked it out of 4000 to “spotlight”, a dubious honor for certain.”

Gulp. I decided her response was important enough to make it a separate post. It made me realize I applied my journalism standards to a mommy blogger who liked telling her readers about products she believed in. Now I’m struggling with whether to feel bad. She’s a kindergarten teacher who does crafts projects, after all, not a hard-boiled reporter.

She got the pitcher from a website called The Product Review Place, where bloggers put up notices asking for free products to review and give away. The problem is that bloggers tend to write super enthusiastic reviews in exchange, even when not asked to do so (clearly spelled out in a disclaimer on Katie’s blog).

In print, advertorials are in special advertising sections, designated as such at the top, and never written by staff writers. While designed to mimic a publication’s editorial style, content and layout, they are clearly separate and do not reflect endorsement by the publication.

When Katie says above she considers her endorsement like an ad, yep, that’s exactly what it is. But it’s in her blog, as editorial.

The other reason I chose Katie’s post was  it came up easily in Google. Apparently she’s a master at crafting headlines that rise high in the search engine.

So readers, am I being to harsh in applying my journalism standards to Katie’s blog? Let me have it, pros and cons.


  24 Responses to “A Blogger Takes Me to Task on Freebies”

  1. She should thank you for driving hundreds of hits to her website.

    I hate ALL of the mommy bloggers + their product promotions. Call it ad space, call it shill, call it whatever. It’s all annoying. If I want to try product, I’d go buy it. If it’s not good, I’d return it. The 30 day return policy is the second greatest thing in the USA, right after the cheeseburger.

  2. The fact that people shill for a product like this is strange. Who they believe they are serving with their always positive reviews?

    If these bloggers are so enthusiastically positive, how can anyone believe they are impartial? No product I have ever bought has been 100% good. There is always something that could be improved or is just not designed well. These bloggers do the readers an injustice, because they are not critical, and readers may buy something that is not as good as they think. How is that helping?

    While Katie’s review made a few suggestions on improvements, it fails to mention any flaws. Is she afraid if she criticizes a product she will not be given other products to review? If yes, then she is writing for the wrong reasons. She needs to review as a service to the reader, not the manufacturer, and especially not the PR company that gave her the product.

    I have one of these pitchers, and it has issues: the top is difficult to remove at times without lifting out the water tray. Just moving the pitcher at times causes it to “read” as a pour, meaning it will indicate the filter is dead long before it really is. I wonder what happens when the batteries go dead in the “filter life” indicator. The batteries are placed above the water. Could they leak into the water tray? How come not one of these things was mentioned?

    It would be nice to see bloggers be more critical. If they only write about things they like, then they are not doing reviews, they are doing puff pieces. That helps no one, not even themselves.

  3. “Reader beware” always applies, doesn’t it? No, I don’t think that all bloggers should be held to journalistic standards….not all forms of writing are journalism. I get a mailbox full of non-journalism writing most every day: local hospital’s newsletter filled with dubious health & nutritional advice, insurance agent’s “helpful tips” essay on reducing insurance costs, alma mater’s alumni magazine, pet magazine heavily subsidized by Ralson Purina: none are hard journalism.

    As long as she disclosed the source of her giveaway (the manufacturer), the reader isn’t being misled. In the present media climate, I’d wager that most readers are aware of the “marketing angle” in virtually all content.

    • Celeste: Of course it applies. But I disagree with your last statement. Just disclosing the source of the item does not remove misleading or OMITTED information. If I say I got a free widget from Johnson’s widgets, and give it a glowing review, but the widget has problems, then everyone who reads my post will be mislead into thinking the widget is great when in fact it has issues.

      Do not confuse advertisement (those things you get in the mail) with a product review. One is paid for directly by a company for the sole purpose of being positive. A review, on the other hand, is expected to be the person’s truthful, impartial opinion of a product. If bloggers wants to write ads, then they should be upfront and say it is an ad in exchange for the product. At least then we can all know to disregard anything that is said as being impartial.

      And just because someone else does it, does not make it right. The real question here is one of ethics.

      • My point in citing those semi-journalistic newsletters (which aren’t pure advertising) is that quasi-marketing content is the rule these days. Product placement is pervasive in broadcast media, even in local “legitimate” evening news. If the paid, card-carrying professionals who set the standards aren’t upholding them, I don’t see why a random blogger should be held to a code he/she doesn’t even know exists. I stand by my earlier statement: today’s media savvy reader knows to consider the motivation/perspective/angle of all messages.

        How many freelancers/bloggers abide by the code of the Association of Food Journalists? Hell, I know working reporters in daily newspapers who don’t adhere to the AFJ’s code (see it here at http://www.afjonline.com/afj.aspx?pgID=874)

        • Thanks all, for contributing to the discussion.

          Jamie, good point about getting compensated, although getting a free pitcher certainly isn’t worth much.

          Jeanne, yes, advertising may be distasteful, but it’s everywhere these days: ads, infomercials, faux newsletters (I have one) product placement, blogger giveaways, movie product placement, Twitter promo, etc. Re giveaways feeling wrong, I don’t know that they are. They’re fun and people love them. I did one myself on this site, for the Food Blogger Camp coming up in January.

          David, thanks for weighing in with the voice of sanity. Content is definitely king, but many big food bloggers also do giveaways. You and I did, with the Ixtapa trip. Are we culpable? I don’t think what we wrote was advertorial, but we did promote it.

          Cheryl, I have had these thoughts also, and wonder what the poor woman thinks when reading these comments, some of which are vitriolic. (Katie, if you’re reading this, it’s mostly a larger discussion about how bloggers operate on the subject of giveaways. You’re a good writer and your blog is just fine. I hope you don’t regret contacting me.)

          Paris Breakfasts, yes, the purifier is satisfactory, thanks. I think Kathy below had some problems with it, if you’re curious.

          Celeste, good points too. The media certainly isn’t perfect. I don’t think it’s about a code, though. Writers for newspapers and magazines can’t write super-promotional copy and expect an editor to print it. That’s just common sense.

  4. Hate is a big word.

    And calling out “mommy bloggers” is a little like calling out “soccer moms.”
    We’ve all been there in our way, whether or not we consider ourselves one, and I’m assuming naming it as such is meant to be derogatory.

    I think Katie has a right to post whatever she wants; a blog, is after all a personal web-log. That she wants to include ads is up to her; we can choose not to read her blog or to take it seriously, as we want to. I’m not particularly partial to her blog in any way, but respect her right to create content that she feels is meaningful to her, whether it be writing about products or not.

    The debate, seems to me, is really about “content” and what makes a “good” (being relative) blog; and the confusion over whether blogs are now becoming a new form of journalism. Does a blog author a writer (journalist) make?

    I would bet that many bloggers don’t consider themselves journalists, at the same time I don’t think we can argue that they have to be, or that they have to live up to the same standards (at least not yet). There was an interesting tidbid on NPR yesterday about the new “news” sites that are ubiquitous online, how they are driving content and that more and more unemployed journalists are having to look at those sites as opportunities for writing. I think it was connected to a Slate article, though I haven’t looked it up.

    • Thank you for expressing at least partially what I think on this issue. The critique of this woman’s blog and her advert/endorsement with qualifiers/just wanted a free pitcher and did her best to be honest about it is amazing to me. There are so many people posting blogs for so many reasons…the phrase *mommy blogs* is derogatory at best and a cheap shot using a lack of imagination at worst and I’d tend to go with worse since the word ‘hate’ was used. Good lord! What a generalization.

      So. Yes, I think you were a bit harsh on Kate. Yes, I think it’s a valid issue as a JOURNALIST who happens to be well known and writing a blog to be concerned about freebies and endorsements. At least you are taking it on the chin and being honest about your toe in the blog world pool being stomped (not smashed) on. Obviously it’s a big issue. I mean, 15 years ago (and I’m being very generous with time), you had to be an established and published writer in the print media to have anyone ask you to endorse anything. If you got a freebie, it was some survey group willing to pay you to try their product, and you just HOPED you’d get on that list. What person (dare I say Mommy?) didn’t want a free box of ____?

      A little perspective please, folks. From a distance of using the computer for live interaction since before there WAS anything called the internet, or any www. anything, I find it rather shortsighted to deal so arrogantly (not you, Dianne, but many many of your responders) with this woman who really wasn’t the dog in this fight except by happenstance. And for someone to say she should be glad because it got her a lot of hits…wow! What’s the motive behind YOUR blog? Maybe you can get called out too…

      A little history could go a long way here.

  5. I would definitely prefer to see a lot of distance between reviewers and product giveaways whether in print publications, blogs, radio, or whatever. Of course Katie feels uncomfortably singled out and, yes, there are much bigger “potatoes” out there than she is, but I think that anyone who blogs or publishes articles should expect to take some criticism for favorable product reviews for which they’ve received gifts.

    • SinoSoul, you are funny. Maybe if I was a big blogger, but it’s still a very new site.
      Seriously though, there is no reason to hate all bloggers who are moms.

      Celeste, good point about all these dubious newsletters and magazines. Certainly they are not hard journalism, but maybe their bias is easier to spot. A magazine heavily subsidized by Ralston is not going to feature a negative review of dog food, for example. Will have to think about this more.

      Kathy, thanks for pointing out the flaws with the pitcher. That is certainly the point of a balanced review. Re bloggers being impartial, what I’m getting here is that because she discloses that she got it free, there is a low expectation that she will deliver a balanced review. Maybe that’s what Celeste is getting at.

      Nani, you’ve written a thoughtful post. Perhaps the term “mommy blogger” is derogatory. I had a little twinge when I wrote it but went with it anyway. It implies that they are not serious. Mea culpa.

      I guess it depends how you’re defining “journalist.” I wrote about this earlier. I don’t get what is wrong — or unrealistic — about bloggers having the same standards as print product reviewers. The standards evolved for a reason.

      Hi Jan, I don’t think anyone is criticizing them — except me. I’m starting to feel like a curmudgeon.

  6. There are few journalistic standards applied to blogs and fewer bloggers that have any journalism training. But, in my opinion, here is the problem: Enough bloggers present themselves as journalists and enough editors (sadly) are happy to give them work in legitimate publications because of the blogger’s platform, committing to extensive rewrites and fact checking.

    My point is that if some (most?) bloggers see themselves as disseminators of info in the manner of a journalist, then don’t they all have to come up to that standard? For example, a chef informally trained still has to obey the standards of industry re: food safety etc. in his or her restaurant as the one who WAS formally trained. They have to come up to the standard.

    In the case of bloggers, the public has tacitly agreed to (wrongly) treat them as journalists so whether they like it or not, they are called upon to act as such, especially in TRADITIONAL journalistic areas like a product review. So, just like the journo getting kickbacks and tainting their review by association, bloggers should be subject to the same logic. Also, regarding Katie’s entreaty “why me?”, I ask why NOT her? The comment that there are worse out there is immaterial. Why should an armed robber go to jail when there are rapists to pick on? (sorry for harsh example )

  7. I just went back and read your original post as well as Katie’s. For me, there are a number of issues at work here so I will try to address them each separately.

    #1 – I don’t understand the issue of the water purifier at all. I was not at BlogHer but have attended countless conferences and been given dozens of products without any indication that they needed to be promoted somehow. And I was not attending those conferences as a consumer either, but in a professional capacity. I would have accepted the water filter (if I had wanted it) and not thought twice about it.

    #2 – I do believe the term “mommy bloggers” to be a derogatory one and although I am not a mother, I am a blogger and a female and believe the term lumps together all women making a living from having an online presence, and many do it successfully and legitimately.

    #3 – In response to Ramin’s comment: The problem with applying journalistic standards to all bloggers is that not all bloggers are writing to make money or as a business. While some bloggers consider themselves journalists, just as many do not and blog primarily for their own hobby or to share thoughts with friends and family. With the new FCC guidelines, all bloggers will be required to disclose if they are being compensated (whether with money or free product) for a product they are writing about or giving away. If the blogger has a clearly labeled disclaimer then you really can’t begrudge anyone for what they choose to write about – you can only choose to deem it worthy to read or not.

    • Ramin, thanks for posting both here and on Facebook. Okay, your example at the end is a little harsh, but being a fellow journalist, I agree. I don’t think it has occurred to many bloggers that there are standards for product reviews. if they want to write them, they should learn the form. I guess I don’t understand why that should be optional. It doesn’t matter if they’re doing it as a hobby.

      Kathy, I think that is what you’re saying also.

      Michelle, it’s considered crude to ask for hype in exchange for a product, so most p.r. and marketing people don’t. But of course that’s what they want. That’s why they write off the cost of the product and pay for someone to contact you and send it to you. Why else would you deserve a freebie and this investment otherwise? There is no other reason for selecting you. You may choose to ignore that aspect and just use the product, but doing so doesn’t change the intention.

      I’ll have to think more about the idea that bloggers are hobbyists and therefore exempt from standards when it comes to reviews. My gut says: I don’t think so. If that was so, they could choose password-protected sites where only friends and family could read their blogs. Once they get their reviews out there for the public, learning how to score high in Google rankings and attracting strangers to comment for giveaways, they’re fair game, whether they’re paid to do it or not. And many consider freebies payment for their hyped reviews.

      A disclaimer just says they got the product for free. It says nothing about the quality of the review. That is a different topic.

  8. I totally agree that if a PR person is contacting me they are doing so because they are hoping I will share it with others in some fashion. However, with respect to product handouts at conferences and conventions, I just don’t agree that there is any implied pressure to somehow promote the product.

    I do agree that a disclaimer does not necessarily do anything to attest to the quality or thoroughness of the review, which is where a gray area seems to lie.

    Regarding bloggers being held to “journalistic standards”, I have to be completely honest – I have been blogging for over 2.5 years and never have I been exposed to what these may be. As a food blogger, there is a lot of information available about what is involved in attributing credit to recipes, photographs and the like, but I have never seen anything regarding journalistic standards as they may apply to bloggers in terms of reviews. The first and only thing I have seen is the recent revision of the FCC guidelines on accepting compensation (i.e. payment or free product) for reviews and giveaways on blogs. If there is something additional out there specific to journalistic standards I would certainly be interested in reading it.

    • Michelle,
      Journalistic standards, regarding reviews, mean you do a balanced review, not hype or promotion. Reveal the pros and cons of the product in a professional manner, without trashing it. Be measured and fair about the things you don’t like. Don’t tell the manufacturer how to improve the product, because he or she is not your reader. Your reader is the one who might use the product.

  9. I’m still not with you completely that bloggers should be held to the same standards–I mean we may hope that they are or expect as much but show us where it says so; again I think up until maybe recently a lot of blogging has been fair game.

    I mean no one told Julie Powell that she “wasn’t a professional” cook hence couldn’t post recipes on her blog, or she didn’t go to school to learn the proper way to write one (and as someone who writes recipes, there’s good ones and bad ones). If blogs were held to journalistic standards, then we probably wouldn’t have blogs and many of the people who’ve made a name for themselves blogging, wouldn’t have.

    I know that reference is somewhat off the wall, but I still haven’t seen anything that reeks of a “standard” and thus dictates one thing over the other, and much of what is discussed above (in my opinion) is what we would hope to see/expect from people that write reviews. I think I might have to agree with Michelle there. When you start a blog-there’s no button that tells you to prove your chops or that you can do this and not that.

    Perhaps at some point, there will be “professional” blogs and “every man’s” blogs, or a “standard” as such for this kind of thing, but I still think it is our projection to what we believe it should be vs what it is and what is acceptable to many out there. We are seeing this with news sites (Examiner.Com, being one and others), and frankly it’s changing the way newspapers do there reporting, whether we like it or not.

    And still-(playing Devils advocate), perhaps Katie didn’t think there was anything negative to say about the water pitcher, and so didn’t, and hence that is the tone of this particular review. Many restaurant reviews are purely “good” reviews, because that’s what they chose to do. Is it biased? perhaps, but so be it.

    • Hi Nani,

      I think there’s some confusion here. I am talking about my concerns with how some bloggers write reviews and giveaways. But I think bloggers are journalists anyway, by common definition, and wrote about it here.

      Julie Powell has a degree in writing. I thought she started the blog to write regularly on topics she loved: cooking and Julia Child. Not sure what you mean about having to be a professional cook. I don’t think anyone thought she was one, including Powell and Child.

      Have you read Jonathan Gold, speaking of “good” restaurant reviews? He’s my hero. He writes about so much more than how the food tasted. He’s a storyteller, entertainer, a fabulously talented writer, with references to pop culture, music, geography, etc. and he writes with balance. If you’re talking about round-ups or stories about restaurant openings, those are not criticism, and they are rarely other than positive.

      • Hi

        I do understand and agree with some of your points about the reviews and giveaways, I just don’t agree that there is a “standard” that is generally accepted by all.

        I guess, then, I don’t agree that bloggers are journalists (or interchangeable), even by definition, and yes, I do remember that earlier post. I think most people who go into blogging have entirely different reasons, and acting as a journalist is not necessarily one of them.

        I haven’t read Gold though you mentioned him the other day, and agree that good reviews are well rounded with all the things you suggest. I don’t disagree there.

        At any rate-yes Julie Powell may have had a degree in writing, but that doesn’t make her a food writer. In that way, it also gave her the freedom to pursue writing about food in the way that she saw fit, and outside the typical realm of food writing.

  10. I agree with Dianne – it’s a hobby right up until one starts “learning how to score high in Google rankings and attracting strangers to comment for giveaways,” and I’ll add listing themselves at a product reviewer site like The Product Review Place, or any list of product reviewers. At that point, they’re professionals because they expect to gain something of value for their work.

    In most arenas, you’re considered a professional once you start getting compensated. Blogging isn’t any different, whether it be monetary or product compensation. In the Katie example, I think advertorial is the better description of her review. But she goes beyond being “just a teacher” when she starts running advertorials and listing herself as a product reviewer. That’s when professional standards apply.

  11. It seems to me the problem is that we are in a new age and we don’t quite have a place for these bloggers. They aren’t journalists, really. And they aren’t professional reviewers. But what are they? What they do (shill for freebies) feels wrong to me, on a primal level. But, there aren’t any real rules around what they do. Journalists have a code of ethics that is fairly well understood. Professional reviewers have a code of ethics. But, there is no code of ethics (yet) for bloggers of this sort.

    I think one of the reasons why this type of behavior feels wrong to me is that we have a society-wide distaste for advertising. Ask most people, and I’ll bet they would say they would prefer not to see advertising anywhere. Part of this is that advertising is boring and gets in the way of the thing you’ve actually come for–whether it’s a TV show, a magazine article, or a web site. Another part of this is that many advertisers go to great lengths to try to hide the fact that their advertisement is actually an advertisement. For example, pages in a magazine that look just like the magazine content (with a tiny disclaimer at the top that says “advertisement”); or infomercials. This type of advertising feels inherently wrong. Like the advertiser is trying to “put one over on you”–which they are. And no one likes to be duped.

    So, when you get people who spend a good part of their time advertising on purpose (i.e., giving good reviews to products they got in return for the good review), in the content section of their blog, it feels icky. Like an infomercial. It feels at the best, distasteful, and at the worst, dishonest.

    I don’t think Katie’s (or any other blogger’s) disclaimer is helpful in this instance. It still “feels” wrong. And I have found that in my life and work, if something “feels” wrong, it is wrong. Regardless of whether or not I can articulate it. And that’s what many of us are struggling with.

    By the way, I also hate the term “mommy-blogger”. It’s derogatory and somewhat misogynistic. Why not just “blogger”? Qualifying it with “mommy” seems to put it into a realm that’s not quite worthy. But, that’s a whole different discussion.

  12. All good points, especially Jamie’s about blogging stops being a hobby when there’s compensation involved. (Although there might be a few stamp or coin hobbyists who buy and trade that might disagree with us.)

    The most successful food bloggers that I know (I’m not really familiar with other niches, like the mommy blogs) are people who build readership by providing good content. By success, I mean, they have a lot of readers and make some income from their blogs. But none of them, I believe, started out with that intent and you’d be hard-pressed to find advertorials on their sites. Almost all the content is food writing, photography, and recipes of high-quality. And they get helluva monster traffic.

    In the short term, I guess, one can get some freebies here and there. And perhaps make some money. But content is always going to bring people back and generate repeat traffic and visits. I wouldn’t go back to visit a site that was full of paid-reviews, and am not sure others would find that compelling content in the long-run. But it’s good that she’s getting Google rankings so someone must be visiting the site and she got a nice water filter, too! (Although I read the review and didn’t buy one, so am not sure how effective these kinds of posts are…)

  13. I find this discussion fascinating, but also bothersome. I hate the term mommy blogger as much as I hate the term soccer mom (as someone else pointed out). I’m a parent, my kids play soccer — does this have anything to do with my ability to write a coherent sentence / be a professional? Hell no.

    But my larger point is this — why does anyone care what Katie does on her blog? It’s *her* blog. Leave the poor woman alone. Blogging is the only media form that’s nonhierarchical — you don’t need an all-powerful editor handing down assignments, telling you to re-write 10 million times, telling you what is, and isn’t, “appropriate.” Each person should be free to do what s/he wants. If she wants to shill for a free water purifier, let her. Who cares? No reason to embarrass/criticize/demonize this poor woman. She has her standards, you have yours, I have mine… why isn’t that okay? A newspaper has an editorial voice/mission/philosophy and crafts its own standards. Each blogger should be able to follow his/her own standards as well.

  14. Thanks Dianne for Johnathan Gold!
    I’ve rarely done give-aways though I did just list my favorite dog on Pioneer Woman for a Cruset set…I have no idea why I did that. I am now entry #22,356
    I would like to get a water purifyer under any circumstances.
    My friend in Paris no longer has a Rockette lineup of plastic Evian bottles along the floor of her cuisine – she’s switched to a water purifyer!
    Are you happy with yours?

  15. Okay, MJ got the last word (under Nani’s comment). At least she was criticizing me.

    I’ve decided to close this post to comments. It wasn’t my intention to create a forum where people could pick on Katie, especially since I asked at the beginning whether I was picking on her in my previous post. Bigger (food) bloggers hawk products too, so let’s keep that in perspective.

    Thanks to everyone who participated, even if it got a little hostile at times. It was a good discussion, but it turned into a runaway train, and I regret that.

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