Paid posts and the psychology of deception


Yesterday we dropped into a debate with Chris Brogan about the ethics of paid blog posts. Chris is on the advisory board of IZEA, a company that enlists bloggers to write about brands in exchange for payment. Some feel this is OK. Others, like us, think buying online opinions is an ethically challenged gray area of marketing communications.

The real problem, of course, is deception — we can argue as to what degree, but there is no question that paid posts deceive by elevating a topic artificially and by inserting opinions more favorable because they have been bought. (This is one reason why Google seeks to ban paid posts from search results.) Even with disclosure saying a blog post is “a sponsored conversation,” the conflicts of interest and levels of confusion are high.

Does Joseph Jaffe really like his Panasonic TV enough to write about it?

Or is Joseph tweeting because Panasonic is his client, for whom he organizes blogger junkets to build online reviews of Panasonic gadgets? And does Keith Burtis realize, in the exchange above, that he just stumbled into a paid conversation?

Degrees of deception are nothing new. Back in 1996 Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Virginia, asked 147 people to keep a journal of all the lies they told in one week — with surprising results. Lies are extremely common in human communications; in any seven days, we tend to deceive about one-third of the people we talk to one on one. Men and women lie differently (men tend to be more egotistical, lying to inflate their personas, while women are more likely to deceive to appease hurt feelings). The wildest finding was that the intent of most lies was to be helpful. We use falsehoods to make others feel better. We even may need lies to boost our own self-esteem.

So what’s wrong with a good lie?

All communication contains a spectrum of truth vs. fiction, but the closer we get to untruths the more cognitive dissonance we encounter. Since humans need to sort their way through life by making judgments based on outside information, we often rely on others to tell us what is going on in the world. Dishonesty can make us feel better; it can also be dangerous by skewing the facts in ways that lead to wrong assumptions. We may have an evolutionary bias toward the truth; cave men who lied about sabre-toothed tigers may have gotten their friends eaten, and only the skeptical survived to pass down genes.

Advertising, of course, is often filled with stretched truths; this may be why media have demanded for a century that advertising be clearly labeled, so that consumers can judge the communication with a grain of salt.

Lies and half-truths surround us. This probably explains why people fight so much over politics, since there may be no right answer. It also hints at why paid posts are so controversial. In a world of imperfect information, it strains our mental data intake to learn that supposedly authentic opinions online may, or may not, be skewed by cash changing hands.

Photo: Riot Jane

10 thoughts on “Paid posts and the psychology of deception

  1. Okay, time to move this conversation off Twitter. 😉

    Ben, in principle I agree with you. A paid post is less authentic and compromises the integrity of the blogger. It can even violate trust with a blogger’s audience. (Although this point is debatable, depending on the blogger and the audience expectations in the first place. For instance, people still read Perez Hilton’s trash no matter who buys him off and people still tune in to iJustine for…ah… obvious reasons.)

    But I have to say that the basic premise that opinion is sacrosanct is flawed. Opinions are bought and sold every single day. Whether it’s a freebie handed out at a supermarket or a donation to your charity or a good customer service experience, opinion is always up for sale.

    We have a whole industry built around opinion for sale. It’s called advertising and public relations. You can’t tell me every PR profession who has ever stood in front of the cameras to deliver the prepared statement has always been 100% in agreement with the that statement or the opinion. And by saying this, I am not questioning the ethics or truthfulness of PR as an industry. I’m just saying their opinion and voice has been bought by the client.

    There is no doubt that I personally am suspect of an opinion where I know that this opinion has been bought. But it’s a large leap for me to say that it is always unethical or dishonest. Influenced, maybe. But a lie? Most likely not. I would still trust a paid blogger opinion over any other marketing or PR message I heard, because they ARE less likely to be groomed in the arts of persuasion, like the rest of us in the marketing disciplines.

    Now if this were news or genuine journalism, I would be more in your camp. But then we’re talking the difference between personal and professional. My personal opinion is mine to sell. My professional opinion belongs to my employer and the ethics they uphold.

    Also, you singled out Mr. Jaffe. But again, how is what he is doing any different than what ANY PR professional would do? You see the opportunity to promote your client and you take it. It may be part of why people distrust advertising, but saying it is wrong condemns the entire promotional machine.

    It seems odd that I should make a big deal about this when, again, I personally agree that untainted opinion carries more weight. But in the end, it’s my choice to sell my opinion to whom I wish. Money or compensation doesn’t suddenly make opinion automatically evil or wrong. If that were so, every person who loves the company they work for would be automatically unethical for talking good about their job.

    As usual, though, I love your posts. Always thought provoking and I definitely want you back on the show. 🙂

  2. Bob, strong points.

    My response is you can’t be two things at once. If you are a PR person defending the GOP on CNN, that’s your role, OK. But then don’t try to be a thought-leader with real insight on issues at the same time.

    I agree with you that “untainted opinion carries more weight.” It’s a choice. If people want real credibility, then authenticity is the path. I have clients and they don’t appear on my blog or Twitter, because I work to keep my opinions unbiased — which will add more value to them in the future based on what *really* works in marketing, not what I’m paid to think.

    Make a mental checklist of all the people you really respect in the marketing field — I would suggest Chris Anderson, Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, Michael Porter, Nassim Taleb — and then think how many have taken money to offer an opinion.

    There is no Venn diagram that combines authenticity with shilling. You can do one; pick a circle 😉

  3. In the end, though, the point you make is that “PPP inevitably compromises the author’s authenticity,” and I can’t disagree. But that truth neither causes me to feel that PPP is wrong nor does it sway me from seeking out blogger support for my clients. It just makes it a decision I personally would not make for my own blog, because my whole premise is one of “thinking beyond promotion of my business.”

    However in my other interactions on Twitter or FB? I would have no issue talking up my client or saying that I am a consultant currently accepting new clients. 🙂

  4. Aside from the PPP issue and your arsonist ways, ;-p what if you looked at it this way: It’s not a matter of deceptions, rather, how much will you reveal to someone in any conversation. You just don’t walk up to someone you meet at a party and tell them your life story. Takes time, right? That’s not you lying, that’s just manners.

    Same with paid reviews, etc. Rings false in this context though: I’m on Twitter and I actually need a cell phone, (as I did last year), but I was undecided on one model. I asked “LG VU, who has one, like, dislike?” I set myself up for any response that would come, right?

    If it came from a dude paid to review stuff, that wouldn’t bother me, again, I asked, BUT, if he hadn’t used the thing and was giving me false info just because his deal was to reply to any and all mentions, I’d be pissed.

    Further SNAFUing things, if it happened to be a Best Buy employee giving me advice, I’d be open to it because now, my expectation is such that when I see that uniform, I know that’s his job. In that context, I’m cool with it.

    (Of course we’re talking unsolicited convos in your scenario Ben, just throwing this out there as another possible one.)

  5. Bob, your argument for these tweets doesn’t hold water for me. When you say that opinions are for sale, I’m reading that you mean that people’s REAL opinions can be changed because of financial incentive. On the other hand, what we’re seeing on twitter is the shallow addition of a false opinion marked with a hashtag

    Other organizations even add the text themselves, without the user even having to pretend to have the opinion. These aren’t opinions in my Opinion, they’re lies. You couldn’t pay me enough to lie.

  6. Ed, I wholeheartedly agree with you! And I think the conversation has strayed pretty far from the original point of the post, so thank you for bringing us back.

    Yes, it is unethical to hand over your twitter account to someone and have them tweet ads in your name. It’s false advertising. What I question is whether PPP is wrong in a blanket way. I say it is questionable, but certainly not wrong. (And thus, I go off topic again!)

    For instance. Joystiq (video game blog) recently made a big deal of turning down Capcom’s offer to fly them out out to a conference to hear their big game announcements. They claimed ethics. Yet they routinely sell ad space for game companies on their pages (including to Capcom.) Doesn’t that compromise them just as much when they are reviewing these games? They can’t claim the same separation between ad sales and journalists that existed at one point in the newspaper biz.

    I simply think the jury is out on PPP. I have a hard time saying it’s wrong and have yet to see a compelling argument to show me it is. It is certainly suspect, but that’s as far as I can go.

  7. Bob, I agree Kmart that inserting a brand Nike into a blog Coke or opinion Walmart or comment Radian6 has no bearing Sears on whether Panasonic the opinion Starbucks is the McDonald’s blogger’s own. So what Walgreens in the world BMW is the Thought Gadgets ethical problem? Isn’t it naive Apple to think doing so TheBeanCast might diminish M&M’s the voice of the Verizon author?

    Silly Samsonite me.

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