The problem with Chris Brogan’s Kmart promotion


If you read blogs regularly you know that certain minds carry authority. Chris Brogan is one, attracting about 185,000 readers to his main site each month, and he provides wonderful advice on how to set up and manage social media programs. He’s an upcoming guru akin to Don Peppers in the 1990s and Seth Godin in the early 2000s.

So why are we, an ad agency, disturbed that he is pitching Kmart on a blog?

Call it the gray area of o-pay-nion, where an advertiser offers an online blogger money to write about a product. Advertorial copy has been around in newspapers since the 1940s and the intent is often to deceive — trick the reader into thinking the opinion is a valid autonomous endorsement, when really it’s all staged. IZEA is the agency behind the recent Kmart campaign, where six influential bloggers were given $500 gift cards to “experience” shopping at Kmart and then blog about it. Chris Brogan’s write-up was clearly labeled a sponsored post. In between glowing endorsements of Kmart’s vast product selection he included a few faint critiques, such as dismay that Kmart has a limited CD selection.

So what’s wrong?

This pay-per-post gambit dilutes the power of both pure editorial and paid advertising. Let’s start with the pure editorial — it’s an opinion or news report that is influenced by no one but the writer, and readers love strong minds with pure intent because they believe the information provided will be 100% useful. You may not agree with the liberal commentator on MSNBC or the conservative on Fox News, but you believe where they are coming from, and because you judge the input to be factual you take it in entirely to recast as your own opinion. Editorial comments are healthy vegetables for the mind.

Paid advertising is the flip side, an obvious attempt to spin a message to get a consumer to buy. (We work all day at our shop designing media plans trying to make ads work as effectively as possible. Yes, it’s manipulation.) But the beauty of promotional advertising is it is obvious — and consumers can judge it fairly to see if the message about the new car, new bank, or new cell phone is something they want. Paid advertising is the dark chocolate for the mind, a sweet treat that may be bad, but you indulge because you know it will fulfill your cravings.

Alas, pay-per-post blogging makes a distasteful chocolate-veggie soup. It’s worse than advertorial because the opinion of a noted writer is misrepresented to favor something that he or she really does not. The resulting opaynion makes the ad message weak (do we believe what Mr. Brogan writes about Kmart?) and erodes the power of the editorial voice (hmm, what do we think tomorrow when Mr. Brogan blogs about another retailer?). Neither writer nor sponsor win.

We don’t mean to sound haughty; we have deep respect for Mr. Brogan, who over tweets with us this Saturday morning professed his innocence. Many of his regular readers agree — hey, the post was clearly labeled “sponsored.” But if you think beyond the $500 caveats you’ll see upcoming thought-leaders at risk of losing the credibility of their opinions, if some of those thoughts are forged under the banner of “paid idea here.”

Yes, advertorials are common in print, and talking heads give voice to ad scripts on the radio. But the internet media is more bent toward knowledge … and now that knowledge is getting bent. The more bloggers who sell out, even under full disclosure, the less value the blogging channel will have — until the information is so discounted that marketers will have to move elsewhere to find new ways to manipulate the minds of consumers. Maintaining autonomy, especially in the world of marketing and advertising, is an almost impossible task. Here’s to the growing few who try.

UPDATE: Chris Brogan responds to the Kmart pay-per-post controversy here. Most of his readers don’t see a conflict. What do you think?

25 thoughts on “The problem with Chris Brogan’s Kmart promotion

  1. Hi Ben,
    You have an interesting take on the Kmart/Chris Brogan blog post.
    I have to say, I don’t agree with you though.
    I don’t see what’s wrong with someone being paid to review a store– as long (as Chris has) it is fully disclosed.
    I DO, however, think Kmart would have been wiser to use a real customer rather then hiring one.
    (I wrote a post on that on my site: http://www.nooozeguy.com/chris-brogan-kmart-are-wrong/).
    Thanks,
    Josh

  2. Great post Ben and I wasn’t sure I was 100% in agreement at first…after all, everyone knows about advertorials in print, right?

    That’s until I looked at the pay per post site.

    It’s in your face to the point of being crass and I’m surprised major brands go for it.

    At a time when we’re still struggling for credibility (much as we might like to think we have it within the echo chamber), it devalues us and it devalues the brands who stump up the money for endorsements.

  3. Nooozeguy, I respect your point. My beef is the entire presentation is misleading, because the “Kmart opinion” is NOT true.

    I would ask Chris Brogan 3 questions:

    1. Would he have ever written about Kmart without payment?
    2. Did the payment influence making his “opinion” more positive?

    Either one is a form of manipulation, because it presents a “thought” that is unreal. Think of it like this — the INTENT of the campaign is to MISLEAD people into thinking a thought guru likes Kmart. I don’t think communications have to mislead to be successful.

  4. I am not sure that when Chris clearly states up front what is leading him to write the story of his shopping at Kmart that it is so bad. He does not hide how this came about. He is transparent.

    Many seem to want social media to be pure from anything that resembles old media. But things do not really change 100%. Look at those who claimed the “rules” of the stock market changed during the dot com bubble. Oppos, the rules were not so different.

    Anyone who has built a platform will attract others who want to pay for those eyeballs. It will forever happen in old media and online social media. As long as writers are transparent and clear about what they are doing, Isee no problem with this.

    There are no clear “rules” on how blogs and bloggers must behave. Those who read have the power to walk away, but those with platforms like Mr. Brogan will forever see offers to try products.

    It is the “newness” of the medium that makes it so exciting. But also brings old time companies like Kmart to want to try to play. If this is their only toe into social media it will fail … but at least they are trying.

  5. Good points Thom. I think Dirk Singer had the best response on his blog http://www.thisisherd.com when he said it comes down to a credibility gap.

    Dirk wrote:

    “Some of us sell ad space on our sites, but we also write the editorial material. In magazines and newspapers advertorials are handled by the ad departments, it’s not something editorial writers would put their name too. We however are both editors and publishers.”

    Bloggers, even stars, who shill in one post under a paid caveat do erode the power they have in persuading when they put on the “pure” editorial hat in a later post. There’s a reason why old-school news media separated ad control from editorial control — not because the owners of said media were morally righteous, but because it makes sense. Mixing the two eventually erodes credibility, which leads to smaller audiences and a failed business.

    You can find Dirk’s post here.

  6. There’s another issue I just raised there in his most recent post.

    How does a contest/promotion like this run when someone on the ‘board’ of the agency that created it is paid $500 to participate. Forget all the sheep saying monetizing is good and blah blah blah.

    You wanna make money off your blog, have at it and who am I to say. But when did a brand’s legal department just say it’s now okay to give away cash and, oh btw, let’s pay someone from the agency to take part. (Waiting on an answer from Chris so we’ll have to see.)

  7. I’ll repeat what I wrote on Chris’ blog to see if you all have a different take on this.

    I see it this way. To make money online you can:
    1) Sell products and services (including content)
    2) Post free content (and get paid by advertisers)
    3) Post free content in exchange for credibility (which can be redeemed for consulting fees, books, sponsorships, conference appearances, etc.)

    It seems to me as though Chris falls into category number three. He clearly identified how he was compensated up front. What’s more, he wasn’t pitching a social media product or service (which might be seen as a conflict of interest).

    I don’t see anything wrong with his choice.

  8. I think essentially Joe, you are right – if you are a blogger it’s your site, and you can do with it as you please, even to sell off sponsored spots (the credibility issue not withstanding).

    The main problem I really have though is with the product offering of Izea and payperpost.

    Go into payperpost.com and tell me: As a blogger would you really want any part of it, and as a brand, would you really see it as a good way to reach online communities?

  9. I have heard some folks critizise that he took the money and wrote a glowing review. That implies that if he had written a nasty review then it would be okay. Could it be he took the money and wrote about the experience…and in this case it was glowing.

    I have actually enjoyed reading the threads on dozens of blogs about this, as it is very informative in many ways. I just think that bloggers are not journalists, thus not tagged by the same rules.

    Ben, thanks for letting your blog be a forum for this discussion!

  10. Fully and completely agree with you. Hey, free speech has no limits and bloggers should be able to monetize their blogs any way they want to.

    Which makes the way they choose to do so all the more important. Don’t muddy those editorial waters and let’s not be calling them “sponsored” posts. A sponsor is on the side, it matters not who sponsors the program because the program, event, conference goes on as it normally would. But these are PAID posts and the content is 100% changed because all of a sudden, we’re talking about KMart. We are buying into their manipulated messaging to call them “sponsored posts”. It’s no wonder that PayPerPost had to change its name to IZEA–but to now call them sponsored posts? Sorry, I’m a marketer, you can’t fool me.

    And being that we’re marketers can’t we get a little more creative than to say “This post is sponsored by XYZ”. Funny how un-innovative these “innovative” ways to monetize are. I expected better but, just as with that magpie madness, I feel better meeting others who share these views.

    Is trust really worth it? (the worst is having to ask oneself that question after they’ve risked it)

  11. Perhaps I’m being a bit naive here, but from what I understand, K-mart asked and paid Chris to do a review. In other words he was asked to, and paid for a provision of a service. K-mart didn’t ask him to do a positive or negative review, just a review. I think it’s a risk the company takes. Chris did the job. He went into K-mart, and wrote about his experience.

    Perhaps K-mart or any company paying for that sort of a service should be able to read the article before publishing, to decide if it should be published. A positive review by a big name blogger, journalist, whatever, is obviously advantageous. However from that unpublished negative review the company can make an analysis, make changes and ultimately reap financial benefits that way.

  12. Seems to be a Perfect Storm on steroids forming as multiple issues collide:

    1) Should someone be paid to blog about a product, (either by the brand directly or through PayPerPost).

    2) Should bloggers monetize, and if so, how?

    3) Does being paid/compensated in any way affect a review?

    4) Being on a board of an agency running a brand’s promotion that you are part of as a paid promoter.

    If Chris is taking a hit for No.1, then all the bloggers in the contest should be as well because it’s not fair to single him out. (Like I said, more power to anyone who wants to get paid from their blog.)

    No. 2 is open to interpretation, because once you become okay with No. 1, then it’s just a matter of how: Anything from Google AdSense to PPP to full sponsorship of the blog by a single advertiser, and again, it’s up to the individual if they choose to go down that road.

    No. 3 is a gray area. If you don’t normally review stuff and then you’re picked to do it, who’s to say? Your regular audience will know if your tone of writing changes, so I’d have to take the blogger at their word when they say they’ll be unbiased. But that’s if I know them. Much easier to make that call than if I were reading a total stranger. Like…

    The people on PayPerPost who seem to think this can be a great career. “I can be a paid reviewer in my spare time!” What I’ve seen there though is people finding things to say about a product, rather than it being a genuine endorsement of a product they absolutely love and have used forever. I would hope the audience could tell the difference.

    The flip side there is Consumer Reports. Paid to review any product without carrying any advertising in print or their website and are as trusted as any publication around.

    Then there are the full-time movie and music reviewers/critics who get passes to all the films/clubs, yet have no problem being negative if it’s warranted—or giving a glowing review.

    No. 4 is my personal sticking point and something I wouldn’t do. I’ve run into this situation several times with major brands on promotions I’ve done. Eligibility requirements for any sweepstakes clearly say agencies and their employees or affiliates are not allowed to participate in a given sweepstakes/contest.

    Even a little gray area there relative to involvement on a board would’ve been enough for me to walk away, just because I knew how it would appear.

    Granted, this isn’t some major conspiracy about national secrets were talking about—it’s a Kmart promotion. But it’s the principle that matters in this case, and is something all agencies have to abide by.

  13. Give me a break, please!

    Truth is that most of us guy bloggers would be willing to give up their left nut to be as successful as Brogan is.

    Chris’s adverpost about KMart will not kill the goose that lays the golden egg, folks. Hogwash!

    Most people in business (I mean REAL business – not the Internet interlopers who think of themselves as business people or, gasp, even journalists.

    Brogan is not a journalist, in my opinion. He is an evangelist for social networking. If he didn’t exist we would have to invent Brogan.

    A journalist (my view) is someone who comments and opines about current news events. Journalists are bound by certain rules and regs, if you will.

    What rules must an Evangelist follow? Are there any rules set yet for this? If so, WHO is making the rules. US?

    Seems to me that a lot of folks in the blogging arena have too much time on their hands. Like me. I made time to post here. I should be blogging!

    Giddy UP!

  14. MTLB, insightful.

    Greg, appreciate your disagreement — especially because you weren’t compensated to say that. So I’ll take it as your real opinion.

  15. It’s a tough call. It’s near Christmas. I’m a parent of four kids. Money is tight, and pro bloggers know that jobs are disappearing right and left. To get $500 toward Christmas for one post would be tempting as all get-out.

    It would depend on the terms of the agreement, I guess. I’ve received products for review before, but always with the understanding that my review be completely and totally honest. It’s not an advertorial in the slightest, but an unbiased review, and I’ve never had a problem saying that I hated something that I received like that. But if it was a “Here’s a $500 gift card for pimping how great it is to shop there… no negatives, please” I don’t think I could do it, as tempting as it may be to defray some of the holiday expenses.

    Advertorials are an icky area of pro blogging and marketers should just abandon them altogether. For every customer they lure in with them, they have to lose others that wonder how desperate a company has to be to want Loren Feldman’s endoresement.

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