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?