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Holier than thou? When it comes to pay to play, blogging is looking a lot like print

22 comments

Some time ago I came across a story about an website, classymommy, whose writer is sent tons of baby toys and products in order to promote them on her blog. For example, if you go there now, you’ll find her writing that she’s “a huge fan” of California Baby Natural Bug Repellent spray; she and her family “love” the Wiggling Water Sprinkler; and her child, MacKenzie, “is nuts for” the Wave & Learn Magic Spelling Wand from Super WHY — all of which she presumably got for free.

True, in her “About” section, classmommy tells product manafacturers, “If you would like to have your product reviewed and possibly featured on Classy Mommy, send an email to reviews@classymommy.com for more information and details on where to ship your sample…”. She’s also got a link to a rate card for advertisers. But it’s not clear to me at all that classymommy’s readers read her “about” link, and thus know that her site is actually an online advertorial.

A couple days ago Jeff Lefevere, who blogs at goodgrape, sent me a link to a website, MarketingVOX, that ran an article about another mommy blog, momdot, that just issued a “P.R. Blackout Challenge.” Basically, momdot is asking all mommy blogs that receive “hundreds, if not thousands, of product requests each year resulting in massive obligations” to go for one whole week without blogging about baby products and services. That will give all the mommy bloggers the freedom to blog about things that are really meaningful to them: “…your kids, your marriage, your college, your hopes, your dreams, your house and whatever you can come up with for one week.”

This suggests to me that the mommy bloggers realize on some level that their original inspiration for blogging has been hijacked by getting sucked into the corporate P.R. whirlpool. I suspect the moms like all the free stuff, but at some level of consciousness they’re feeling a little guilty about being shills. Of course, if they go back to blogging about “hopes and dreams,” the free stuff stops.

When the New York Times reported on classymommy last Sunday, the reporter wrote, “The proliferation of paid sponsorships [like classymommy.com] online has not been without controversy. Some in the online world deride the actions as kickbacks. Others also question the legitimacy of bloggers’ opinions, even when the commercial relationships are clearly outlined to readers.” The article also contained a link to a Federal Trade Commission notice of proposed rulemaking, in which the  FTC announced it may require online media to disclose all freebies, in a clear, upfront way, under its truth-in-advertising rules.

The mommy blogs may be the most egregious examples of pay-to-play in the blogosphere, but they may also be the canaries in the coal mine: If mommy blogs can fall victim to payola so readily, then maybe other subject-specific blogs, that started out innocently enough, also can.

I think wine blogs have been largely immune to this kind of thing, so far. But the times are changing. More and more bloggers are getting more and more free samples from wineries. They’re getting more advertising, too. And it’s just a matter of time before paid trips, junkets and free restaurant meals start flowing the bloggers’ way (as they do mine). I’m not saying any of this is necessarily damaging to a blogger’s reputation or credibility, any more than it is to mine. Just saying that we’re a year past last summer’s Rockaway crisis, and as far as I can tell, the chatter about ethics and transparency this Summer  is considerably less than it was in the Summer of ‘08. Hmm.

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.George Orwell, Animal Farm (1945)

  1. “And it’s just a matter of time before paid trips, junkets and free restaurant meals start flowing the bloggers’ way (as they do mine).”

    They already do Steve. That stuff comes my way now. So do (lots) of samples products and things that seem increasingly less & less connected to wine (like electronics… WTF?). And the majority of my blog posts aren’t wine / product reviews.

    I don’t know if these amount to bribes, but I suppose it’s growing increasingly unlikely that a product sent to me will be featured on my blog unless you count popping up as a 140-character twitter tasting note (hardly extensive coverage though it’s possible that quite a few people will see the product name if everyone who reads / subscribes / etc. sees it).

    Given that some of the junkets, dinners, etc. can lead to bigger things – like TTL events that I help organize if I REALLY like what I’m tasting – then I suppose there is a decent pay-off for the people sending the freebies, but the odds are lower that they’ll get that treatment.

    Long-winded way of saying that every blog will treat this differently – and that’s ok. If you’re transparent about it, then let the readers decide what they consider trustworthy.

    Rockaway was only a crisis because so many of us commented on it without discussing the background with the participants first. Seems to me the wine blogging comunity has rebounded nicely. We are keeping each other honest, no?

  2. Jim Caudill says:

    They had the moms you mention in a story on CBS Sunday Morning (the finest 90 minutes on television each and every week) and it appears there’s a raging controversy back and forth in the world of mommy blogs. It also appeared that some moms were spending so much time and effort on their blogs that they were forgetting…the kids. Wine bloggers get forgetful too, but for an entirely different set of reasons.

  3. 1WineDude, yup, we’re keeping each other honest.

  4. If the transparency in glossy print magazines were even half that consistently demonstrated on the better wine blogs, the wine world would be a far better place.

  5. I get it for a lot of bloggers, but how would I be classified? As a buyer for a retail store, I get samples all the time, but not to be featured on my blog, but to determine whether or not we will carry them in our stores. My blogging is really being done out of the extension of my love of and need for writing. I realize writers like you, Steve, and fellow bloggers like Joe and Jeff, have to walk that tightrope all the time, but I guess my question is, am I in more trouble because I blog and buy for retail, if I succumb to the corporate whirlpool?

  6. Kevin, I don’t know! I’m just saying that blogging and traditional writing aren’t all that far apart, or as far apart as some thought.

  7. I think quite a few mom bloggers now get into it in order to make money through exposure through sample reviews through advertising revenue through more exposure, etc., etc. Those who started out blogging about hopes and dreams, and found success inadvertently, have been followed by the frankly work-from-home crowd. One result is that the mom blogging world has to be the most boring corner of the internet, ever. Its major contribution to life and thought will probably forever be the fun phrase WOO HOO, which I like to use much too much myself.

  8. I have a few thoughts with respect to sampling vs. outright shilling.

    For one, I think professional writers have more to lose than bloggers, most of whom make next to nothing from blogging. Professionals have their credibility to lose, while bloggers have free wine to gain. Certainly this has lead to some blogs whose motives are clearly on the side of shilling and some that are in a grey zone.

    If you don’t review wines every day, you’ll probably be in awe of a $70 (retail) bottle of wine sent as a blog/press sample. That can certainly skew perceptions knowing it is supposed to be really, really good based on the price. But it’s also really exciting to know you got this really great stuff free. Between ‘anchoring’ based on perceived quality and the bonus of being a great QPR (Quality/Price = Infinity), there’s little chance the review will be objective, even if it is honest.

    Finally, there’s a question of experience level. The top critics are exposed to many wine styles over a range of price points and quality levels. Critics come into the process with their tastes well-defined and a lot of general context. What is particularly disconcerting is how bloggers’ tastes can be defined by the samples they receive. Why pay to learn about Bandol rose or Barbera when a US winery will send you a nice wine for free? This perhaps concerns me the most because I think individuals who desire autonomy are being subtly manipulated. They aren’t exposed to different styles, and as a result may end up with a narrow range of appreciation. This is good for the producers sending the wines, but for everyone else????

  9. Greg, what a great comment. Thanks.

  10. Greg – excellent point and insightful comment. I’d never considered that some regions could be kept totally off the radar screen for some bloggers, but I think you do point out a valid concern. I’m just such a geek that I go out and buy wines from Bandol and many other lesser-known (for US consumers) areas… but I can understand how the incentive to do so could be less for bloggers that get a lot of free samples.

    Of course, those sending the samples are probably from several sources and not coordinated, and unlikely to be manipulating bloggers. But the result could be that the regions with access and big budgets get the coverage.

  11. Joe–

    You nicely address one of Greg’s points, but the larger point of context is not addressed except peripherally.

    When professional reviewers of lots of wines do their tastings, they are typically in peer-to-peer settings and cover more than a handful of wines. Except for a few bloggers, most do not have the luxury of doing that kind of extensive tasting for the simple reasons that they have neither the budget for it (if they buy the wine they taste as some of us do) or because they are not able to gather a large number of samples the way WE or WS or WA or any other of the media that focus primarily on samples.

    The Rockaway situation was not caused by a winery trying to manipulate bloggers. It was caused by bloggers who, as Greg said, had no context to judge the wine and so loved it without context.

    No matter that the wine was, in fact, pretty good, I would submit that any ripe, rich, reasonably polished big ticket Cabernet would have received the same treatment. Good on the folks at Rod Strong for sussing that one out. Notice, however, that it has not exactly become a trend.

    But even if Greg and/or I are right about the reason for the result, the next question is this: So what?

    If casual commentary in the blogosphere or on Snooth or Tooth or You Name The Truth is going to replace serious journalism, then it is going to replace existing professional journalism because that is the way it will be. I am not one who really cares who gets samples or how much they think they have to say.

    If Steve or I or Parker or Tanzer or Laube or Clyde Kolm or anyone else in the existing media cannot convince enough people that our versions of the truth have substantially more validity because of the way we conduct our business, then we are cooked and so be it. Ultimately the market gets what it wants.

  12. Thanks for the opening Charlie… I received the press release today that Snooth has hooked up with Epicurious.com to provide recommendations for different wines that pair well with each of the huge number of recipes that that get posted on epicurous (a name which, incidently, Condé Nast stole from me–but that’s another story). This prompted me to surf over to Snooth which now boasts that it has over one million reviews on its site. I clicked on one of the wines that was suggested to go with Chinese noodles with smoked duck and snow peas: Macmurray Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2005. I discovered that they source wine enthusiasts/members, “serious journalists” and merchants (Zachy’s, Morrell, wine.com) to come up with their ratings, oftentimes repeating the same review several times (buggy software I suppose). A real mixed crowd. Over at CellarTracker, 17 winedrinkers had posted their “casual” commentary, not serious of course since they aren’t journalists, but one sure got a sense of how the wine tasted to one’s peers. And I doubt these CT participants were reporting on a sample they received. . . .

  13. Greg makes a few interesting points, but it is as inaccurate to suggest with broad-brush that bloggers lack breadth of tasting experience as it is to assume that traditional wine critics do. The average dedicated-amateur blogger is accustomed to tasting mostly based on his/her own tastes, which will vary widely. On the other hand, consider the “beat” critic; is tasting 100s of wines each month within a prescribed category going to expose that critic to variety? Not necessarily.

    Perhaps more important, despite Steve’s prediction that bloggers are now going to be tempted toward the sample trough, I believe that most bloggers still pay for a majority of the wines they drink and write about. (I believe Charlie fits into this category as well.) This gives them a real-world edge that critics who specialize in samples of one region lack. And it adds a degree of authenticity to their reviews.

    Moving forward, the bottom line is that bloggers will need to be more conscious of their transparency and the context in which they present the wines they review.

  14. Tish, I’m not saying that everyone lacks experience. But I would say that there are a relatively small number of blogs–at least those that I’m aware of–that receive a relatively large number of samples. Those could be people who have been drinking wine since the days when top Bordeaux was an affordable luxury to the wine nerd. Or they could be folks like me that are developing an appreciation. It’s that latter group that concerns me most.

    Marketers are smart. I’m not saying they’re coordinated in some conspiracy, but they will probably reach similar conclusions as to which blogs give them the best return for their investment. These bloggers need to be self-aware more than anything else.

  15. I agree with Greg. Marketers are paid to market. They’ll go wherever they think they can get the best press. If it’s a newbie blogger who has 700 Twitter friends, it’s probably worthwhile paying for a free bottle and postage. Can’t hurt, anyway.

  16. The question of just how valuable the new media will be is a very open question. If there are 1000 blogs, as some have said, only a handful of those are going to be worth engaging on any kind of a regular basis because they lack a dedicated audience.

    The Rod Strong gambit will be repeated from time to time, but if a thousand wineries start sending a thousand sample to each blogger, only UPS will profit.

  17. Oops, make that a thousand wineries start sending sample to a thousand bloggers, only UPS will profit.

  18. So much good discussion going on here, it’s hard for a simple-minded guy like me to concentrate! :-)

    I think we all need to be careful here regarding generalizations. Case in point:

    “The Rockaway situation was not caused by a winery trying to manipulate bloggers. It was caused by bloggers who, as Greg said, had no context to judge the wine and so loved it without context.”

    It might appear that way at a cursory glance, but Jeff L. picked the group of participating bloggers in that case because (in part) they taste more wine than the average wine blogger. Go back and look at the list of participants, check out their blog articles beyond just the Rockaway posts, and you’ll see that what I’m saying is true. Speaking for myself, I’m lucky in that I have a career that pays me well enough that I can easily afford a $70 bottle of Cab. without thinking twice about dishing out the cash. I’m not buying 2 cases, but certainly can afford taking a chance on a bottle in the price range. So in my case, the naivete and $$ arguments don’t stack up. Now, if someone sends me a half case of DRC, then you can question the objectivity of what I’ll post about that person or company (assuming I don’t keep 2 bottles and sell the rest for a profit, that is :-).

  19. Joe, point taken, generalizations are dangerous.

    Not all winewriters are created equal (no, I won’t tell you whose reviews I think are less accurate than others–only whose methodologies are lazy or less rigorous or inevitably raise questions about bias). And not all bloggers are created equal. Mea culpa–subject to the comments below.

    I will bet you a bottle of two-buck chuck or even ten-buck tempranillo that a selected group of winewriters will come to the job of judging wines with far more experience and far more tasting rigor (blind tastings, peer-to-peer comparisons) than the group of bloggers selected by R. Strong.

    I don’t see anything wrong or nefarious in the R. Strong gambit. Wineries have lots of responsibilites. And one of the most important is to sell wine. While I might get a chuckle out of the Murphy-Goode blogger idea, I also understand and respect the idea behind it. It is a lot more honest than the paid Ford shill who was not identified as such.

    This is an era not unlike when I first started writing. Within a few years of each other, Connoisseurs’ Guide, the California Grapevine, the Wine Spectator, the Wine Advocate, Art Damond’s Wine Discoveries all came into being. I don’t know the history of the WE, but it is no spring chicken either. But one cannot point to many print wine journals that have started up in the last ten years.

    Now, it is the era of the blog startups. Their cost of entry is far lower than even little guys like me, Parker, Tanzer, etc. who did not have to give up our day jobs or risk big bucks to get started. Even the Spectator was a second career startup. We were all enthusiastic amateurs when we began three decades ago. And we were welcomed into the trade by the folks who were already there.

    I have not forgotten those days, and I have no problem welcoming a thousand bloggers into the business. Most of the established guys are in their fifties and sixties. It is the enthusiastic amateurs now getting into writing that are the future. Good luck one and all.

    But, that does not change the fact that the Rockaway gambit intentionally targeted a group who, as a whole, would find the wine very fancy when measured against their experiences to date. It was a smart thing to do, and as I said, I see nothing nefarious in it. It is, however, as open to judgment and analysis as the tasting methods of Jay Miller or Steve Heimoff or me or anyone else.

    Twenty or thirty years from now, if you are still writing about wine, you will be the one welcoming another round of enthusiastic amateurs to the stage.

  20. Charlie – I hope that in a few decades I’ll be lucky enough to still be writing about topics that I love, and will be able to say that I learned from talented people like you!

    Just one point of clarification regarding the Rockaway event – RS didn’t pick any of the participants, Jeff (GoodGrape.com) selected them.

    Cheers!

  21. When you all bring up the subject of experience, I think about the so-called mommy bloggers and their experience. These bloggers are all over the board, from a blogs from women about their first child, to moms that adopt, moms that have a few kids, moms that have children in college. Of course, I could go on and on… With mommy bloggers as well as with Wine Bloggers.

    And this is what makes any blogging community interesting.

    There are so many different perspectives on wine and IMHO that is what readers want. Not everyone wants to read tasting notes from an experienced wine critic (or vice versa) and that is where some of the not so educated bloggers come in and while they may not have the experience, they still are a part of the wine world and can influence those who would rather read their POV.

    Anyone who drinks a bottle of wine or visits a tasting room now a days is a potential wine blogger or critic and I think there is room for all sorts of opinions on wine, not just the ‘experts’

  22. Thanks Shana. Lots of food for thought in your comment.

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