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Advertising, sponsorship: not dirty words

26 comments

As most of you know, I went to the Wine Bloggers Conference in June, up in Walla Walla Washington. The sponsors, a great group of guys who work out of a Colorado outfit called Zephyr Adventures, have been doing followup polling. Yesterday they sent an email blast summarizing their polling of the wineries who sponsored the conference. They got 16 replies.

The wineries seemed very happy with the conference and their sponsorship of it. Fourteen of the 16 said they were glad they signed up. When asked why they sponsored the conference, 14 said they wanted “to connect with bloggers who will remember my product or company name for possible future posts.”

The Zephyr guys concluded their email this way: “Our tip to bloggers? Remember the sponsors at each conference you attended. Write about their wines if you come across them at a later time. Contact the wineries and other companies, tell them who you are, and ask questions! The sponsors will love you for it.”

What I find so interesting about this concerns the concept of advertising, and particularly of wine magazines, such as Wine Enthusiast, that accept advertising in its pages. I’ve read much criticism of magazines accepting advertising, both in the comments made to this blog over the years and in other blogs. The implication from some blogging quarters has been that any magazine that accepts advertising cannot be pure — that it has to be suffering a conflict of interest, because how can it rate wines objectively from wineries whose ads support it?

I have repeatedly defended wine magazines for accepting advertising, and tried to explain that doing so does not cross any red lines — at least, I can vouch for that at Wine Enthusiast. But I still have the feeling that that suspicion exists out there in some parts of the blogosphere. So now, I find it funny that even the Wine Bloggers Conference is conceding that it depends to some degree on winery sponsors (and a sponsorship is really just another form of paid advertising, when you think about it). It’s interesting, also, that the Zephyr guys are suggesting to bloggers that they write about the sponsors’ wines.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing this practice. In the world of business, where nobody can afford to launch a product or service that doesn’t make money, you have to make certain concessions to your advertisers. You don’t have to promise to review their wines favorably, or to give them extra attention if they haven’t done anything to merit it. But I see nothing wrong with giving your advertisers a little love from time to time. If you’re writing a regional roundup and have the choice of including winery “A” or “B”, if “A” is an advertiser, “B” is not, and all other things are equal, why not include “A” in the article? Again, that doesn’t mean that if winery “C” is doing the best job there is, you don’t include them just because they’re not an advertiser. You do. The key phrase is “all things being equal.”

Does this mean that newsletters that don’t accept advertising, such as Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, have the moral edge over magazines that do? Nope. At some level, readers have to buy in to the discernment, good taste and honesty of any wine critic, regardless of how he publishes his content. They also have to buy into his or her expertise.

The wineries who sponsored the conference did so for exactly the right reasons: They wanted to be remembered by bloggers, and they hoped to be written about, in what I assume would be a positive light. What’s wrong with that? Any winery these days that doesn’t get out of the cellar and try to connect with as many people as possible is in trouble. I salute the wineries that sponsored the WBC; it’s the ones that didn’t I wonder about. I think that WBC 2011 should be flooded with winery sponsors. And since it’s on the East Coast this time (Charlottesville VA), this would give non-California wineries an opportunity to show bloggers what they can do.

Bottom line: advertising, or paid sponsorship, is not a dirty word. It’s a fact of life. And people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

  1. Steve – great post. Couldn’t agree more. There has to be a way for these publications to exists, and let’s face it, without advertisers – they wouldn’t. Sponsorship is simply another way to advertise – it gets product or a name in front of an audience. The wine bloggers conference would be plenty more expensive if it weren’t for sponsors. Thanks for touching upon this.

  2. Taking advertising from wineries certainly doesn’t guarantee that a publication, print or online, lacks objectivity, but it does seem to create the perception in some readers’ minds that coverage may be somehow biased. I suspect that much of the concern some bloggers have is not so much with actual objectivity but with outside perception, since bloggers feel that they are seen as less credible from the outset. And bloggers do differ from print in that blogs tend to be one-man shops in which the writer is also the ad sales guy, whereas people such as yourself are at least one step removed from sales.

    Of course, bias can creep in from many fronts and, unless one shuts off all in-bound communication regarding wine and only tastes completely blind, one must simply strive to be objective and be upfront with the readers about free samples, remuneration, tasting conditions, etc.

    On a side note, I find that small wineries, where the winemaker/owner is also the ad buyer, are much more receptive to my calls and visits knowing that I’m not going to pitch them on an ad buy.

  3. Fred, you hit it when you said “one must simply strive to be objective.” That’s the whole truth.

  4. Fred makes a great point (he usually does that! :-) – the perception can be the killer, whether any impropriety exists or not.

    Which is why I don’t take ads directly from wine brands or wineries.

    I am 100% sure that I will end up doing writing work with/for wine brands in the future, and if/when that day comes I will publicly state it on the blog and that producer/brand will never EVER be reviewed on 1WineDude.com afterward – again, only to manage the perception.

  5. STEVE!

    Sounds like you’re getting ready to announce advertising on your blog. I’m sure you’d pull in plenty. So why don’t you? Even 1WineDoody does it, and Dr. Vino and Vornography, and all the top blogs. But you and Paul Gregutt haven’t accepted advertising. Would Wine Enthusiast object?

    It’s probably obvious why I don’t have advertising. Not enough wineries with a death wish. Contrary to what the evidence suggests.

  6. Hosemaster, no plans to take advertising on steveheimoff.com. Can’t speak for Gregutt.

  7. Dude, I never did quite understand the “perception” problem, whether it be in politics, wine writing or whatever. The late, great Jess Unruh (I think it was him) once said, of accepting campaign donations, “If you can’t take their money and then *$%# their wives, you don’t belong in elective politics.” It’s a crude way of putting it, but he was right.

  8. One of the things that makes for higher intelligence is the ability to discern, and hold in one’s mind, divergent viewpoints on a given subject. I can appreciate the necessity for advertising in the publications (and TV shows, and movies, and…) that I watch. Like most consumers in our society, we’ve been inundated with thousands of ads daily for years and have become quite adept at psychologically “tuning out” those that don’t match our needs/wants.

    Will that full-page ad in the wine mag that I’m reading compel me to run right out and plunk down my hard-earned cash for some mass-market industrial product? Probably not going to happen if I’m biased for small production, artisanal and boutique wines.

    But the advertiser is free to spend their money in the ways they think will give them the best return on their investment, so the free market once again wins through.

    Until a source shows me that they can’t be trusted, I will give them the benefit of the doubt; as long as they are “striving to be objective”about a subjective thing (wine), then I will continue to give them my attention. Soon as they trip my BS detector and I find they’ve tried to dupe me, then they’ve burned that trust and lost me. Gotta love the free marketplace of ideas –

  9. Sherman, thanks. I wish everybody was as broad minded as you.

  10. David Cole says:

    A tip to the bloggers that read this, follow up with wineries. I attended the very first WBC and was followed up by only 3 bloggers! For a small winery to pay the fee, travel to the event, stay over night is an expense. All the exposure you give them will likely get them back with new and fresh wines. They will also recommend attending to other wineries. Just my .02!

  11. David, I am guessing that a lot more than 3 bloggers would follow you up now.

  12. Perceptions are a hard thing to overcome. Some folks understand the difference between content and advertising. Some folks are a little bit suspicious and some folks are always suspicious.

    I have come to the realization that the best ways to limit the damage are transparency and honest content. Most folks will realize honesty when they see it.

    But, transparency and honesty do have their limits, and even I, who one could argue, should know better than to even obliquely criticize my peer critics, looks askance at anything that consists of comparative criticism when it is compiled at wineries with labels showing or from wines tasted at luncheons with the distributor or the winemaker sittiing there telling you what to think. I don’t believe that a fair and honest result is possible in those settings, and the wineries do not either.

    I have told this story here before, so I will shorten it to the essentials. I was told by a winery that makes very good wine that I could taste the wine at the winery, but that I could not be put on the winery’s list to buy the wine so I could taste it blind in my own peer-to-peer tastings. I asked why, and the winery owned said “because I get better ratings that way”.

    I cannot say that he is right or wrong. I don’t get to taste those wines very often, and usually not in blind tastings but a dinner where someone else had brought those wines, but I find it hard to believe that the findings are 100% objective–even if the person writing them says so and claims absolute independence.

    And that is the bottom line here. We can do our best to avoid bias, and we can explain our methods, but perception is perception and not everyone and not every situation exists without suspicion. The best we can hope for is that we have explained our methodology and that it passes the “smell test” with most people. We all have different thresholds for Brett and we all have different thresholds for bovine poop.

  13. Charlie, you are so right. That’s the main reason why I almost never taste at the winery anymore, or at dinners. I used to do it, until it dawned on me it was unfair to all the other wines I was tasting blind at home. I have since stopped visiting some very famous wineries — places most wine writers would love to be invited to. Some of these wineries now send me their wines. Some send it for me to taste in big regional tastings that the local organizations set up for me. And some will simply never be tasted by me again, because I refuse to play their game.

  14. Ron & Steve, I have nothing bad to say about advertising, and like Steve, I can vouch with absolute certainty that the Wine Enthusiast editors are given free rein without regard to who is buying what. On my website, for a number of reasons, I am not posting ads. Personal credibility is one reason, but the main reason is – I HATE CLUTTER!!!! So, no ads for paulgregutt.com as far as I can see. As for tasting at wineries, I love to taste at wineries. BUT – I always bring the wines home, to re-taste under controlled conditions, and also to let them breathe, as I like to revisit them over many hours, sometimes days. I think that’s an advantage, and certainly not anything that encourages bias.

  15. Thanks Paul. You are part of the reason why IMHO Wine Enthusiast is such a rising success.

  16. Fortunately, I have the luxury to be able to write about particular wines multiple times — and I don’t hesitate to change my rating on a wine if I think it’s called for. But, I’ not trying to build a huge database of capsule reviews or put together a buyers’ guide either. That being the case, I’m happy to write about wines tasted at wineries and dinners, and grand tastings. I just make it clear in the article what the conditions of the tasting were. Generally speaking though, I see winery tastings and dinners more as learning opportunities than review opportunities. That’s especially true for the dinners where the food can also have an impact on my perception of the wine.

  17. Advertising in the wine world is a strange thing. Imagine this…

    Would you trust a recipe blog that had an advertisement in the sidebar for a brand of chocolate chips?

    Would you trust a travel blog that had an ad for an airline in the sidebar?

    We rarely complain about a wine blog writing a book review and then linking to the book for sale on Amazon with an affiliate link. Alder links all his reviews to “Buy this Wine” which is(i’m almost positive) a paid affiliate link.

    Regardless, this so far is more for those who want “pure objectivity” rather than adressing the post, as to your point Steve, I obviously agree. Sponsors, advertisers and other supporters of print/web/etc journlism and events are the only way we keep this industry afloat, and to grow good writers and wine communicators.

    In the end if your a shill for the industry, people will notice, call you out on it and you will sink.

  18. Ryan, I try not to even notice ads, whether they’re in a blog, a magazine, a newspaper or on TV. I basically tivo my way through all my media. And you’re right about people noticing shills. There are certain wine “magazines” out there — I won’t name them — and everybody in the industry knows they are nothing more than vanity publications printing make believe “articles” about paid advertisers.

  19. Fred, like you say, as long as you’re open about how and where you’re tasting, no problems.

  20. Scott Mahon says:

    The danger for the wine blog is the knowledge that they are “one-man” operations heightens the perception that their reviews could fall under quid pro quo. As individuals in today’s society we understand the consequences of an effective advertising campaign can have on individual’s perceptions consciously of otherwise.
    A wine magazine on the other hand has separate advertising departments, reviewers, etc… The bureaucracy involves implies that there would have to be an organized and conscious effort and the behalf of the editors to sacrifice integrity for the sake of advertisers in order for this to be problematic. And yet, it is easy to see.
    I’m glad that Wine Enthusiast is conscious of this perception problem. I have not noticed any advertiser bias in it. Other magazines are not so scrupulous. To a reader who is particularly well acquainted with a region or producer, such biases seem all too obvious when they appear in print.
    The blogger problem is the perception that if large editorial staffs cannot be trusted completely on this point, how can individual bloggers.

  21. Scott, I agree there is a perception problem when an individual blogger is accepting ads from wineries he or she reviews. This is going to be a bigger problem in the future, I predict, as wineries come to depend more and more on blogs for reviews, and bloggers come to depend more and more on wineries and other sources to advertise.

  22. One way for individual bloggers to be trusted is to avoid winery advertising. Another is to use an independent source the way Tyler Coleman does. If a winery advertises on Doc Vino, Coleman has had nothing at all to do with that placement and does not review the wine in his blog. Of course, he also does not engage very heavily in wine criticism in the first place.

    But, in truth, the only way to be above suspicion is to avoid winery advertising in your blog, in your magazine, in your life. If you or your employer do not avoid winery advertising, then no matter how much you may protest your innocence, someone is going to question it. At that point, you have to look to yourself first and determine how independent and unbiased you really are? And assuming that any of us is not fooling ourselves, then that it ultimately the final test.

    Steve and Scott are right. The less the separation between the sale of advertising and the writing of content, the greater the suspicion will inevitably be.

    That said, I found it a lot easier to avoid questions like these back in the day when slick wien paper magazines that took advertising did not review wine and folks that reviewed wined did not take advertising. The standards then where simple: “be above suspicion”.

  23. From a bloggers perspective. The wineries that choose to buy into the WBC are great for doing so, and are getting face-time for this, so yes that is special “advertsing”. And absolutely the WBC would not exist the same without it.

    However, in the stir of a fast and furious weekend, that is the WBC, a wine needs to stand out to get attention (at least mine). The big players that came in and poured their wines, got the same respect as they would have otherwise, not much. I am not sure Molly Dooker got the “love” they would have hoped for, and many mixed comments were exchanged about their “Velvet Glove”.

    But it is the smaller, or notable wineries that are able to connect with bloggers, and they probably get more bang for the buck. And naturally, everybody is happy to spread the good word of a new find. At the same time, bloggers are also happy to get to go out to the wineries, that are local to the area. This is a part of the conference that is hurt by sponsorship, cause it is so expensive and a pretty unique opportunity. As a result, a decent portion of bloggers went out of their way to visit the well-recommended wineries on their own, before or after the conference. Again, everyone loves to have the next great inside tip, and bloggers will hunt for it!

    My point, is that like a billboard. You can pay for face-time, but that does not mean that people are interested in what you have to say.

    So yes, bloggers were happy to have a lot of expenses deferred. But if the cost of attendance increased and there was less glad-handing and more sincere in-depth tastings that really spoke to the local area; I think the bloggers would pay more for a less hectic tasting frenzy. And they would enjoy the quality time exploring tastings and wineries that speak to the larger ideas of the grape and terroir that expresses the local region.

    As for accepting advertising, it is not about the money, cause no one is making a living from this. And what is better yet, is that Zephyr (who are awesome guys) can ask for people to patronize the sponsors, but bloggers will remain themselves – independent – and I think very few will feel obliged to feature any wine, that they would not recommend.

    It’s a nice idea and in theory everything is for sale. but personally people at the WBC are living a fast and furious weekend with lots of wine food, laughs and learning. Another old theory comes back in to play. Good wine sells itself and good wine will get a lot more ink than a boxed wine, even if it is surprisingly palatable.

    Zephyr, no one ever winced at your conf prices. Feel free to bump up the conference price. I am sure us bloggers would love more down time to hang out and talk with our community, than trying some of the bigger wines that are available nationwide.

    Virgina will be great. So many producers, So many different terroirs, I hope one weekend can expose the great dynamic of Virginian wines for the WBC. I’d hope we only taste wines from VA that tell us about VA and it’s wine history, that would be the greatest achievement for my liking. And this may be possible, especially with their state funding behind the event!

    Let’s see how the advertising, winery placements, and politics plays out for 2011.

  24. Andrew wow what a great comment. This one goes onto my Top Ten List of the Best Comments Ever on steveheimoff.com. Thank you very much.

  25. I’m attending the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle next week. It is run by Foodista and Zephyr Adventures. Our pre-conference packet was very interesting – the first page is a welcome, the second page was mostly telling the attendees how to blog, tweet and FB during the conference about the sponsors. Seriously, there are bullet points outlining what to do. Clearly the sponsors were told that they would receive all of this love from the 250 bloggers. Frankly, this weekend is costing me nearly $1,000 (conference fee, airfare, hotel), and I view this as a chance for me to learn and have face-time with fellow bloggers.

    Oh, and they warned us not to get drunk and disrupt the conference.

    So far, I’m not impressed. I hope this conference is worth it because so far they seem to view the attendees as promotional tools, not customers.

  26. I have a couple of points to make as the originator of the post on the WBC website that Steve mentioned. First, what I thought was really cool and that Steve didn’t mention was that while most sponsors replied “I am hoping to connect with bloggers who will remember my product or company name for possible future posts”, none replied ““I was hoping for immediate online exposure from attending bloggers.” I really liked that our sponsors understand this is about creating relationships for the long term.

    Second, we had a lot of winery sponsors at the conference. We don’t expect every blogger to write about every winery. As Andrew says, bloggers are independent and free to do what they like.

    Third, to set the record straight, we put two paragraphs in a section called Blogging in a 15-page Participant Packet for the upcoming International Food Bloggers Conference. And we NEVER tell sponsors bloggers will write about them. We would hate to assume anything about what bloggers will do, think, or write … for we might just be wrong.

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