Advertising, sponsorship: not dirty words
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.