Why I Disagree with Jason Calacanis about Blogger Junkets and Pay Per Post

by Teresa Valdez Klein on October 26, 2006

Our keynoter Jason Calacanis told me today that if a blogger has to have a conversation with herself about the ethics of taking a product for free and then writing about it, or going on a blogger junket and writing about it, she has already lost the battle in terms of her credibility.

I vehemently disagree. Things are rarely that black and white, and I think there’s room to develop best practices surrounding pay-per-post.

Obviously, lack of disclosure is not an option. If someone pays you or gives you something for free, you have to say that. If there’s a black and white rule surrounding this, that’s the one.

#1: Is this product potentially harmful?
One of our sponsors is Plymouth Gin. They make alcohol. Alcohol has ruined some people’s lives because they are alcoholics. If you drink, do so in moderation. I think the folks at Plymouth would absolutely agree with that.

That said, Plymouth makes a damn fine gin. I’m not an alcoholic, and I’m not allergic to alcohol. I can and do enjoy a good drink. During our dinner last night, the gin expert had us taste three brands of gin in a blind test. I liked the Plymouth best, and far better than I expected I would, even before I knew it was the brand that was sponsoring us. I am genuinely a fan of Plymouth gin. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t say so.

Which brings me to…

#2: Can you genuinely say something positive at least constructive about this product?

If you can’t say something nice constructive/positive about someone’s product and be telling the truth, then don’t engage with the people evangelizing that product. Just don’t do it.

If I’m talking positively about something, money or not, it’s because I mean it.

#3: Do my readers care about this product?

If I blog about high-end lingerie and someone approaches me and asks me to talk about how much I love Plymouth Gin, I might do it because there’s some overlap between the luxury of fine underoos and the luxury of fine gin. But if someone wants me to talk about stock car racing, I’ll say no. My audience cares more about stockings than stock cars.

That’s all I can think of at the moment, but I’m really really tired right now, and I’m sure there are more guidelines I haven’t considered. Feel free to bring stuff up in the comments.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jim Kukral 10.26.06 at 12:38 pm

Payperpost would be fine as long as it required and enforced a disclosure methodology. That’s their issue to resolve, and from the sounds of it, they’ll never require absolute disclosure, they’ll just give you some disclosure tools to use as an option if you wish. Not good enough IMHO.

Here’s the crack pipe and some rock, your choice to smoke it, and if you do smoke it, we ask that put a sign on your front door that says you may or may not be smoking crack, but that’s up to you.

Plain and simple, lies are wrong. Writing content that someone pays you to write in a certain tone and style is a lie.

Now… disclosing that you’ve lied, well then, fine, let the reader judge if they like being lied to or not.

2 Thomas K 10.26.06 at 1:37 pm

I agree that things are rarely black-n-white, Teresa, but I’m not sure your Plymouth Gin example effectively illustrates your point.

What if (and we’re off to the land of hypotheticals here… always a tricky place to visit), what if you actually didn’t like Plymouth Gin? What if it was the worst of the three? What would you say then?

The sponsor likely is expecting to get good press (bloggy goodness) thanks to their participation in the speakers’ dinner. Lucky for them (the sponsor), you liked their product. Lucky for us (the readers) you disclosed that you liked it so much, you wouldn’t care if they’d indirectly given you money to say so.

How much credibility as a blogger would you lose if you said those things no matter how you really felt? Sure, this time, your ethical gamble paid off handsomely. How many times do you roll the dice?

3 Janet 10.26.06 at 1:59 pm

My perspective is this: (based on some personal and transparent payblogger history)

If I’m Plymouth Gin, and decide to sponsor the Blog Business Summit and have a gin tasting; I’d better be ready for all sorts of opinions about my product to be immediately published into the blogosphere.

I know you, Teresa, enough to bet that if it were the worst of the three, you’d have absolutely said it. And you’d probably have said it more easily (because of the same reasons Jason’s bloggers slam Time-Warner) than posting that you’d liked it the best.

That’s the deal about the blogosphere that marketers need to ‘get.’ I’m glad more people are here learning just that.

4 Teresa Valdez Klein 10.26.06 at 2:34 pm

Jim: It really is up to the readers’ discretion. People won’t continue to accept a line of bullshit for very long. As a blogger, you have to decide how much of that you want to do. But to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t talk about a product if I didn’t feel I had something constructive to say any more than I would agree to write a job recommendation for someone if I had less than glowing things to say about their work.

And while we’re on the subject, how come nobody calls Eva Longoria a liar for endorsing L’Oreal Paris hair color? She’s transparent about the fact that she’s taking home a major paycheck for appearing in the commercials. Is that ethically different from paying bloggers to talk about a product? I doubt she’d take money from them if she thought the hair color was shit.

Lies are wrong. Taking money or free goodies from a company and then talking about their products and linking to their website is an ethical gray area, but it’s not always a lie. And bloggers should avoid getting into situations where they feel they have to lie in order to say anything constructive.

Thomas: If I didn’t like the gin, I would have said that I’m simply not a gin person and talked about what I did get out of the experience of going to a gin tasting. I didn’t like the Bombay Sapphire very much, but I did notice its intense citrus flavors. If Bombay Sapphire had been our sponsor, that’s what I would have talked about.

My fiancé wasn’t really feeling the straight gin, but he did enjoy the cocktails. Our speaker Elisa Camahort is actually allergic to alcohol and only smelled the gin, she wasn’t really digging it either. But she was pretty pleased with how well Maggiano’s accommodated her vegan needs. We got comments all over the board, and as Janet said, you have to be prepared to have people talk shit about your products if you’re going to engage the blogosphere.

Janet: You’re at least partly right. If I didn’t like the gin, I still would have found something constructive to say about it. I would have been careful to say, “I didn’t particularly care for it, but then again I’m not a gin person,” rather than “this sucks!” Yes, the fact that we got free gin means that I’ll be nice, but it doesn’t buy my unqualified endorsement of the product. The quality of the product does that.

5 Dave Taylor 10.26.06 at 2:55 pm

Why does the middleman have to enforce any behavior? I support PayPerPost and believe that it’s perfectly fine for them to offer a complete range of options to advertisers, ranging from we’ll pay you a lot if you blog about us, positively, and don’t indicate that we’re paying you, all the way to we won’t pay you unless you explicitly disclose and we’re fine with whatever you say.

The decision is the BLOGGERS to make, not the advertisers or the PPP or other middleman.

Now there can be best practice guidelines, and it could be the case that the PPP engine discourages advertisers from using anything other than “disclose + any spin”, but I do not think it should be a requirement.

Otherwise, I just don’t get how this is different to blaming the gun manufacturer for the fact that SOME poeple can SOMETIMES use guns in inappropriate and harmful ways. Is the bullet at fault, is the bullet manufacturer at fault, or, what I believe, is the gun user, the person who pulls the trigger, at fault?

6 Teresa Valdez Klein 10.26.06 at 3:47 pm

Dave: That’s where I fundamentally disagree with Jason. There is room to develop best practices in this arena. He says he’s “old school” and that the blog post is sacred. I say there’s room to make up the rules as we go, just so long as we remain honest and true to our consciences.

7 Jason Preston 10.26.06 at 3:52 pm

I may have heard him wrong, but I thought that Calacanis was refering to the “you took gifts” conversation in the public arena.

In other words, as soon as someone accuses you of taking a junket in exchange for good reviews – for any media business – once that accusation (in the blogosphere, conversation) happens, then you’ve lost. You’ve lost credibility.

So what you should do (according to Calacanis) is never let that accusation come up, by never inviting it, by paying for everything yourself.

I don’t necessarily think that applies to everything, but that’s what I thought Jason was saying.

8 Teresa Valdez Klein 10.26.06 at 4:55 pm

Two Laptops Guy: Ok, I’ll buy that explanation. But I think you can still demonstrate the genuineness of your appreciation for a product or a service or a venue without conceding the point that you’re saying those things because you took gifts.

Nobody has answered my question about Eva Longoria yet!

9 steven e. streight aka vaspers the grate 10.26.06 at 6:04 pm

Trust, rarest commodity on the web, nearly impossible to attain any large measure of, is violated more by inauthentic passion of a paid enthusiast, than the lack of disclosure.

It’s not “disclose” and then it’s alright. No. Even with disclosure “I’m paid to pretend to be a satisfied and excited user” is still wrong, worthless, and doomed.

The blogosphere has a high sensitivity to such wanking. Sure, you can force yourself to say something nice, and not entirely untrue about the product, but I don’t want to hear from a paid enthusiast buzz agent, I want to hear from a spontaneously declarative breathlessly, nearly inarticulate, average user who is modestly but with genuine disinterested zeal for what the product DOES and not as a mercenary for the company.

10 steven e. streight aka vaspers the grate 10.26.06 at 6:12 pm

What you advocate as you “make up the rules as you go”, is that artificial word of mouth is valid. It’s not valid, not by a long shot.

Be inauthentic, see how long it lasts. See what long term, user loyalty results you get.

If your product is amazing, it should generate natural word of mouth, that works together with outright advertising, customer service, PR, blogging, interactivity of various modes and locations, web empowered for Cluetrain Gonzo Net Gain, aggregating benefit, info-agenting for your audience.

Spontaneous, uncouched testimonials, praise, advice from actual satisfied users, that has credibility.

Blogging about something for any other reason than pure subjective, internal motivation, for simple truth declaration, and not for monetary gain or any other self-benefit, is valid.

11 Jim Kukral 11.09.06 at 3:05 pm

Dave: I blame the gun manufacturer, and the distributor of the guns. In my opinion, guns are wrong, completely, therefore the blame starts at the top!

Same with this. Lying is wrong on blogs, plain and simple. I don’t see any way around that, I don’t. So any company that attempts to provide someone with the tools to create lies is something I’m against.

Aren’t drug dealers bad? Or is it the user’s fault that they got turned onto drugs at 14 from the local corner dealer?

100,000 new blogs a day or something in the new report according to Sifry? Do we really want them to learn these values from the payperpost dealers on the corner as they begin to learn about blogging?

Are we ok in accepting the fact that trillions of pages of user generated content over the next 10-years could possible be disengenious by the proliferation of this attitude (it’s ok to lie to make money)?

I think it’s too important to allow to happen, for the future.

I say that not meaning to be a jerk, I have great respect for you Dave, I’m simply trying to make my case. We agree on so much, yet we’re so far on this one thing.

Theresa: Eva Longoria is creating commercials, which everyone knows are ads, not blogs.

It really does all come down to a definition of a blog. I’m old-school with Jason.

I’m thinking long term.

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