Recently, a Wall Street Journal article surfaced the unseemly world of Blog Payola for product reviews.  The piece suggested the FTC is looking into new rules to stem the tide and in turn, it set off a storm of commentary from the very bloggers it discussed – some for, and others against the practice of sponsored blogging.

For those of us who help companies match products with reviewers, pay-for-play isn’t a new concept, yet it remains deeply disturbing and highly unethical.  The groundswell of enthusiasm for the many voices that have emerged across the blogosphere is not misguided: giving a platform for more to contribute is democratic and enlightening (mostly).  More outlets means influence is less concentrated – for example, who can argue against the benefits of TripAdvisor, which captures travelers’ experiences that help you plan a vacation in a manner that Michelin guides simply cannot.  Yes, 100 flowers bloomed, and now we’re awash with consumer-generated content that can help us make better, more informed decisions. Furthermore, we're left to sort out who we can trust and who we can't.

Trading on their authenticity, some bloggers are now accepting payments and products from vendors in return for positive comments and stories.  As the Journal points out, the central issue is disclosure or lack thereof.  Simply put, we’ve entered the shady world of product payola.  To say “we’re not Consumer Reports” as one apologist sputters in the Journal is a lame defense.  No other media outlet is Consumer Reports, but plenty of reputable publications have for many years offered reviews that simply are earned. Despite what you often hear, there is a separation of church and state. Editorial reviews for many reputable publications like PC World and even the Wall Street Journal are wholly separated from advertising and the influence of sponsors. Journalistic ethics dictate explicit labels for advertorials so that the consumers are protected from ruses and misinformation. That is not to say mainstream media isn’t tempted: earlier this year the LA Times ran afoul of critics for a blundering and blurring the two. Boundaries get tested and preserved if we’re lucky. And yet Blog Payola is how many choose to roll.

Disclaimers and hidden footnotes don’t suffice. For the sake of consumers and these nascent influencers themselves, bloggers who offer product reviews need to adhere to a journalist code of ethics (see below).  Is it realistic to think that amateurs may begin to act like professionals? We can only hope so, or we’ll rue the rise of inauthentic consumer generated content (see Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen). 

Act Independently
Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know. Journalists should:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
  • Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
  • Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
  • Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

To that end, consumers should also keep the following in mind when seeking product reviews online:

  • The blogger may have received the product free of charge in exchange for his/her thoughts; never assume it was paid for out-of-pocket.
  • The blogger may be on the payroll of the manufacturing company, and might not disclose that information freely.
  • The blogger may choose not to follow the standards outlined above unless they represent and established media organization.
  • Bloggers are open to commentary, questions and suggestions; if something seems fishy, the consumer has the right to ask for clarification.
  • Treat bloggers as you would your friends; trust the ones that have earned it and use a healthy does of skepticism with others.

– Contributed by Phil Greenough.  Follow him @philgreenough.

Disclosure: Greenough distributes products to bloggers for review on behalf of our consumer products.  All reviewers are welcome to voice their opinions – positive or negative – and we never attempt to influence what's ultimately written in any way.