Attention, readers of the blogosphere: When your friendly neighborhood mom blogger tells you Fiber One bars are the best way to get a kid to pass a handfull of swallowed pennies, or gives you a free coupon for Wal-Mart, or pushes a great General Mills cereal, she may have -- gasp! -- been given product samples from that very company. In an article titled “Trusted Mom or Sell-out?” this week’s Newsweek casts a mostly disdainful eye on the mommy bloggers who have become corporate shills. Mommy, you’ve totally lost your indie cred!
Corporate America, it seems, has discovered that there are big bucks to be made off the 42 million ladies who regularly visit the Internets, roughly 43 percent of whom visit blogs to get advice or recommendations. General Mills and Wal-Mart have both recruited mom bloggers who receive product samples, special coupons and reader giveaways. Most of these bloggers are not paid directly by the companies, but General Mills, for one, explicitly asks that bloggers who feel they can’t write a positive review contact them directly. Others have been offered -- and accepted -- cars for test drives and lavish vacations.
Not surprisingly, this has caused a backlash from other mommy bloggers who feel dirty by association. According to the article, “Erin Kotecki Vest of Queen of Spain called them ‘carpet-bagging mommy bloggers’ who peddle ‘snake oil’ whenever and wherever they like. Lindsay Ferrier, of Suburban Turmoil, posted: ‘I no longer believe that mommy blogging is a radical act. It is a commercial act.” Earlier this week, the bloggers at Momdot called for others to join them in a PR Blackout for a week in August.
My reaction: Bored eye roll.
I’m not one to apologize for -- or even shop at -- Wal-Mart, but there is really nothing new about this issue. It’s just yet another example of how that fancy thing we like to call new media is settling in to look a lot like the thing it has always been -- old media, with a different delivery system.
The debate over PR freebies is service journalism 101. Anyone who has ever worked at any publication can tell you that 90 percent of one’s voice mail and e-mail is clogged up with publicists offering you free stuff or story “tips” in exchange, they hope, for coverage. Travel writers get offered lavish vacations. Film reviewers and feature writers get offered junkets to exotic locations, paid for by the studios, in exchange for interviews with the stars. Restaurants deluge reviewers with press packages and complimentary meals. Back when I edited a pop culture magazine, I ended up with shoes, cell phones, and offers for free use of fancy cars unprompted in my mail box, as well as offers from club promoters to host my birthday party for free, free haircuts, spa visits for me and my girlfriends and publicists who told me to just come down and visit their clothing designer clients -- and perhaps let them know my size. None of these offers come with the explicit requirement that one reviews their products in the magazine -- but accepting the gift, then ignoring, or panning the client will surely get one either a furious message, or at the very least, reduce one’s chances of receiving further offers.
Not surprisingly, ethics guidelines at the most prestigious and authoritative publications ban most gratuitous swag (though review copies for books, CDs, and many products are usually a given, with no expectation of a positive review). But being ethical is expensive. Many cash-strapped new publications are only too happy to replace their “reviews” with “recommendations” in exchange for someone else comping their writer’s drinks, food and travel expenses. Many of them have no problem doing so without alerting their readers. Are we at all surprised that bloggers, many of whom are a media empire of one, are taking the bait?
I’ve always fallen on the purist, strict line between advertising and editorial, no pay-for-play side myself (and in one very new, particularly broke company, attempting to enforce that policy got me demoted and our publisher fired). And I absolutely believe that all publications, both online and off, should disclose their policy on comps to their readers. But pretending that mommy blogs are so new, so radical and so different from every other publication known to womankind just smacks of preciousness and naivete. The good news, ladies? You are the new Parents magazine! That, by the way, is the bad news, too.