Blogs for sale

Last week’s Brooklyn Blogfest made headlines when it was uncovered that event sponsor Absolut Vodka gave gifts and promotional exposure in exchange for editorial coverage from bloggers who neglected to disclose ties to Absolut.  The ad campaign, created by New York’s Ketchum agency, promotes a special edition Absolut Brooklyn beverage endorsed by Spike Lee, who was also a guest speaker at Blogfest.  The ensuing backlash has invigorated discussion on ethics in the relatively nascent medium of branded blogging.

Last year the FTC published new guidelines for bloggers stating that “’material connections’ (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed.”  The commission investigated Ann Taylor earlier this year for a LOFT campaign that offered bloggers gift certificates in exchange for proof of editorial coverage.  While no fines were issued, the case is largely viewed as a warning to companies to take the lead in ensuring that participating bloggers disclose the nature of branded campaign.

An earlier high profile case of stealth branded blogging that helped shine a light on blurring lines of advertising and entertainment was Gawker Media’s May 2009 faux-announcement that it purchased vampire blog Blood Copy.  The blog was in reality part of a campaign designed by the Campfire agency for HBO’s True Blood, and Gawker’s willingness to pull a paid prank angered many readers and ignited substantial negative press.

The Absolut campaign is certainly a potential candidate for future FTC review.  According to published accounts, emails from Ketchum made promises of Flip cameras, free product, and promotional links from Absolut’s Facebook page while never mentioning a requirement of disclosure to blog readers.  As details of the campaign leaked, many bloggers scrambled to retroactively add full disclosure to their postings, attaching apologies or defenses of their actions.

Atlantic Yards Report, a Brooklyn blog vocal in it’s opposition to the Absolut campaign, raises an astute point that disclosing branded blogging often inherently undermines a campaigns’ primary goal– creating the appearance of authenticity and underground word-of-mouth.  Regardless, with increasing scrutiny from the FTC and a growing base of alienated blog readers, ad agencies will have to change their tact in the future by doing one of two things: creating authentic non-paid community interest or designing branded blogging that engages readers while maintaining transparency.