People As Advertising…It’s Risky Business


People as advertising is a risky business because of hazy disclosure rules and expectations, and that’s the subject of my next MediaPost column:

People As Advertising: Risky Business

by Max Kalehoff, December 8, 2006

By now, everyone’s heard of PayPerPost, the service that connects advertisers with bloggers willing to post product reviews in exchange for dollars. With a host of other competitors emerging, all touting high demand for their “pay-to-say” services, this phenomenon could be on the verge of exploding. OK, let’s pause.

While I’m not against core concepts of sponsorship, infomercials or branded entertainment, there is one troubling fact about these pay-to-say schemes: expectations and rules of disclosure are all over the board among the services themselves, as well as the bloggers and advertisers for whom the services play matchmaker.

I don’t think I’d have a problem with people-as-advertising if I fully understood the blogger-advertiser relationship and payoff. In fact, I could be receptive if the information were actually useful or entertaining. (Yes, I’ve happily joined along in the “set it, and forget it” chants in the infomercial for Ronco’s Showtime Rotisserie; and, no, this posting was not paid for.). But the massive ambiguity across too many blogger-as-advertiser services creates an atmosphere where it’s just too easy to shrug off responsibility, to adopt a don’t-ask-don’t tell policy of disclosure, and, worst of all, to get away with sheer deception.

With consumer-generated media and ensuing consumer empowerment one of the most disruptive trends and opportunities in marketing and media today, it’s time for these pay-to-post services, as well as bloggers, advertisers and others, to step up to the plate and tackle this hazy territory of disclosure. It’s confusing. It’s messy. It’s a liability. And, yes, there will always be scum and fraud on the Internet. In its current state, however, this quasi-legitimate space threatens the greater good and integrity of our online community.

So what needs to be done? Here are some of the most pressing first steps:

1. Marketers need to be accountable. This includes not only the actions of marketers themselves, but the actions of the agencies they hire. Marketer buy-in, program approvals and budgets will make or break the entire people-as-advertising industry. Marketers must hold everyone in their food chain to high standards. And yes, their reputations are at stake, depending on how they handle this.

2. Trade groups need to step up to the plate. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association, which is holding a major confab next week in Washington, D.C., should make this consumerist mutation of word of mouth, publishing and advertising a top priority. But WOMMA can’t handle it alone. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which has nurtured a renaissance in online advertising and is preparing to launch its own committee to tackle issues around consumer-generated media, must also take a stand by setting disclosure guidelines for its member stakeholders. Other marketing trade groups should join in as well, including the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers. (Disclosure: my employer co-founded WOMMA, and I previously consulted to the IAB.)

3. The blogger-as-advertising matchmaking services need to take the lead in disclosure standards and enforcement themselves–all of them. They’ll be tempted to please marketer clients who wave the almighty dollar, but they must put high standards and the good of the community first. I hope we can count on them as an industry to do this.

4. Bloggers–or any member of society who exercises his right to free speech and to self-publish–must respect and honor the ensuing responsibilities and obligations. It takes two to tango, and bloggers have the ability to dance dirty or cut the music when flirtation with advertisers exceeds ethical disclosure boundaries.

5. The search-marketing industry, especially major search engines, should examine how pay-to-say content is weighted in search rankings and visibility. Pay-to-say is potentially a way to game the system, and therefore an incentive for questionable intentions and practices. Pay-to-say services have been known to actively promote themselves among search-marketing circles.

6. Finally, we the people–literally, all of us–have the ability to decipher and call out legitimate uses of blogger-advertiser relationships versus propaganda. Our collective voice and ability to maintain hawk-eyed surveillance could be the best means of reward, warning, enforcement and punishment.

7. Finally, I generally don’t welcome government meddling in the marketing industry, but if people do end up becoming advertising vehicles–bought and sold like any other paid-media commodity–then regulation could be a remedy for enforcement and viability. Maybe. Maybe not.

Honestly, I’m undecided about the people-as-advertising model. I see its potential as a legitimate, thriving byproduct of consumer empowerment and disintermediation of traditional media and advertising. But I also see huge potential for it to turn south and do harm. Where do you think it stands?

See comments from MediaPost readers here.


Published by Max Kalehoff

Father, sailor and marketing executive.

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