When a marketer representing Absolut Vodka first offered to sponsor her annual blog festival, Louise Crawford guessed how the other bloggers might react.
“Some of them are going to call me a sellout,” Ms. Crawford remembered thinking. Nevertheless, Ms. Crawford, who writes Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn, accepted the deal, and the festival promoted a “Brooklyn” vodka. Spike Lee, the filmmaker, also spoke at Brooklyn Blogfest 2010, since he, too, was a sponsor. Absolut also offered gifts, including a bottle of the new vodka and a small digital video camera, to bloggers in exchange for coverage. Nine accepted the vodka and eight got cameras, said an Absolut spokeswoman.
Mentions of Absolut started popping up on Brooklyn blogs — mysteriously so for many readers, since not all of the bloggers disclosed their relationship with the sponsor. Ms. Crawford herself, while upfront about Absolut’s involvement in the festival, did not fully detail the company’s gifts to bloggers, including herself, until a marketing memo surfaced online.
Only nine accepted the deal; that's likely fewer than Absolut hoped to get involved in its "viral, underground effort."
Her explanation on OTBKB:
In the swirl of activity that went into the Blogfest planning I barely paid any attention to the “Ask Letter” they sent and the “swag” items they were giving out. I don’t feel obligated to do anything on their behalf. I see how it could be miscontrued as payola but that was the last thing on my mind. I know that might have been careless but I was really busy planning Blogfest.Her discussion two days later on the Times's CityRoom blog:
If you are a serious blogger and especially if you are a place blogger or citizen journalist, I believe that it is vital to follow basic journalistic standards...
Finally, it is very important to disclose if anyone has given you money or product in order to write about it. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission introduced rules to prevent people from writing reviews that appear to be objective but are actually paid for with free products.
Why it matters
The Times, to me, only partly gets why it matters:
Hiding sponsorships can also hurt a Web site’s reputation, a point Ms. Engle and others at the F.T.C. make during presentations to bloggers.
And that seems to be the case in Brooklyn.
As the controversy grew, some bloggers revealed their gifts. Still, Ms. Crawford maintained that no one had been co-opted.
“I thought of my post as a piece of writing,” Ms. Crawford said of a post written in connection with Absolut. “And they sent me a bottle of vodka.”
I'm sure she and others didn't think they were doing anything wrong; after all they weren't getting a lot out of it. I don't think it hurt the bloggers' reputation as much as it helped Absolut.
Absolut wanted a "viral, underground effort," as part of what I described as an attempt at achieving authenticity, an issue not mentioned in the Times.