Should For-Pay Blogging Require a Morality Clause?

by on 07/13/2009 • 34 Comments | Branding

blogger for hireThe New York Times is talking about sponsored blog posts. Business Week wants to debate the pros and cons of co-branding. And Michael Gray has been on the war path for months calling out folks landing free trips and cars in exchange for guaranteed coverage. Paid links issue aside, with so many companies looking for their own Robert Scobles, Sarah Lacys and Guy Kawasakis to endorse products, are brands putting themselves in danger by tying their names to unstable faces they don’t really know?

Getting “celebrity” endorsements to shill what you’re selling is nothing new. Athletes and real-life celebs have been doing it for years. However, those contracts are usually accompanied by a morality clause. One that says after our friend LeBron James signs his multi-million dollar Nike contract, he can’t then go out and celebrate by punching someone in the face. It’s a tiny insurance policy that ensures that the person you choose to align your brand with won’t then malign it like a Disney starlet (its okay, you can click that. honest.). But we typically don’t have those on the Web because the products are “free”, arrangements are informal, and because the cost value doesn’t appear high enough to warrant it. And that’s where the trouble starts.

Quick example: On June 20, mommyblogger Jessica Gottlieb posted a review on her blog about the Lexus RX 350 she was given loaned to “tool around in” for a short period. As expected, the post raved about how “bold” and “pretty” the car was and how “omfg a housewife can park it!” Jessica did her job well and Lexus got their money value from the car they loaned out. Or so they thought.

A day later, a shit storm broke out when Jessica Gottlieb jumped over the line and called the wife of another well known Internet type a whore. Everyone watched as attacks were made on both sides, dirt was flung, and as a new melee broke out on the Internet. Twenty four hours after Jessica was on her blog talking about how awesome Lexus is, she was back on it fake apologizing to Loren Feldman. The “apology” post now sits immediately following the one hawking her Lexus experience. Excellent.

Unless you’re Lexus.

If you’re Lexus, you just had your brand dragged through the mud. You let someone associate themselves with the exclusive Lexus name and automobile…and then watched them lindsay lohan it into a tree live on the Internet. Branding Fail.

I’m not part of the mommyblogger community so I don’t know Jessica Gottlieb. I don’t know if this type of behavior is common for her. I don’t know if calling people whores is a favorite pastime or if this was just an isolated incident during a really public time. I don’t know because I haven’t done any research on her (and based on her interaction with Loren Feldman, I now refuse to), but Lexus should have.

If you’re Lexus, and you’re investing resources into someone and giving them permission to associate themselves with your brand, you damn well better know who you’re dealing with.

You need to do your research.

  • Who is this person on and off the Web? What tale does Google tell?
  • What group does he or she have influence over? What are they known for?
  • How was that influence earned – through merit or by being loud?
  • What type of products have they endorsed or recommended in the past? Were they of quality or clearly paid?
  • Are they type to start or participate in flame wars?
  • Are they more diplomatic (Rhea) or blunt (Rae) in their dealings?
  • And perhaps most importantly, do they frequently kick, scream and call people whores on the Internet?

And if they are the type to throw stones through glass windows, then you need to address that beforehand. Maybe that means accepting it, maybe it means finding someone else or maybe it means creating some type of “morality clause” for the person to adhere to for a month, three months, etc, around the time they’ll be talking about your brand. Not every blogger will be willing to sign off on it (for instance, I wouldn’t be), but as a brand investing money into these “free loans”, you need to protect yourself and your associations.

As the FTC takes a closer look at regulating sponsored blog posts, companies and brands need to be doing the same. Call a spade a spade: You’re paying for that blogger the same you’re paying for any other marketing effort. Do not give someone permission to use your brand if they’re going to bring shame to it. Maybe it’s time that for-pay posts are treated the same way behind the scenes that  real advertising is. The cost of “loaning” someone a free car may appear less than what LeBron James earns with his endorsement deals, but you’re not just lending someone a car. You’re lending them your brand and you can’t get that back.  And that loan needs to be taken very seriously.

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

34 thoughts on “Should For-Pay Blogging Require a Morality Clause?

  1. Nice.

    Uh, when you “disclose” why don’t you also let folks know that you’re friends with Loren and that for some reason you’ve had it in for me?

    Um, I write one review of a car I enjoy and I’m supposed to endure being called a whore? Lisa, I’m not sure what your business is, but you spend a lot of time attacking me and other moms.

    So yeah, when a guy calls me a whore, it’s perfectly acceptable for me to call his wife one.

    That’s just the law of the playground.

  2. Would you sign a morality clause, Lisa? I think I would, although I’d have my lawyer check it over to make sure I’m not shooting myself in the foot. Then again, I’m pretty lame. No drinking, smoking, cursing, violent outbursts… Dude, where’s MY Lexus?

  3. Jessica: I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve mentioned your name in public, so I think saying I “have it in for you” is a tad harsh. Your incident with Loren served as a good setup for the many conversations going on around the Web right now related to sponsored posts, so I used it. I don’t have it in for you. I don’t even know you.

    However, you did answer my questions as to whether it was just an isolated incident or not. Thanks.

  4. Christina: No, I wouldn’t sign one, personally. But I think if someone is giving you a car, it’s not crazy you’d have to make some allowances for your behavior and need to weigh what you’re willing to do. As a company, I wouldn’t give someone access to my brand if I knew they were the type to pick fights and cause a spectacle. Which is why I don’t expect anyone to offer me a Lexus any time soon. :)

  5. Uh, not true at all. You aren’t the only people that monitor conversations.

    Enjoy your bully pulpit. I’m sure you’ll get a ton of business picking on me, cuz brands are totally looking for folks for distort the truth and use their business to tear people down.

    Awesome.

  6. Hey, Lisa – can you point me to where you’ve spent a lot of time attacking Jessica and other moms? Cause I’ve been following this site since its inception, and also your posts for other venues, and I must have missed them.

    Eager to catch up -

  7. I have to say, as a member of the mommy blogger circuit, I think that Jessica has been unfairly portrayed by those who didn’t follow the whole story on both sides. (Not just you here, Lisa. Many other people.)

    Jessica doesn’t pull any punches, much like Rae doesn’t pull any punches. Loren likes to be the Perez Hilton of the IM world. Do I think anyone should have been called a whore? No. But you can’t dish out verbal slurs at people and expect them not to defend themselves.

    I’m not condoning Jessica’s words or Loren’s words – but if Lexus didn’t do its homework regarding Jessica’s outspoken nature, that’s not her fault. Maybe they wanted an outspoken woman. After all, being outspoken isn’t a bad thing. ;-)

  8. Netmeg: Yeah, I don’t recall ever mentioning her name either. [shrug]

    Christina: Like I said, I have no knowledge of Jessica, other than her incident with Loren (which I have seen both sides and I do think it was portrayed fairly) and the nice comment she left above. If Lexus didn’t do their homework, yes, it IS their fault and I don’t think the post infers it was Jessica’s. I think its more a lesson to brands that you do need to protect yourself because situations like these can easily break out on the Web. And as more companies reach out to bloggers, it’s something both sides need to concern themselves with.

    As far as the Lexus wanting someone “outspoken”, my guess is they didn’t. Lexus is a luxury brand and what they got with that association was far from luxury inspiring.

  9. Lexus: Official Sponsor of The Jerry Springer Show

    I’m sure the one man social media department at Lexus had a minor panic attack/stroke when he booted up IE6 the morning after the ‘incident’, but in the long term, I don’t think Lexus will be too unhappy with their foray into paid mommy blogging. A lot of people will have read that post, more than Lexus would have predicted – perhaps Ms Gottlieb would care to play a constructive part in this conversation and give us some idea of how the Lexus post performed relative to comparable past posts – I expect there was a significant bump in the numbers.

    The ad worked for me, if I ever suffer a severe head injury and as a result, start to think that SUVs are a good idea, the Lexus-RX 350 will be sitting towards the front of my badly deformed mind – at least earning it a googling at the research stage.

    Of course the big winner in this saga was Jessica Gottlieb, who I’d never heard of before the ‘incident’.

  10. I can’t imagine how Lexus could have foreseen what would happen…nor ultimately do I think it would cause any real brand damage since anyone should be able to divorce Lexus from the dustup between two bloggers.

    Another example…we might rag on Comcast for lots of things, but you really can’t hold the following against them (despite the obvious negative PR involved): http://www.kptv.com/news/19996755/detail.html

  11. Paid post or non paid post basically comes down to whether Jessica was obligated to write about it in lieu of her car loan.

    Was Jessica’s blog post on the lexus a requirement of the loan?
    Was it a heavy handed/strongly worded suggestion?
    Was it completely optional?

    It’s hard to think that a company such as Lexus would give her a car out of the goodness of their little hearts, without the requirement that you spread a *positive* word about their vehicle.

    Call your local call rental company and get a price quote on a 2 day lexus rental, report back if it’s $0… I’d like their number.

    Maybe she took the word ‘whore’ too harshly, whoring out your blog (paid post) isn’t the same as your future mother in law calling you a whore (ouch).

  12. Jessica – I have to disagree with your “tit-for-tat” comment above. No, you do not have to call someone a name back. Sometimes you have to bite your tongue to save your reputation. That’s sort of like LeBron getting the Nike deal, someone punching him in the face, and then he stabs them. I don’t think he’s getting another Nike deal. Obviously that’s a little blown out of proportion, but I think everyone sees the point; better to turn the other cheek if mommy wants more swag. Mark

  13. you had me until you said “Sarah Lacy” but you’re totally right about Gottleib and Lexus #fail b/c she is often like that and they should have done their homework

  14. Adam: Respectfully, I’m not sure what that has to do with the post. If we could step away from the ethics of creating sponsored posts in the first place, I think there’s a completely separate issue of what responsibilities agreeing to do them places on the blogger and what kind of behavior they do or do not owe the lending company.

  15. do you think the Intercontinental Hotel in Paris (a 5-star hotel) ever expected a blogger like Feldman to just make up a story like this?
    http://www.1938media.com/forum/showthread.php?t=1818
    Feldman does it all the time. He even staged a “fight” at a french restaurant last year.

    Feldman is the web’s Jerry Springer. Now all brands, beware! this guy can destroy you.

  16. oh, and btw, just so you know, he had purchased the mouse earlier the afternoon in a pet shop just to release it and make this video and get his room for free.

  17. Morality clauses with financial reparations should be highly encouraged. Think Michael Phelps.

    As for these mommybloggers, I’d also implement a postpartum depression clause. This is how Fast Company and Seagate brands are being devalued by Scoble.

  18. Hey, kids! Comments not on topic (as in about the post, not what’s bothering you today emotionally), will be edited for my own pleasure or simply removed. There’s enough bullshit in society without us needing to create our own. I mean, feel free to create your own. just not on my blog.

    Hugs and kisses!

  19. Okay Lisa sorry for the 140 character diatribe. I wanted to make my points here as well as Twitter. In the instance of a morality clause I was just trying to wrap my mind around the penalty. I decide I want to sponsor Lexus with a conversation on my blog and they provide me a nice car and I write about them. Then you and I trash talk each other and all the world talks about it. That sets that stage. I violate that clause. What is then my penalty? I have had the use of the vehicle, they received the consideration in the blog post.

    I get the idea behind vetting the people that you allow to use the service or the product or whatever might be the case. That was why I was asking about celebs versus influencers. I think in Jessica’s case, she is seen as an influencer so it was probably why she was chosen as a blogger with that product.

    I am wondering now if the penalty for violating some clause would be returning the value of the vehicle rental, or as you stated on Twitter, a pub;ic apology or retraction or whatever. I am interested in that take.

    As I said on Twitter, (yes we had many tweets in this convo) I was thinking of a “Sponsored Conversations Summit” where we can get all the players in a room and discuss these issues. (Last man/woman standing wins.) Sponsored Conversations are a hot ticket item right now and I know why, its like discussing politics, religion or pets and kids. Everyone has an opinion and this one of yours was intriguing.

  20. Dude no offense, but anyone who calls them self “Adam Smith” and gives no information of a website is a punk.

    Anonymous comments are lame.

    If you’re gonna try to get into a conversation, even in a manner to attack someone – man up about it.

    If not you’re just another loser in your moms basement.

  21. Now, now, everyone, we’re getting back on topic. This interwebz drama is SO beyond lame. I call my BFFs whores. Who the fuck cares? Let’s move on. Mommybloggers are just ANOTHER segment of the blogging community. We can coexist. Deep breaths. We can do it…

    As for the subject at hand, which is morality clauses. Well, I think it’s up to the brand, but since sponsorships through blogs are relatively new, posts like this and marketing companies like Outspoken are helping brands navigate this new social media space (at least new to them!).

    Smart brands would do their homework. Maybe the blogger they are somewhat “hiring” to talk pretty about their brand doesn’t have the reach of a typical celebrity, but, like you said, Lisa, these people are still representing a brand. Their should be more discretion, because brand monitoring online is now an imperative aspect of any companies marketing plan. And, giving away anything to any person who will talk about your brand is irresponsible.

    I don’t want anyone talking about MY company unless I damn well know they are fucking awesome.

    I can swear on this blog, right?

  22. Jim: As I mentioned on Twitter[grin], I don’t really know what the appropriate “punishment” would be if there was a morality clause and a blogger broke it. I think that’s part of the conversation I was hoping you guys would help me out with. :)

    I understand that athletes and influencers are different. And I’m not saying Jessica really even did anything “wrong”, I just think it brought up any interesting question. I mean, if you’re Lexus and you’ve shelled out the money for this sponsored conversation, how much control should you get over being able to influence that? I imagine they didnt get the conversation they wanted due to everything else that was going on around the time Jessica posted her blog entry. Is there some liability for that? Should they be able to set ground rules that bloggers need to behave for a certain period of time so they can have that conversation?

    As for a *punishment* for those that break it? Like I said on Twitter — I really don’t now. An apology, a fine, something…

    If you do hold that Sponsored Conversations Summit, I’d love to be there. I think it’s an incredibly interesting topic and one that’s only going to get more interesting. :)

  23. I’ve had to laugh while reading this. I mean, wow…

    “your web life just changed forever. you should never have sent that first tweet. you started and now you’re finished.”

    “her, her husband, her kids, her parents, her job, her friends, all of it. lets burn it all down”

    “rumour has it [your wife] eats *** as part of her show”

    Again… wow. And they say blogging is all about ego? As if!

    I’d never heard of these characters. I’d be personally embarrassed to be associated with either of them. It’s one thing to get caught up in the occasional blog flame war but when it starts crossing platforms and the threats get personal and or violent then it’s time to back off and let the other person tire themselves out. If they feel like they’ve won, big woop, let their e-go grow a little bit more, eventually something like this will happen to expose them for the idiots they are. Too many bloggers are proud that they don’t pull their punches and write what they think. Unfortunately that tends to be an excuse for “I’m going to be an obstonate, arrogant and stubborn b*stard to anyone that disagrees with me”.

    Back onto the original subject, if you’re a brand manager / media buyer then surely it’s your duty to vet bloggers *thoroughly* before offering them anything in return for coverage? They must have given some indication of their douchebaggyness beforehand, from what I’ve just read I can’t believe this is an isolated incident for either of them.

    THESE are the bloggers you should be hating on, Lisa ;)

  24. Kudos for turning Lindsey Lohan into an activity.
    And for the quality of the posts lately. Good stuff! =)

  25. Lisa, your posts spark the most interesting conversations on the web. I’ve never ventured into momyblogland on purpose, but I feel I really must investigate. You’ve sucked me into the drama.

  26. Oh the drama is fabulous, doesn’t anyone realise that arguing on the internet is a metaphorical special olympics? (Am I allowed to say that or is that too non-PC?) You may feel like fighting harder will make you come out on top, but you’re still a loser.

    Heres why:
    To outsiders who don’t follow (or care) about your meaningless and pathetic rants it makes you look stupid whether or not you think you are winning or losing. As a member of the blogging community, be it mommyblogger or whatever, you should know a few things about reputation management.

    Eat page of common sense and have drink can of shut the f- up.

    Lisa you should edit the first comment here to “first”, as that kinda sets the mood for the attention seeking whine that it is. Also, I love the way you handle the situation. “Ok” was a bullet in the head. ;)

    *Wonders if he’ll be moderated into oblivion*

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