Should For-Pay Blogging Require a Morality Clause?

July 13, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Branding

The 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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