Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Should Bloggers Accept Gifts From Companies?

When I first read that Chanel has been wooing beauty and fashion bloggers with extravagant gifts, even offering 12 bloggers a free trip to Paris to visit the Chanel apartment, offices and perfumery, I was jealous. Who wouldn't love a free vacation to Paris, complete with red carpet treatment by one of the most fabulous and iconic luxury brands in the world? It's a beauty and fashion lover's dream come true.

I mentioned this fact to my friends one night, who surprised me by acting far less excited about the prospect of free trips and over the top gifts in my blogging future.

"You'd let yourself be bought like that, just for a free trip to Paris?" One responded, eyeing me with disdain. "You talk about wanting to be above the corrupt relationship between magazines and advertisers and complain about blogs that spit out press releases verbatim, but you're willing to accept over the top gifts from companies looking to buy positive reviews on your site?"

I sat back and thought about it. They were totally right that accepting gifts like that means getting involved with a corporation in a way that compromises my integrity as a blogger, and the pride I have in giving my readers my honest, unbiased response to things. I wrote a long post about my thoughts on blogging integrity a while back (you can read the full post here) and I've given more thought to my own policy about accepting free products from companies.


In the past, I justified accepting free products for review by saying that I would not allow my reviews to be affected by the fact that a product came from a PR firm and not the department store. In fact, I've written as many (if not more) negative reviews as positive ones. If I didn't feel strongly about a product I was sent and didn't feel I had much to say about it, I wouldn't review it. And I always pointed out in my reviews that a product was sent to me by a company, in the interest of full disclosure.

Lately though, I've been rethinking whether this is the best policy. Certainly, it does allow me to review far more products than I would otherwise. But as of now, if I'm given the opportunity to try a product for free, I'm going to ask for a sample size, since that's what I'd get if I went to Sephora myself. And of course, I'll still point out what I've gotten for free, since I think that's important information to share.

And as much as I'd love a trip to New York Fashion Week or Paris or anywhere else in the world on a company's dime, I've made a personal decision not to accept any such offers, as I really do think it really interferes, even if just at a subconscious level, with a blogger's ability to stay impartial.

I'm actually a little surprised that there hasn't been more discussion about this issue within the fashion and beauty blogosphere. Last year when Microsoft sent tech bloggers free top-of-the-line laptops as a promotion for Windows Vista, a huge discussion erupted about the ethics of bloggers accepting gifts from corporations, with most readers and bloggers arguing that Microsoft's actions were equivalent to bribery. Most bloggers turned down the free laptop, and the promotion ended up backfiring for Microsoft, making headlines in major newspapers.

The fashion and beauty blogging community isn't nearly as large, vocal or influential as the tech bloggers, but I still find it disappointing that in the year I've been blogging, I've never seen this issue discussed at length by any other blogger, and unless it's specifically brought up, readers rarely question whether a blogger may be engaging in a conflict of interest by accepting free gifts and reviewing the company's products.

Maybe I'm blowing this out of proportion, but I'm really curious whether these issues matter to you guys as readers of fashion and beauty blogs. With an increase in the reach and influence of blogs of all types, I think we're going to see more and more of this type of marketing from corporations.

Do you believe that bloggers should be held to the same standards of journalists in that they should be open about any conflicts of interest when they discuss a company or product? Does it change your opinion about a blogger or individual post when you hear that they have accepted gifts from the company they're reviewing?

I'd love to get a discussion going on the topic, so leave a comment and tell me what you think!

27 comments:

Dana said...

As a current journalism student, and the blogging integrity subject is one that continues to show its face in class discussions.

I think blogging is on the same page with opinion reporting. Because of this, readers need to read carefully and be selective about which blogs they choose to pay attention too.

As a blogger, you are not held to any type of journalism code of conduct or ethics. The writing you do is direct reflection of you and no company, product or publication.

Although I personally steer clear from blogs that do not have some from of ethics, integrity or balance, readers need to educate themselves to know other blogs are out there and not to believe everything they read.

Blogging is a great way for anyone to get involved with sharing information; however it's just that- for anyone.

Cate said...

I am neither a blogger, nor a journalist, but I think that it's always 100% fine to accept these gifts. There are basically two situations I can think of where you might get a free gift from a company. The first is from a company that is hoping for a review. As you stated, you refuse to give the "free" part any consideration when it comes to reviewing these, even going so far as to refuse to even REVIEW the product if you're just indifferent to it. I see that as a company trying ot get a word out and you making an ethical decision as to whether or not you want to participate in getting that word out, be it good or bad.
The other situation is when a company is trying to elicit good reviews from you by basically bribing you. In that case, screw 'em. Let them think their fancy trip is going to sway you! Take it for what it's worth--a big corporation thinking they can force their opinions downt he throats of the little guys (in this case, Chanel and the Bloggers*) with their fancy swag and red carpet treatments. To that I say, HA HA! I will TAKE your fancy red-carpet swag and I will continue on my merry way! I will also learn as much as I can by being in the company of others like me, and then if one of your products sucks in the future, you are darn right you'll read about it here!
I also think there are pitfalls in NOT accepting products. First, you're going to be limited by budget. Sure, you might be able to swing a vial of La Prarie once in a blue moon, but you're never going to be able to consistently review cosmetics and other products above a specific price point. Second, you're always going to be driven by your needs and wants, which although not necessarily a bad thing, is still biased. You run out of face cream and try a new one and it's really awesome/awful, it won't matter if you've reviewed 5,000 face creams because you're a face cream lovah, you're going to review it. Last, I'm sure you receive swag and products from companies that are not on the shelves of Sephora, in which case you might never have known about them.
Maybe I'm just justifying because I'd like the gifts, but I truly don't think so. I think that your relationships with the big corporations of this world are what you make of them, and as long as you fully disclose what you relationship with that company is, you should be fine. Just make sure you keep to your ethics (which sound amazing to me!) of only reviewing a product that merits a review. If you wnat to get really technical, perhaps you could disclose a little more information if what the company has sent you is truly expensive and/or they have sent you so many products that you're crossing the hundred/five hundred line. I wouldn't ever ONLY accept products from a certain company. You could also keep a running list of what has been sent to you, and periodically review it and your blog to make sure you're not being swayed one way or another. And if you think that you cannot review something because your preference for it may have been impacted by the sheer amount of stuff a company has sent you, well, then, don't. Or if you do--disclose it. Keep it fair, accept it all, and disclose everything.
Holy long. I just think that you fashion bloggers do a service to the masses, and I'm sorry, I think you deserve to be compensated for that. I know Google ads don't amount to much, so I think that this form of kickback--as long as it's egalitarian and acknowledged--is great, AND deserved.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Cate.

fashion for fun said...

Hello
I wrote on Susie Bubbles blog that I think its ok to take these opportunities, if you tell people that they were financed. The question is for you : What is your blog about ? For me Susie's blog is about the fun she has with fashion, it is about her style and the way she sees the world. So I see no problem reading a story about her trip to Paris, even if Chanel paid. If you want to have a blog of independent product tests, it may undermine peoples confidence, if you take such a large marketing gift. On the other hand most photography review sites get free cameras to review and I still trust them. They can do something I cannot, try different stuff and compare. Most people have a good instinct whom they can trust. If you copy and paste marketing speak people will know. If you accept free samples and really test them and report truthfully, people will still trust your blog.
It is up to you. What do you want your blog to be ? And don't forget, blogs are also about fun, they are about your commentary on the world, so don't try to be holier than the pope ;-).

Lex said...

I'm a print journalist, and I think to be taken seriously, a blogger needs to adhere to journalistic ethics. Even an opinion writer on a paper should declare, I think, if they're receiving freebies.

As a print journalist, if I review something, I take the smallest sample possible or go the movie's media screening, etc.

When PR and companies send us unnecessary "gifts", for example, we either mail them back or give them away to a nursing home if mailing is difficult.

I think, if you want your website reviews to be taken seriously, you should maintain the same standards.


Also, if I accepted free trips and the like, it would only be with management discretion and it would always be declared in the article.

However, to take NOTHING is impossible, as you do need to review and can't spend your own money on it. I would just be sensible about it, as you already seem to be doing!

BTW love the site. Intelligent, well-maintained, thoughtful. Thanks!

Kelly Mahoney said...

You're getting into the heart of whether or not a blogger is a journalist. While I whole heartedly think we are acting in a journalistic capacity and should adhere to the rules and regulations of SPJ, I just worked at a newspaper this summer that had an interesting take on freebies.

I worked at a business journal with four employees, including myself. We were a weekly and most of the stories we wrote were profiles and features. We were usually fairly positive in tone because we knew we wouldn't be able to uncover the next Enron and we saw our role as reporting on the business of the town. My boss's view was that we could accept a sample of what the company made or a cup of coffee or whatever as long as it was after we dedcided to do the story. He didn't want companies buying stories out of us, but at the same time, he recognized it takes a lot more than a backpack to buy off a reporter. If it was just a few freebies that swayed us, he figured he had hired the wrong people.

Then again, I was never offered a trip to Paris, but as long as there was no assumption as to what you would write, I'd take it.

fashion for fun said...

Hello again.
to lex : There is a difference between blogs and print (even if the print is now online). I often read blogs because I want opinion pieces, personal commentaries on life, stories, unique world views. A lot of them are ongoing stories that are rooted in reality, but not accurate depictions of reality. And that is fine by me. The difference between journalists and bloggers is not that the former gets paid or has a specific education. But that blogger have more freedom in expressing themselves in a purely personal manner. If all bloggers were adhering to a rigorous journalistic ethic, I would stop reading a lot of them. I often do want personal and entertaining in a blog and not always the biggest possible integrity and ethic. Bloggers can write pieces about stuff they think about without fact checking, journalists can not. What kind of blog they write is always the bloggers decision and if they do not want to adhere to journalistic ethic, that is their personal decision. I always take blogs with a grain of salt, as I do newspapers.

Annmarie said...

I agree with Cate as well - as long as there is full disclosure, go to Paris! As long as that doesn't mean you'll permanently be writing praise for the same company, take the freebies. I want to read the product reviews, as long as they are unbiased. And I can't do that if you won't accept the freebies for me.

Joanie said...

I read a lot of beauty blogs every day as a form of entertainment. I've found that some of them strike a tone about certain companies which leads me to take their comments/reviews with a grain of salt. Others maintain a level of objectivity which makes me trust their opinions more. So each blogger makes their own decisions about what is ethical for them, and then each reader decides whether or not that blog is still worthwhile! I say, accept the freebies, continue to mention that the product in question is a freebie, and everything is fine!

I might add that I have been reading several of the blogs reporting on the Chanel trip in question, and overall, I think it has been a great opportunity for readers to see some things that they might not have seen every day! Am I any more or less likely to buy Chanel because of it? I don't think so. Am I impressed with Chanel beacause of it? Yes, I like a company's willingness to share with the blogging community be it a trip and tour of the facilities or a free product to review. I like it when the lines have enough faith in their products and respect for the blogging community that they contribute and become a part of it! That said, they do open themselves up to the possibility of some scathing reviews!

Finally, I'd like to point out that a glowing review by a blogger can pique my interest in a product, which usually leads me to go get... a free sample! Just because a product is endorsed by someone (even someone I highly respect) doesn't mean it will work for me, so I make use of the samples or testers to ultimately form my own opinion!

Sorry to run on so long! I enjoy your blog and I think you maintain excellent ethical standards and objectivity in a milieu which can certainly lead to unrealistic perspectives! Enjoy the treats and just stay honest with your readers and I think you have nothing to fear! :)

Kori said...

This is a concept I'm still struggling with, so it's great to see that other people are putting such thought into it. There's a discussion of the same subject going on here http://ifbu.blogspot.com/2007/09/schwag.html that might interest you.

Erika said...

I think many of your long term readers would know that even if you accepted a trip to paris that you would report with unbiased opinions. I think blogging and being a popular blogger opens a world of opportunities for "normal" people who may never have had the chance otherwise. As long as chanel or another company offering you freebies didn't expect you to be their free voice to the world and only report on their company, by all means, enjoy the fruits of your labor.

I would look at it as compensation for the time you put into creating such thoughtful entries.

Martha said...

I could argue for either side of the argument, and but I will say this: As a reader of a number of beauty blogs, it's often easy to tell what PR people have been sending out the samples because suddenly everyone is writing about the same products. It gets pretty boring, particularly when it's obvious that half of what's being written about a certain products super ingredients or amazing promises is clearly supplied by the PR people as well. Whatever you decide to do, as long as the posts here continue to be as interesting, smart, and thoughtful as they are now, I for one will be happy. You don't strike me as the easily bought corporate schill-type.

Rapunzel said...

I completely agree with Cate. I don't even need to add anything else.

kamo said...

i agree with kate as well.

i read blogdorfgoodman regularly, and she was one of the lucky bloggers who got to go to paris. she is so completely into the process of making perfumes, the history, etc. that it's a joy to read her reviews because you can tell she was like a kid in a candy store. i don't think it's unethically shilling for a company, i see it as a dedicated blogger with a passion for their subject, sharing something interesting and beautiful with their readers. of course a lot of it has to do with how well you "know" the blogger, and whether you trust their judgment.

Rae said...

I think you should go, and have fun - as long as you aren't obligated to give them positive reviews and such. And the next time you review something of theirs, just tell us that you might be biased!

Meg said...

I'd be tempted to take the trip and write about it (with full disclosure of course). It's such a great opportunity to learn more about the behind the scenes goings on.

christine said...

Although I'm sure any woman would jump up with joy at the thought of getting a free trip to Paris paid for by Chanel, when it comes to reviewing their products in the future it would be very difficult to write negatively. So if you know you can maintain your integrity and write an unbiased review, I'd say accept the free samples. Otherwise, if the temptation is too much then you might want to leave it.

I don't read many blogs, but of the few I've read yours had one of the most thoughtful, objective, and interesting entries :) Not only that, but you've dutifully answered emails for me (and I'm quite sure for all your readers). So, I'm all for free samples for you to review, but only if you don't see it as a "gift".

Oxanna said...

I concur with Dana in that there is no blogging code of ethics per se; it's rather like opinion reporting. I prefer bloggers with integrity, even if they all don't go by exactly the same blogging standards.

That said, if a blogger is being paid or given a gift, I expect to see a clear mention of it. I think it's OK for them to receive them. There's a balance, and you have to monitor yourself to make sure you aren't being swayed. You can also ask your blogging audience to honestly tell you what they think.

As for a trip to Paris - ooh la la! That would be difficult. I think Christine has it spot-on when she said it would be difficult to write negatively about their product after a trip like that and meeting the people involved, etc. Still, I think we trust you to acknowledge what you've received, even if you end up a little biased as a result. :)

WendyB said...

There is a place where people are talking about these things...
Independent Fashion Bloggers.
Check it out here:
http://ifbu.blogspot.com/
I'm in a different situation than many fashion bloggers because I am promoting my own company and therefore am 100% biased. As a former journalist, I agree that a policy of not accepting gifts is best if you are aspiring to a certain type of serious commentary. I think fashion blogs are just starting to transition to "mainstream" positioning and therefore are in somewhat of a gray area...made grayer by the fact that they are often non-corporate, individual editorials. For many of these bloggers, full disclosure of any gifts is probably enough. If it becomes insufficient, they'll learn that via reader reaction. Of course, I'd say nondisclosure is unacceptable for anyone. Regarding reviewing small things like beauty products, books, CDs and DVDS...I don't think anyone should stress over that. Those things are of minimal value. I don't think you have to take a sample size moisturizer over a normal tube unless you are talking Creme de la Mer in buckets. But a Balenciaga bag, trip to Paris, big diamond ring...those are all things to seriously think about.

WendyB said...

I'm sorry...I missed that Kori had already given the ifbu URL. Didn't mean to repeat something already posted.

Anonymous said...

I think if you accept gifts from who you are reviewing then it taints the message.

Nihao

http://www.redlanternstyle.com

gilda said...

wow... well i love fashion and style and i certainly love chanel and karl. i would die for such a chance. i think even if a brand that i didn't love THAT much were to give me such an offer, i would take it in hope that i would open my eyes to something i never knew. of course, i wouldn't accept anything from a brand i don't like at all. and i certainly wouldn't write what i didn't REALLY think about it, so if someone were to give me something and say please write only the good things, i'd say no, i'd write what i honesty think.

Elizabeth said...

There are a lot of ethical issues and whatnot... But as a reader, I'm very happy with your choice. I've been burned before by a blog that raved about a product that didn't work for me, and while I'd normally shrug that off, when I realized later they were into that whole vendor-blogger relationship I was pissed.

Letting vendors use you for advertising, even in the form of honest reviews allows them to skip ahead in the line of "what products are being talking about", "what products do I want to try?"
I understand the fiscal reality of taking samples, but beyond that, it really does become a trust issue for me. Maybe I'm all paranoid, but I don't know the bloggers I read personally; I have to go by who seems to be on the up-and-up.

sesame said...

Hi. I just like to let you know that excerpts of your blog entry was used here:
http://cosmeticstest.com/?p=2962
if you're aren't already aware.

Even though a link was provided to your blog entry, I wonder if you like to be associated with a spammy site that does nothing but syndicate our entries just to pump up the content and use them to earn revenue from google adsense.

They have violated my copyright and I'm taking action. I leave you to decide what you'll like to do with yours.

Anonymous said...

STAY UNCORRUPTED Meg!! I love your blog and TRUST IT!

(but sorry to deprive you of a trip to Paris - - )

Anonymous said...

PS - although accepting samples for reviewing etc makes sense and I do like the way to disclose everything

tmp00 said...

Geesh-

I've been blogging on perfume for over a year and neither I or Marina were offered diddly.

When I get the few freebies I do get (usually from other bloggers or samples I baldly ask for) I do mention the provenance, and no, it's not going to make me give a good review, just ask the people from Nez a Nez.

I'd love a free trip to Paris, but I think I'd duck out as soon as possible and visit Serge Lutens. If I hated the new Chanel, I'd have to say so.