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Blogging for dollars raises questions of online ethics

Payments by advertisers to bloggers for writing about their goods, critics say, blur the line between opinion and product placement.

March 09, 2007|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Blogger Colleen Caldwell rants and riffs about whatever strikes her fancy -- a run-in with her child's school principal, the rising price of Girl Scout thin mints, an upcoming movie that caught her eye.

"Has anyone out there read a book called 'The Ultimate Gift'? I just heard that a movie is being made of the book (which sold 4 million copies)," she wrote in a recent post on her site, Simple Kind of Life.

The 30-year-old software analyst from Brooksville, Fla., went on to praise the inspirational message of the Fox Faith film, which opens today, about a trust fund baby who discovers the joy of giving. Caldwell noted that each member of the opening-weekend audience was being allowed to direct a dollar of the ticket price to a charity of the filmgoer's choice.

One thing Caldwell didn't mention: She was paid $12 to build buzz about the movie's opening and the charitable campaign -- bringing her blogging-for-dollars take to more than $7,700.

Thousands of bloggers are writing sponsored posts touting such diverse topics as diamonds, digital cameras and drug clinics. The bloggers are spurred by new marketing middlemen such as PayPerPost Inc. that connect advertisers with mom-and-pop webmasters.

Some of their fellow bloggers are critical, saying the industry is polluting the blog world and misleading consumers by blurring the line between advertising and unbiased opinion.

"The problem is the advertisers are trying to buy a blogger's voice, and once they've bought it they own it," said Jeff Jarvis, a City University of New York journalism professor who writes about technology at BuzzMachine.com.

"PayPerPost versus authentic blogging is like comparing prostitution with making love to someone you care for deeply. No one with any level of ethics would get involved with these clowns," said Jason McCabe Calacanis, an entrepreneur who co-founded Weblogs Inc., a network of blogs that includes popular technology site Engadget.

The bloggers who take assignments from the likes of PayPerPost, ReviewMe, Loud Launch and SponsoredReviews.com call the hubbub overblown. They say the services provide a way to make a profit or keep their blogs going. Technorati, a search engine that tracks 71 million blogs, says 175,000 are created daily.

Posties, as PayPerPost calls its crew of 15,500 bloggers, say their posts are sincere, sponsored or not, and that financial incentives are disclosed.

"I would never make up a lie," Caldwell said. "My sister reads my blog and she would call me out."

She has earned $7,743.54 since signing up in July, shortly after the Orlando, Fla.-based marketing firm was launched, by promoting such things as wireless outdoor speakers and online coupon sites. The part-time job has helped her pay for a wall-mounted TV, dishes and a family ski trip.

Caldwell's traffic has doubled thanks partly to PayPerPost's fanatical users, who link often to fellow Posties. That gives her a bigger audience for her unpaid musings on topics including a recent dream about Rainn Wilson, the actor who plays Dwight in NBC's sitcom "The Office."

"People talk about how we're destroying the credibility of the Internet," Caldwell said. "Let me tell you -- there are a lot worse things happening online."

Even so, the Federal Trade Commission has cautioned that word-of-mouth marketing sponsorships must be clearly disclosed.

Like many Posties, Caldwell typically relies on a blue disclaimer button on her home page that, when clicked, informs readers that compensation from marketers "may influence" the entries on her blog, and that posts "may not always be identified as paid or sponsored content."

PayPerPost urges the bloggers it works with to use a personal touch as long as they cover the topic, meet the required word count and provide links. Bloggers scan offers -- usually in the $5-to-$20 range but sometimes as high as $1,000 -- and, if their site qualifies, sign up and then write about the product or service. Afterward, they collect the fee.

Laura Neiman, 33, a Denver mother of five whose blog is called LaLa Girl, wrote wistfully about a Caribbean yacht charter service.

"We don't get a whole lot of opportunity to sail the open seas in landlocked Colorado, so I really can't relate to this at all," she began, "but I keep reading about the popularity of yacht charters as an alternative to a 'regular' vacation."

Derek Cisler, 32, a corporate trainer in Dardenne Prairie, Mo., often weighs in on NASCAR and his beloved Green Bay Packers at Original FB42's Ramblings. He admitted in one post that he enjoyed "Music & Lyrics," the Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore "chick flick." He wasn't paid for that.

But then he copped to an old "Days of Our Lives" habit, confessing that he "got sucked in during the Marlena-possessed-by-the-Devil days." A soap opera website paid him for that mention.

Tensions over sponsored blogging flared into a geek-world smack down at the Always On technology conference in New York this winter.

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