Why you get what you pay for

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes 

Do you understand how many of the blogs you read and the podcasts you hear earn their money through advertising and sponsorships? In the world of the internet, it’s a case of buyer beware…

How do you feel about advertising on the internet? And what about ethics?

I ask these questions after listening to another podcast where the host — in this case, Malcolm Gladwell — has narrated a creepy, personalized advertisement. Here’s, in part, what he said, in his ‘this-is-an-advertisement’ voice:

[You] know that I have a rule about liquids: I only drink five: coffee, red wine, milk, tea and water. It’s one of my weird little neurotic acts of self-denial. But lately I’ve been thinking about turning my liquid rule into an act of extravagant indulgence. What if I only drank Fiji Water? It’s tropical rain water from Fiji! Filtered through volcanic rock! Bottled at the source! How can I go back to New York city water after that?

I found his tone of voice off-putting (I’d call his enthusiasm ‘fake news’) and the content even worse. In fact, I had the distinct sense that he was inventing feelings to appease his sponsor. If you want to listen to the whole thing, here’s a link. The “ad” starts at the 18:06 minute mark.

Less overtly offensive, but more troubling to me, however, is the style of another podcaster, Adam Grant, a Wharton business school professor who is well known for a popular TED Talk  and for co-authoring the book Option B with Sheryl Sandberg. Here’s how he handles advertising in his podcast:

This is going to be a different kind of ad. I’ve played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast. All have interesting cultures of their own. Today we’re going inside the workplace of Warby Parker…. Many companies claim to have cultures of learning but Warby Parker takes that to a whole new level….At Warby Parker they believe everyone is capable of mastering more than one role…

And what follows is a story that, for all intents and purposes, sounds like regular journalism. But it’s not. It’s a paid ad! The dishonesty of this type of approach rankles me. What assurance do we have that Adam Grant (or anyone else) is going to be diligent and objective if the people they’re interviewing are paying for the privilege? If you want to hear Grant’s words directly, here’s a link to his podcast. The “ad” starts at the 15:28 minute point in the episode titled: “Your Hidden Personality.”

But I know that podcasting is a relatively new medium and I assume it will take some time to establish standards and sort out best practices. In the short-term, I’m prepared to label Gladwell, Grant and others as ‘newbies’ and forgive them for what I consider to be beginners’ mistakes.

There is another approach to advertising, however, that I find even more deeply troubling. A few years ago, I learned that a popular blogger whom I’m not going to name charges a hefty fee to review books on her website — something she has never disclosed to her readers. She also does the same with products. I had taken a course with her and she admitted this action — bragged about it, really — during one of the training sessions. Her attitude horrified me!

My 20 years of work in the old-fashioned newspaper business taught me that it’s supremely important to separate advertising from editorial. In my many years in a variety of newsrooms, we always took pride in never catering to any advertisers. For this reason, I generally don’t accept “freebies” — programs, services or goods given at no charge. Once or twice in my early years as a blogger I made an exception, but I always alerted my readers that I’d received a freebie. And no more exceptions! I no longer even participate in Amazon’s affiliate program, which gives website owners credit for books or other products they mention and then sell via a hyperlink.

This principle allows me to review products or make statements that readers can trust come from my honest opinion alone. I wrote two of my more popular blog posts — one evaluating whether it’s worth paying for Grammarly and the other on the merits of voice activation software  — without any freebies and without a single nickel from any sponsor. This allowed me to express my views without worrying whether I was going to alienate someone who’d given me a gift. How many other bloggers can say the same? Do you know the policies of the bloggers you read?

I don’t have an ethical problem with clearly labelled ads, but I don’t accept those for my website either. I don’t want to be beholden to corporate interests in any way.

So how do I make my money? I sell my products and services through my website. This newsletter and all the posts on my blog don’t earn me a cent, per se, but they allow you to see my writing style, my knowledge and my commitment. If that causes some of you to buy my products, terrific. If it causes you to walk away with disinterest, no problem!

I try to be utterly transparent and I wish more internet vendors and social media influencers were able to say the same. The blurring of the lines between advertising and editorial (never mind the blurring of the line wrought by companies such as Facebook, which quietly sell your attention to advertisers) makes me acutely uncomfortable.

You always get what you pay for. Do you know what you’re buying and when you’re buying it? Let every buyer beware.

How do you regard advertising and sponsorship on the internet? Does it make you more careful about what you buy? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by July 31/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book The Golden Spruce by John Vaillant. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.