When Brands Ask Bloggers to Break the Law
When I published my rant on bloggers and disclosure last week, a couple of people expressed surprise at the idea that brands would actively encourage bloggers not to disclose sponsorship. Actually, though, this happens all the time, and I suspect it’s probably one of the reasons many bloggers fail to disclose: after all, if the brand says it’s OK, and actually makes it a condition of the post, why not? Girls gotta
eat buy a million ASOS dresses, right?
As I said in that post, it’s actually very much NOT OK: in fact, it’s illegal, and reputable brands are well aware of this, and will therefore never ask you to do it. I work with a lot of really excellent brands and PR agencies, and they’re stringent about making sure the posts they pay for are legal. Brands have that responsibility: they can’t, after all, be seen to be paying someone to break the law on their behalf, so if their reputation matters to them, they will make sure their dealings with bloggers are all above board. All of my own sponsored posts, for instance, are handled by Handpicked Media, and every single time they send me details of a potential collaboration, they’ll point out that it MUST be disclosed: any good, professional brand will do the same.
To be fair, most of the bigger brands who approach me are like this. PR agencies are also very good about disclosure, and understand that it’s not negotiable – I don’t think a PR agency has ever asked me to conceal a sponsorship. The problems start when you’re approached by smaller brands, who’re doing their own outreach, or by SEO agencies, who only care about boosting search engine rankings, and will worry about the consequences later. (I don’t mean to imply that all SEO agencies are bad ones, by the way: of course not. My personal experience, however, is that they’re much more likely to ask you not to disclose than a PR or someone working directly for a large brand).
As an example of this kind of thing in action, here are two recent real-life examples of brands who have contacted me asking for coverage on my blog. I’ve removed their names, but suffice to say these were smaller brands, who were doing their own outreach, rather than using a PR agency or similar.
“Hi Amber,I hope you are doing well. My name is XXXXX and I work for XXXX. I found your blog “Forever Amber” extremely interesting and full of creativity. I must acknowledge your taste that reflects in your lifestyle & home decor blog posts. I was going through some of your recent blog posts and found them really useful. Plus I was really touched by the quality of your content on your blog which made me think if you could help us come up with a blog post that does not look commercial or does not have to be a product specific post. It can be about [two topics I don’t ever write about]. The post will provide useful information to your readers like your normal blog posts. It will be great if you could give me your views on the above proposal or help us come up with a better idea to promote our brand on your blog (other than paid advertisement). I am sure we can reach a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
So, at this stage they’re not offering to pay me – in fact, they’re hoping NOT to pay me: they’re just asking if it would be possible for me to provide coverage of their brand, with no benefit to me other than that my readers will apparently LOVE it, because it will be “just like my normal posts”.
Just like my normal blog posts, people! It would be JUST LIKE THEM! I mean, it’s not like I’d be doing anything I don’t do ANYWAY, would it? It certainly wouldn’t be any extra work for me, because it would be just like my normal blog posts! That I write anyway! And if I won’t do it for ME, then won’t I think of my readers? Because this would be useful information for them, you know? I would be practically performing a public service, for God’s sake. And sure, it would be a complete change of topic for my blog for me to suddenly start writing about the mating habits of the two-tongued pink spotted frog*, but it would be USEFUL. Yes.
The subject line of this email described it as an “Amazing Blog Post Opportunity!” – I can only assume they were referring to the “amazing opportunity” THEY would get to use my blog (plus my writing, photography and marketing skills) to promote themselves for free, because as far as I can see, I’d get absolutely nothing out of this, other than several hours’ work, and a blog post which would be totally out of place on my blog. I was particularly annoyed by the suggestion that I should come up with OTHER ways for them to use me, but luckily for me, when I declined to do this, they did it for me, coming back with an offer to send me a free product (Worth £30), a list of requirements dictating how I should write about it, and the following request:
“We can do all this if it is possible for you to not mention this as a “sponsored post” or tag it any other way that makes it look commercial. You can consider it as a regular blog post you do for your blog on regular basis. Please feel free to discuss more. Looking forward to work with you.”
And then my head exploded.
So, basically I get to mislead my readers, break the law regarding disclosure of sponsorship, and do several hours work, in exchange for a product worth £30, which I didn’t actually need. But hey! It would be just like writing a regular blog post, and I do that anyway – “on a regular basis” in fact! – so what’s the issue?
Well, the issue is that the “regular” (i.e. non-sponsored) posts I write for my blog don’t come with a huge list of requirements (I can write about what I want, when I want), or involve breaking the law or lying to my readers. I may not get free products as a result of writing them, but I do get plenty of other things, including traffic to my site, which can bring me advertising revenue. Oh, and the self-respect that comes from not shilling products from companies who don’t respect either me, my readers, or the law. There’s a lot to be said for that.
Here’s another one (emphasis is mine):
Hi Amber, I have had a look at your advertising page, but couldn’t exactly find your guidelines regarding my proposal, which is for:
A blog post written by you without any disclosure statements or sponsorship tags.
We are looking to raise awareness about the importance and benefits of LED lighting.
DIRECTION OF THE POST:
The genre of the post will be on energy/money saving tips for a business or cutting costs in your shop by having LED lights. It has to be related to business/retail.
HOW WILL IT WORK?
The post will have just ONE link from [Redacted] but you would have to mention other brands as well. The other brands that you mention can be any brands that are not direct competitors of [Redacted] plus fits in well with the theme of the post. I repeat again, the links should be extremely relevant to the content in your post.
WHAT IS YOUR BENEFIT?
We do have a budget for this but please feel free to quote the form of return you want and we can talk about it to meet a common ground. Your readers will taste a different flavor & because this is an unusual concept, you will enjoy writing it too.
SO, WHAT TO DO NOW?
Let me know your thoughts so that we can start off to create a great piece of content that will be truly useful for your readers. Can you please tell me how much do you have in mind? My budget is really tight at the moment so can you please quote the bare minimum? Plus are you willing to NOT add any kind of disclosure?
There’s nothing I love more than being told what I’ll enjoy writing about, folks! And wow, but do these people obviously know me well – how did they guess I spend all my spare time writing about LED lighting, just for the fun of it? OK, I’m being sarcastic: I don’t actually enjoy writing about LED lighting, but you guys would all like to know how to cut costs in your shop, wouldn’t you? That’s why most of you are here, after all? In fact, you’re SO KEEN to know about the business benefits of LED lighting that you won’t care if I don’t disclose that I was paid to write a post on a subject I know absolutely nothing – and care even less – about, will you? If you would, perhaps the fact that I’ll only be paid the “bare minimum” will help?
I’ve taken the liberty of re-writing the bolded sections for them:
“I have had a look at your advertising page, but couldn’t exactly find your guidelines regarding my proposal, which is for: a blog post written by you without any disclosure statements or sponsorship tags.” = “I haven’t bothered to look at any of the information on your site, so don’t know what your policy is on writing illegal and unethical posts. I’m just going to assume you’re fine with that, though!”
“Your readers will taste a different flavor” – “They’ll be completely mystified by why you’ve suddenly started babbling on about LED lighting, but who cares what they think?”
“You will enjoy writing it too” – “You’ll do anything for a quick buck, won’t you?”
“Please quote the bare minimum” – “We really want you to do it for nothing. If you MUST charge us something, though, make sure it’s ALMOST nothing: why should you get paid for doing all this work to benefit us?”
Needless to say, I declined these offers, tempting as they were. Some other bloggers DID write about these companies, though: as with my previous post, it’s perfectly possible that they did so completely spontaneously, and without any kind of compensation – some people just really like LED lighting, right? – but… I’ll leave it up to you to decide what you think about that.