A few days ago I posted a controversial article about Microsoft and Acer, through Edelman PR, distributing Ferrari laptops pre-loaded with Windows Vista to the blogosphere. I expected some controversy so the response didn’t surprise me too much. Except that I fear I didn’t explain one of my main points sufficiently well.
In my article, I stated rather bluntly that regarding the distribution of the laptops to bloggers, there was no ethical issue associated with a vendor giving product to thought and opinion leaders in a marketplace.
Since it’s been debated by quite a few bloggers, both in my comments and on other weblogs [including Mark Fox, Microsoft Weblog and Deliciously Geeky], let me spend a few minutes clarifying my thinking…
There are two parts to the ethical issue we’re talking about when a vendor opts to select a few people in a marketplace and offer them something of perceived value: there’s the vendor’s side of the equation and the recipient’s side. If you’re a follower of The Tipping Point, as I am, you’ll already know that “few people” should really be “thought and opinion leaders” and the logic is unassailable and has been involved with product and service marketing for generations: you generate buzz, popularity for your company by getting “the right people” to show up. If that means you offer them the service or product for free, it’s a smart investment. If you have to pay them to try it or endorse it, that’s perfectly reasonable too.
From the perspective of the vendor, therefore, I think that there are indeed no ethical issues, and that’s what I was referring to when I wrote that I believed there was no ethical issue with the distribution of the Ferrari laptops in the first place.
As a service provider, it’s up to me to determine what I’m going to charge a client or customer, and if opt to give away my services to worthy organizations, because of political, religious or moral reasons, is there any sort of ethical issue? If I charge Fortune 500 companies more for my consulting services than I charge a Mom and Pop business struggling to come out of the garage and into the real world of business, is that somehow wrong?
Remember, ethics is a code of conduct that’s focused on right and wrong, good and bad. Yes, that’s subjective, but that’s the point, isn’t it?
So as I said, I don’t see that there’s any ethical issue whatsoever from a vendor’s perspective when they distribute valuable products or services to thought and opinion leaders in their marketplace. Is it ostensibly buying influence? Sure. But what’s wrong with that? When you’re at an outdoor festival and a vendor offers you a free sample of their food, is that really different from Microsoft offering Vista laptops to bloggers, other than simply the scale and scope of the effort?
Now, the more interesting question is whether it’s ethical for a blogger to accept a promotional giveaway from a vendor or not. And for this issue, I think that there are two important principles to consider: the principle of disclosure, and the principle of individual freedom.
Disclosure is something that we bloggers have been thrashing about since before there was a blogosphere. Really, it’s a core question for anyone who communicates with others, whether you’re extolling the virtues of something at a party, writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, sending a newsletter to your customer community, or blogging about a particular product or service.
My take: if you disclose that you have received something gratis in a manner that lets a reader know your bias, then you have fulfilled your ethical obligation. If I write about the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet and begin by saying “Nokia sent me this to check out, and here are my thoughts and reactions…” I’ve identified my bias and now the burden, the onus is on you, the reader, to determine how much you can trust my words and how much you can believe of what I say.
If I don’t disclose my bias, the fact that I have received the product or service free, there’s an issue of believability and a question of whether I adequately identify my bias, but that’s often a red herring anyway. For example, if I wrote a fantasy film review blog and occasionally received “screeners” from movie studios hoping to have me write positively about their films, do you really think it would matter to me whether I paid $2 to rent the movie at Blockbuster or got the disk for free? Do you think bloggers are so cheaply influenced?
The key question, though, is what I mean by ethical obligation and how that ties into the principle of individual freedom.
Let me address that in reverse order, because if we think back to The Tipping Point and posit that the person involved is a thought or opinion leader, isn’t it obvious that that influence is based on trust, on being a trustworthy, credible and thoughtful analyst or commentator? That being true, then surely failing to disclose a necessary bias, failing to inform readers that you are being influenced by vendors, will fairly quickly produce a loss of credibility and ultimately a descent from leader to wannabe.
The system itself solves the problem through cultural and social dynamics.
If you want to see this in action, look at the long, slow plunge of former pop diva Britney Spear’s career. A series of bad decisions have significantly hurt her reputation and decimated her credibility and standing in the pop music community.
That’s why I really don’t think that blogger ethics are that important. First off, every blogger is free to present or hide their bias and to accept or decline freebies and unusual access to products or services, and secondly the system itself corrects dramatic misbehavior, and bloggers who are unduly influenced by vendors quickly gain the reputation as shills and have less credibility and less importance in the blogosphere. Problem solved.
What’s your opinion? What am I missing here, what point or perspective should be voiced? Do you, dear reader, believe that there’s a big ethical issue with bloggers, or with bloggers who don’t disclose their relationship with vendors, or do you agree that it all “comes out in the proverbial wash” and is so much tempest in a teapot?