Colleen Padilla, a 33-year-old mother of two who lives in suburban Philadelphia, has reviewed nearly 1,500 products, including baby clothes, microwaveable dinners and the Nintendo Wii, on her popular website Classymommy.com. Her site attracts 60,000 unique visitors every month, and Padilla gets something else: free items from companies eager to promote their products to her readers.
Marketing companies are keen to get their products into the hands of so-called influencers who have loyal online followings because the opinions of such consumers help products stand out amid the clutter, particularly in social media. “You can’t really write a review if you haven’t used it or done it,” Padilla said. “It really is a valuable thing for marketeers. It’s a real mom with a real voice.”
The proliferation of paid sponsorships online has not been without controversy. Some in the online world deride the actions as kickbacks. Others also question the legitimacy of bloggers’ opinions, even when the commercial relationships are clearly outlined to readers.
And the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is taking a hard look at such practices and may soon require online media to comply with disclosure rules under its truth-in-advertising guidelines. “Consumers have a right to know when they’re being pitched a product,” said Richard Cleland, an assistant director at the FTC.
Yet, in many ways, the hypercommercialism of the Web is changing faster than consumers and regulators can keep up. Product placements are landing on so-called status updates on Facebook, companies are sponsoring messages on Twitter, and bloggers are defining their own parameters of what constitutes independent work versus advertising.
TNT, for instance, is experimenting with a paid relationship with a popular blogger, Melanie Notkin, founder and chief executive of SavvyAuntie.com, a site that has carved out a demographic niche of professional aunts without children.
For some bloggers, product sponsorships have become a lucrative side business.
Many of these marketing practices have created grey areas as to what constitutes advertising versus consumer outreach.
Cleland said the FTC would likely not spell out the disclosure requirements but instead rely on Internet users to judge what constitutes fair disclosure.
At the same time, the marketing industry has also been revising its guidelines. The Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s ethics code says manufacturers should not pay cash to consumers to make recommendations or endorsements, but it is evaluating how companies should handle disclosures of product giveaways to bloggers.
Still, the encroachment of commercialism into new media formats worries some consumer advocates. Many forms of online word-of-mouth marketing depend on the perception of unsolicited or personal opinions, said Robert Weissman, managing director of the advocacy group Commercial Alert. “It’s a contrast to the Tupperware model, where everyone knows what’s going on, and no one’s trying to be deceiving.”
Weissman’s group favours stricter oversight of marketing practices.
©2009/The New York Times