Posts about payperpost

FTC regulates our speech

The Federal Trade Commission just released rules to regulate product endorsements not just in advertisements but also on blogs. (PDF here; the regs don’t start until page 55.)

It is a monument to unintended consequence, hidden dangers, and dangerous assumptions.

Mind you, I hate one of its apparent targets: Pay Per Post and its ilk, which attempt to co-opt the voice of bloggers. But I hate government regulation of speech more.

And mind you, I am all in favor of transparency; I disclose to a comic fault here. I think that openness is the best fix for questions of trust and advise companies and politicians and certainly governments to become transparent by default as enlightened self-interest. But mandating this for anyone who dares speak online? Foolish.

There are so many bad assumptions inherent in the FTC’s rules.

First, Pay Per Post et al, as I realized late to the game, are not aimed at fooling consumers. Who would read the boring, sycophantic drivel its people write? No, they are aimed at fooling Google and its algorithms. It’s human spam. And it’s Google’s job to regulate that.

Second, the FTC assumes – as media people do – that the internet is a medium. It’s not. It’s a place where people talk. Most people who blog, as Pew found in a survey a few years ago, don’t think they are doing anything remotely connected to journalism. I imagine that virtually no one on Facebook thinks they’re making media. They’re connecting. They’re talking. So for the FTC to go after bloggers and social media – as they explicitly do – is the same as sending a government goon into Denny’s to listen to the conversations in the corner booth and demand that you disclose that your Uncle Vinnie owns the pizzeria whose product you just endorsed.

Insanity and inanity. And danger.

The regulations raise no end of questions. For example: How much do I have disclose? Before I say anything nice about anyone, do I need to list every advertiser I’ve ever had? Every possible business relationship? You think my disclosures are comical now, just wait.

And what about automated ads, such as those from Google? I have been writing nice things about my treatment at Sloan Kettering. This has caused ads to come up on my blog, via Google, from the hospital. Presuming someone clicked on them, I’ve made money from the hospital. Does that taint what I say or me if I don’t disclose the payment? That’s the level of absurdity this can reach.

The regulations are not aimed just as bloggers, of course, but at endorsements of all sorts, including from celebrities and experts. The FTC requires advertisers to continually reconfirm that endorsers are bona fide users of the endorsed product. Do we really believe that Tiger Woods drives a Buick? How will that be policed?

The FTC also concedes that it treats critics at publications differently – less stringently – than bloggers. Don’t they realize that people on travel and gadget and food publications get freebies all the time. I’ve long believed that ethics alone should compel them to disclose. But the FTC doesn’t.

I love this one: The FTC now forbids media advertisers from changing a critic’s opinion in a blurb. Ha! That happened to me constantly when I was a critic. (“Colossal piece of crap” became “Colossal! – Jeff Jarvis, People”.) I even wrote a column in People complaining about an “NBC pinhead” doing this. A few weeks later, my colleague on the launch of Entertainment Weekly, went to Burbank for a business meeting with the network with an exec who identified himself as that pinhead.

Note, by the way, that when I did cover entertainment in Time Inc., conflict came not only from advertisers (Hallmark pulled all its advertising after I dared give Hall of Fame
treacle the reviews it deserved) but also from within the company (the head of HBO wanted me fired and the editors of Time Inc. tried to change my opinions). How the hell could that be regulated? Only by my fighting back, it turned out.

And there is the greatest myth embedded within the FTC’s rules: that the government can and should sanitize the internet for our protection. The internet is the world and the world is messy and I don’t want anyone – not the government, not a newspaper editor – to clean it up for me, for I fear what will go out in the garbage: namely, my rights.

What I now truly dread is that the FTC is holding hearings about journalism on Dec. 1 and 2. As Star-Ledger editor Jim Willse (full disclosure: he hired me a few times) said in my Guardian podcast last month (full disclosure: I work for the Guardian): the words, “we’re from the government, we’re here to help,” should be met with trepidation.

: See also Reason’s take. More comments from others coming soon.

Dan Gillmor sees full employment for First Amendment attorneys.

Steve Garfield’s disclosure is longer than his post. Fit that in Twitter.

Andrew Keen says the regs should include “bent reviewers on Amazon.” Damn, Keen and I are agreeing too much these days.

FTC guy tells blogger to return books after a review. These people have no clue as to reality. Publishers don’t want them back.

Here’s Fortune on the story.

Here‘s the Guardian’s Bobbie Johnson, unsure about the regs. And here‘s Daniel Tunkelang, also debating with himself.

Techdirt points out more absurdities.

Jack Shafer calls the rules the FTC’s mad power grab.

Pay per spam

A Fortune Forbes reporter called me the other day as he started into a story about Pay Per Post and once again, I wish I’d done the interview by email so I could point to what I told him.

He was enthusiastic about Pay Per Post catching on. I asked him what evidence he had to say that. He said it had lots of posties and lots of advertisers and is getting more funding. Well, funding is not necessarily a sign of a successful business. I asked whether it was profitable and whether it was performing for those advertisers. I took him through my logic of why Pay Per Post surely cannot work for advertisers as a branding and marketing tool because posties’ paid blog posts are unreadable and not credible and have no audience. I said that I thought this was nothing but human splogging: an effort to get bloggers to link to companies for SEO. I begged him to call Google and find out their view of this and whether they were set to block it. I urged him to get to advertisers to find out what alleged value they got out of this. I told him that I think less of advertisers — namely, HP — that use this. I pleaded with him to be skeptical.

Here’s his rather puffy. He glosses right over the human splogging as if it were a fringe benefit, not a scam:

Some advertisers have pretty good luck with the system. Besides buzz, PayPerPost’s army of bloggers can influence a Web site’s all-important rank in search engines.

The algorithms that determine search engine results pay particular attention to how many different pages link to a site, and by suddenly introducing hundreds of new links to a particular site, PayPerPost has the power to radically and rapidly affect this.

In January, for example, when PayPerPost bloggers began writing about Hewlett-Packard (nyse: HPQ – news – people ), the search terms ”HP” and ”HP Camera” spiked in the Neilsen NetRatings, which monitor Internet activity.

When posties embedded trailers of the 2006 Ashley Judd movie Bug in their blogs, the video became one of the most popular on, a popular indexer of what’s happening on the Web. Last week, when posties were offered $18 to talk up John Cusack’s new movie, 1408, all 300 opportunities were snatched up within 24 hours.

There’s the lead, damnit. Pay Per Post isn’t advertising, marketing, branding, any of that. It’s an attempt to get around Google’s and Technorati’s splog filters. You might as well have — pace Andrew Keen — a million, uh, well, monkeys typing links.

: Oh, and I don’t sniff. I snort.

Pray per post

Last night, I moderated a panel on buzz and marketing at the Always On conference in New York and I started it off by slamming Pay Per Post, the infamous service that pays bloggers to write positive posts about products, and a presentation by the company’s president, Ted Murphy.

Murphy showed a video a mom created for Pay Per Post, showing her little kids smashing a camera with a hammer because it wasn’t an HP. I was appalled (so was David Weinberger). So they have created something that entices mothers to exploit their own children as cheap shills. For shame.

The discussion went on with the panelists — including an advertising and a PR exec — agreeing that you can’t buy buzz.

At the end, who should stick up his hand but Murphy. He said that Pay Per Post is transparent about its posts being bought; I said that this was damned recent and only after much pressure. He also said that he saw no difference in Amanda Congdon making commercials on her old or new vlog and a Pay Per Post person making a commercial on her blog. Fair point. But one of the panelists said that Rocketboom is clearly a show and a commercial makes sense in that context; the relationship is clearer. David Weinberger said that marketers and the public have been at war for a century and the internet and blogs were to be his refuge from that: a place to have conversations with friends. I asked whether Weinberger, who takes no ads, hates me for doing so. He said, no, because the relationship is, again, clear: It’s about someone buying space on my page, not about buying my endorsement. He called Pay Per Post “corrosive” to the conversation. Pressed again on the demarcation, I brought up the rules I was taught as a journalist (emphasizing strongly that I was not trying to call all blog talk journalism or to hold it all to the same structure and rules): Simply put, the rule is that no one can buy my voice and with it my credibility.

The conference was a bit disorganized and our panel, the last of the day, got on late after confusion on the schedule about the session. They tried to cut us off on time but the room and I revolted and we kept going; the discussion was rousing and fun.

After it was all over, I saw a camera guy — with good HDTV rig and steadicam, even — who had been shooting the session. I thought he was Always On’s guy. But at the elevator bank, the camera was still following Murphy. ‘What, you have a reality show?’ I joked. No joke. They do. They call it Rock Startup and try to make themselves into rock stars (Murphy is “The Murphman“) and even say they’re trying to sell it to a network — though, of course, it’s really just a commercial. Here’s an episode about their brashly painted, branded monster truck and how they’re going to promote by taking a couple of “smokin’ ” promo “girls” to bars. The hubris of this organization is astounding.

I asked Murphy whether he had seen Startup, the movie about the hubristic and failed startup GovWorks. No, he’d never heard of it. I suggested that he get the DVD. When I met with GovWorks in the bubble, I refused to allow them to tape it. Well, now perhaps I’ll end up in the sequel.