Tuned In

The (Positive, Enthusiastic, Subsidized) Critics of the Future?

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I try not to do too many navel-gazing, whither-the-future-of-criticism posts, but today’s New York Times feature on bloggers paid to do sponsored posts promoting products is the sort of thing that gives me the heebie jeebies.  

In a nutshell: successful bloggers can now earn income and freebies by doing posts and videos for advertisers like Healthy Choice, Blockbuster and—and now they’re getting into my house—TV shows. The bloggers get paid; the advertisers, in a cluttered media market, get marketed to an engaged audience through someone perceived as trusted and “real.”

The defense of the bloggers in the piece is that they identify their sponsored posts and don’t praise products they don’t genuinely like. I’m willing to believe that. It still gives me the heebie-jeebies.  

Media critics and journalism watchdogs usually focus on more insidious, hidden forms of influence and conflict: payola, hidden corporate connections, bogus or planted reviews. That’s understandable: transparency in sponsorship lets the reader judge, and a hidden bias is the most dangerous one.

But hidden, sinister promotion deals are not necessarily easy to pull off; hamfisted product placements can look cheesy; and out-and-out scams can blow up in an advertiser’s face. I’m usually of the opinion that transparency is the best disinfectant, and that as long as someone discloses that they’ve been paid to write something, the buyer can beware. 

I have to wonder, though, about the effect of this practice on the larger ecology of reviewing—not only, or even especially, of arts works, but foods and toys and electronics and the whole world of stuff-you-buy. If a blogger genuinely likes a certain stereo, say, and blogs about it for free, with no one editing his or her copy, nothing dishonest has happened. If a blogger genuinely likes that stereo and blogs about it, with no one editing his or her copy—but is paid to—nothing dishonest has happened. At least literally. No one has told a lie about the perceived merits of the product. 

What does happen, though, is that you incentivize a certain kind of writing. I am willing to believe that most people are not evil; that even for money, bloggers like the ones in this article will not lie. They are free to like Healthy Choice, and they are free to hate Healthy Choice. 

But they can only get paid for liking Healthy Choice. (One quoted blogger defends the practice by saying, “I don’t blog about a product if I don’t really like it.” That’s exactly the point: you dislike it, you don’t blog about it.)

Does that mean you lie? No reason it should. If you are honest, then you write honestly. But—you do have more incentive to write positively. The incentive is to find those things you like—genuinely, honest-to-God like—and focus on those. 

Maybe, in fact, it is in your nature to believe that people should focus on the positive. Maybe you sincerely believe, to your core, that there is enough negativity in the world, and that the world needs more writers who celebrate the things they love. Very well, then: you can get paid for following your principles. And someone with the opposite set of principles cannot, at least not in the same way. 

I realize I may be overstating this. Maybe any writer, to have credibility, has to be willing to say what he or she likes and dislikes. Maybe enough negative reviews will get out—from dissatisfied customers, free of charge—that the truth will out.

But if there’s more incentive on one side of the equation, then I have to wonder if this isn’t a way of creating a more seller-friendly blogosphere, without having to turn anyone into shills (and thus sacrifice credibility). After all, no one is being asked to lie. We’re just asking for more positive honesty. 

In the meantime, I’m going to get in touch with Bravo, and see if they’re willing to pay me for a negative review of NYC Prep.