Journalists shouldn't write ad copy

Dust-up in the blogosphere! A Microsoft microsite created by blog ad network Federated Media features a number of well-known bloggers musing about what the phrase "People Ready" -- a Microsoft marketing slogan -- means to them. The "conversational" marketing site, and ads linking to it, have existed for a couple of months -- but Nick Denton's blog post at Valleywag questioning the whole idea has ignited a fiery debate on whether bloggers should participate in ad campaigns for money. (The money in question was the ad revenues the bloggers received for Microsoft ads on their sites that link back to the People Ready microsite.)

As someone who blogs and otherwise is involved with editorial content at an ad-supported site -- that would be PCWorld.com -- I thought I'd chime in about the two questions that came to mind as I followed the debate that's going on.

Question one: Would I -- or any other journalist at PC World -- get involved in a project that involved contributing to a marketing campaign?

Well, no. Our job is to cover technology companies -- Microsoft being one of the more prominent ones in our little world. I've even been known to write about Microsoft advertising. To help create such advertising would be crossing a line we're not going to cross. (If you see ads with quotes from PCW writers saying nice things about a product, we said 'em in stories which the ads are quoting; as journalists, we don't care if we get quoted or not. It feels just as good -- better, actually -- to say critical things that help steer readers away from bad products as it does to say something positive that might wind up in an ad.)

We get asked to participate in projects that involve editors talking about specific companies or products all the time. We won't, even when -- in theory -- there are no restrictions on what we might say. We also regularly pass up opportunities where an advertiser might have influence on an editorial product -- say, by approving topics in advance for something they're sponsoring.

(Full disclosure: The PC World Test Center has performed contract testing, for pay, for a Toshiba site. The testing was objective, based on a test plan the Test Center devised, and didn't involve PCW endorsing the Toshiba products involved or expressing opinions on them. And it didn't have any impact on our evaluation of Toshiba products here on PCWorld.com or in the magazine. We agreed to this project after careful consideration and with lots of guidelines; we've declined to do contract testing in other instances that didn't meet our standards.)

(More full disclosure: PC World magazine and PCWorld.com sometimes include content that might reasonably be called advertorial, as well as other advertiser-created material. But the PCW edit staff is never involved in creating it, nor do we lend our names to it. And it must indicate the advertisers involved and can't mimic real PCW editorial.)

In the end, PC World, like almost every technology media outlet, covers our costs and makes a profit by selling advertising to companies who in many cases are the same ones we write about. But we're really, really serious about letting editors be editors. Musing about what an advertising slogan means to us in return for advertising dollars isn't what we're are here for.

Or to put it another, more succinct way: Journalists shouldn't help the companies they cover market themselves.

Question two: Did the bloggers who participated in the People Ready campaign do a bad thing?

That's more complicated. Not every blogger is a journalist, and maybe it's kosher for someone like Fred Wilson, who's a venture capitalist, to do things that a journalist wouldn't.

Many (all?) of the bloggers involved have blogged about the controversy--that they're responding is one of the things that's so great about the blogosphere. I gotta say I like the humble response of Om Malik, who decided in retrospect to err on the side of caution, better than that of TechCrunch's Mike Arrington (who tells anyone who's unhappy to "go pound sand").

Some defenders of the campaign have done so on the grounds that the bloggers didn't endorse a specific Microsoft product. I guess it's true that what they did wasn't the same thing as brandishing a copy of Windows Vista, extolling its virtues, and shouting "On sale now!" But they did kinda endorse the idea behind the People Ready campaign; they associated their names with an advertising slogan as surely as if Nike had paid them to say "Just Do It."

Thinking all this over, I'm grateful to be part of a big ol' traditional media company. PC World has to sell advertising to survive and thrive, but we've got a hard-working team of salespeople whose job is sell those ads. We editors, thank heavens, get to be sheltered from the sausage-making. And unlike ad salespeople, who make commissions, we have no financial incentive to care whether a particular ad campaign appears on our site or not. By contrast, independent bloggers are likely to be directly involved in managing the advertising on their sites in a way that may create conflicts of interest, or at least the appearance thereof.

Jeff Jarvis -- whose blog is part of the Federated Media network, but who declined to participate in the campaign -- has the smartest commentary I've seen on all this, which is to say the one that aligns most closely with my feelings.

And here's a post by Federated CEO John Battelle, who defends the notion of conversational marketing while saying that mistakes were made with this Microsoft campaign.

Ultimately, I think there's a fairly clear bottom line here. If you're a journalist -- via a blog, a magazine, or anything else -- you must err on the side of not allying yourself with ad campaigns and slogans, or appearing to do so. If you're not a journalist, the rules can reasonably be looser. And therefore bloggers who get involved in this sort of thing are taking a stance on exactly what it is they do.

Oh, and what do I think of the notion of the "People Ready Business?" Mostly that it's a less patronizing and silly slogan than another Microsoft tagline -- "Your Potential. Our Passion." That's something, I guess. But I betcha my opinion isn't one that Microsoft would have ever let me state on its advertising site, no matter how "conversational" it might be.

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Harry McCracken

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