Polluting The Blogosphere

Bloggers are getting paid to push products. Disclosure is optional

"You can't believe anything you see or read," complains Ted Murphy. "You think those judges on American Idol want to drink those giant glasses of Coke?"

It's funny to hear him say this because Murphy, who founded a Tampa-based interactive ad agency called MindComet, also runs a side business that pays bloggers to write nice things about corporate sponsors -- without unduly worrying about whether or not bloggers disclose these arrangements to readers. (A scan of relevant blog searches strongly suggests that, often, they don't.)

Murphy is launching PayPerPost.com, which will automate such hookups between advertisers and bloggers and thus codify a new frontier of product placement. Advertisers pay to post details about their "opportunity," specifying, among other things, how they want bloggers to write about, say, a new shoe, if they want photos to be included, and whether they'll pay only for positive mentions. Bloggers who abide by the rules get paid; heavily trafficked blogs may command premium rates. Those seeking to subvert PayPerPost from within can't: No pornographic or "illicit" content is accepted.

Murphy's approach used to be more ad hoc. He made invitations through e-mail via the BlogStar Network, which he started in 2004. BlogStar paid nicely -- a flat fee of $5 or $10 per post. "Easy money...go buy a burger or something," advised a BlogStar invitation from 2005 soliciting posts about cable network TNT's basketball commercials featuring HBO (TWX ) character Ali G. That come-on also told bloggers "we definitely appreciate more positive posts."

IT'S BETTER FOR A BRAND to get into a blog than to surround it as a banner or text ad, says Murphy. Unlike ads, blog posts live on in search engines and through links from other sites. "A couple thousand" bloggers have participated in Blogstar Network, he says. As for disclosure, "it's up to [bloggers] to be their own morality police," he says.

There are Old Media types who will use PayPerPost to dump on the credibility of all bloggers, and there are bloggers ready to seize on Murphy's point to trash traditional media. I enjoy a rhetorical race to the bottom as much as the next guy, but both views are deluded. The blog world includes the likes of paidContent.org's Rafat Ali, a premier chronicler of next-generation media, and the dim-bulb stoner down the street. Mainstream media includes both the Washington Post (WPO ) and American Idol. To paraphrase Bill Clinton: Credibility is a journey, not a destination.

But media today is so cynical that you have to come out and say that shilling without disclosure is a bad idea. Like Murphy, one BlogStar client shrugs off such concerns. "With a large enough network, you get a good representation of [bloggers] who disclose, who disclose partially, and others who go another way," says Mike Friedman, director of interactive marketing services for Darden Restaurants, who worked with BlogStar this spring for the 32-location chain Bahama Breeze. Friedman says BlogStar built Web traffic, and stats from blog tracker Technorati show that mentions of Bahama Breeze spiked during the promotion.

Thanks in no small part to bloggers, this is an era of increased media transparency, and many shifty dealings between the business and editorial sides have been exposed. Recently The Wall Street Journal reported that advertiser-produced video segments have shown up on local news shows. My colleague Eamon Javers unmasked pundits whose op-ed page pieces touted initiatives from corporations that paid them. An undisclosed PayPerPost placement on a little-seen blog isn't the most egregious thing out there, but it's far from honest. Media may be more transparent, but the line between authentic editorial and paid placement is still often smeared, and defenders of disclosure can feel, like the proverbial buggy whip company, that they're terribly outmoded. Things being what they are, I should mention that no buggy whip association paid me to say that.

For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia

By Jon Fine

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.