Pay to Play? Ann Taylor’s Blogger Blow-Up

At least it wasn’t targeted at mommy bloggers…

There was an article in yesterday’s PR Newser — an online newsletter for the public relations industry — that excoriated Ann Taylor LOFT, the fashion company, for “paying” bloggers to run a post, calling it an “obvious infringement” of the new FTC guidelines.

The company sent this event invitation to bloggers:  

“Come take a sneak peak at LOFT’s summer 2010 collection before anyone else! Bloggers who attend will receive a special gift, and those who post coverage from the event will be entered in a mystery gift card drawing where you can win up to $500 at LOFT!”

Followed by:

“Please note all bloggers must post coverage from our event to their blog within 24 hours in order to be eligible. Links to post must be sent to [address], along with the code on the back of your gift card distributed to you at the event. You will be notified of your gift card amount by February 2. Gift card amounts will vary from $10 to $500.”

The PRNewserarticle claimed that the arrangement was payment, pure and simple — and that furthermore, many of the bloggers did not disclose that they would be receiving gift cards. Referring to the gift card offer, the publication Jezebel used the phrase “attempted bribery.”

The LA Times also voiced it outrage:

“The mass fashion company is clearly bartering coverage of its new collection on blogs in exchange for gift cards. And — from the sound of the sliding scale card values — the bigger and better your coverage, the greater your reward.”

And:

“It goes against the rules of ethical journalism (which mandate that journalists cannot — or at least, should not — be influenced by money and gifts). Are the organizers suggesting that the new generation of journalists aren’t playing by the same rules?”

In the same publication, Ann Taylor LOFT’s response: 

“Engaging the blogging community is a new way for us to communicate product information. We put a premium on the editorial media that covers our brand and we do not incentivize media for coverage. … It is not uncommon for LOFT to offer contests, promotions or special offers in-store and through various online channels to our clients, similar to other retailers.”

So — is this brouhaha another case of  blogger bashing? Or do these critics have a point?

Is there a difference between the normal modus operandi — sampling products or offering, say, a travel or shopping experience to bloggers so that they can review them — and telling them they will receive something only if they do a review? Does it matter whether it’s the horse before the cart or vice versa? Is the fact that we’re talking about a gift certificate — cash by some interpretations — what makes this scenario one that may cross the line?

We’ve worked with bloggers for some years now. Would we feel comfortable saying to them, we’ll reward you if and only if you blog about us?

My answer: No. To Ann Taylor LOFT’s credit, there is something to be said for telling bloggers upfront what a company’s expectations are and linking next steps to a deadline. We’ve seen too many incidents of bloggers attending some expensive event — and then not posting a thing. Business note to bloggers: Why do you think we invited you? And why do you think you won’t be invited to the next one?

Of course, no publicist in his or her right mind would make an offer such as Ann Taylor LOFT’s to a traditional journalist. Yet as bloggers have said repeatedly, they’re not journalists.

“Barter?” “Bribery?” I think the real issue here is timing and nuance — and perhaps a bit of neglect. All successful blogger events offer giveaways of some sort; it helps generate turnout and excitement. At Ann Taylor LOFT, the approach was blunt — post about it and we’ll give you a reward — and yes, unfortunately the amount can be interpreted as tied to the quality of the post, although that may not have been the case.  Perhaps it would have been different if the company had offered the gift card to guests beforehand and invited — not required — them to write about their LOFT experience afterward (although that would probably not have satisfied the critics). In reality, the latter approach would have been risky (those potential deadbeat bloggers again) and difficult to tie to deadlines—but more palatable. Furthermore, yes, anyone who posted should have absolutely disclosed that they would receive a gift card in return.  Is it Ann Taylor LOFT’s fault if they didn’t? No–bloggers should all know better by now. Should Ann Taylor LOFT have included that requirement in the invitation? Makes for one wordy invitation but, hey, there’s always fine print — and FTC guidelines that impact not just bloggers, but the companies that reach out to them.

Marketers, what are your thoughts? Was Ann Taylor LOFT’s approach ethical? Where would you draw the line? Bloggers, I’d really like to hear from you, too. What do you think of the company’s invitation and the media’s reaction?