Does Gifting Affect Blogger Credibility?

Since the FTC ruled that bloggers need to disclose gifts, freebies, money, etc. The subject of accepting gifts affecting blogger credibility has not gone away, nor have the questions which started the rulings in the first place.

What is considered standard in the fashion industry? What is considered professional? Back in January, In the video, ‘On Fashion Blogs‘ Suzy Menkes remarked, “Some bloggers in their innocence, actually believe they are completely independent in what they say. But I've done a lot of work in tracking how much intervention there is now, and how bloggers are being fed stories.”

I couldn't help but to wonder about the ways bloggers are being fed stories, one of the most controversial ways that puts bloggers in the hot seat, is gifting. “Gifting is part and parcel of the relationship building process between media and any given brand.” says publicist,  Tatiana Read, Knot PR. Both bloggers and fashion editors alike take part in this relationship building, yet there remains a difference between the two. So what is that difference? Why do bloggers suffer credibility issues and fashion editors do not?

At the IFB Evolving Influence Conference, gifting was a hot topic, viewed very differently between the news industry where it is not tolerated, and amongst bloggers where it is accepted:

Standard Gifting Practice for Print?

As a blogger who has never worked for a print publication, I did not know the actual policies for fashion magazines. I asked several magazine editors, and did not get a response. So I asked publicists, journalists, and journalism teachers what they saw from the industry, while knowledge varied from person to person, the general consensus was, there is no Magna Carta of gift policies. Fashion journalist, Katie Hintz,  shares her experience, “I've never seen a completely written out guide to gifting at the major publishing companies that I worked for. But, especially at fashion magazines, gifting seems to be very common.”  Lorraine Sanders, a fashion journalism professor at Academy of Art University, San Francisco says, “In my experience, every publication, whether it's online or print or both, establishes its own policies about gifts and freebies and how those influence or affect editorial coverage.” She continued to add, “Most policies aren't explicitly described for readers, so it's difficult to know whether or when print fashion journalists have received free merchandise in connection with particular story or editorial item.” Publicist, Nik Thakar said, “Conde Nast has strict returns policies with regards to items, as does the BBC, however, smaller publishers – and ones that don’t specialize in fashion, do not.”


What's the Difference Anyway?

Fashion magazines aren't required to have clear gifting policies, nor are required to disclose their policies to the public, readers can never be certain if content is influenced by gifting or not. So why the attitude that editors can handle it and bloggers can not? Some say bloggers haven't learned basic ethics taught in Journalism 101, nor do bloggers understand the divide between editorial and advertising. In publications the two sides are run by different departements with different people, in blogs, it's mostly the same person doing both ad sales and producing editorial content. The separation gets muddled, leaving room for editorial conflicts and/or missed advertising opportunities.

“You don’t always get a response from print editors. Bloggers are usually better about gifts and usually give you press.” Says Nivia E. Prescod of Vidori PR. This can be great news for bloggers in terms of building relationships with companies to help get established. PR companies certainly see the value of building relationships with bloggers these days, and as press generated from these relationships becomes more and more important.

The notion that bloggers cannot handle gifting while editors takes away credit where credit is actually due. Even before the FTC ruling and in other countries, rigorous disclosure is practiced within the blogging community, where in print media, disclosure isn't clear at all to the reader. Readers have absolutely no idea what is going on behind the scenes, which is probably why the print industry is having such a hard time right now as readers move from print to online. I don't believe it's just because of advertising, there is certainly a disconnect going on between the publications and the readers where blogs have been able to connect.

Gifting vs. Samples

In the print world, magazines do not actually buy all the clothes used in an editorial spread. They don't buy the products they write about. So how do they write about it honestly? Samples.  Nik Thakar tells us, “for bigger brands – magazines [request] products all of the time, especially if they are ground-breaking or have some celebrity identity or are simply zeitgeist and unique… For smaller brands, it is essential that PRs hammer the phone – it is the case with any consumer item, fashion, tech or otherwise. Bloggers rarely call in products to shoot, as only a select few do their own photography.”  The difference is, samples are returned, Nik adds “The onus is on the PR to call back/collect the sample.”

The Real Effects of Gifting

Bloggers cannot (or should not) deny the effect gifting has on the bloggosphere. Gifting has allowed bloggers to experience products firsthand to give their readers content that they would not ordinarily be able to do if everything was paid out of pocket. Most bloggers don't get paid for the content they produce, they don't have the traffic or the resources to warrant samples for photographing, and their niche dictates that most of what they write about comes from a very personal angle. A person can't give their honest opinion about something they have not experienced.

We've all read posts that gush over a product that may not be up to the bloggers actual standard. Some of us have said ‘no' only to see other bloggers jump on the bandwagon singing praises and wondered if credibility has a price. Some might have felt like they would be missing out on an opportunity to grow a blog if they didn't play into the game. Some are just plain flattered and excited to be included amongst the elite of bloggers who get attention from companies and the media.

Symbiotic or Parasitic? The Cost of Free

Freebies, aren't free. They don't show up out of nowhere just because I did such a great job. I would like that, if that were the case, but it's simply not. Personally, I do enjoy getting gifts as much as the next person, but at the same time, when it comes to the blog, gifts come with trepidation. Do I really believe in this gift? They say ‘no strings attached, but really?' What are the expectations? Some bloggers say they don't post unless they would buy with their own money. But I'm not sure if I believe that's always the case. I've accepted and posted about things I may not have purchased with my own money, but that doesn't make it any less valuable as a post for my readers. For instance, I'm an Apple snob, but I will post about Microsoft or Android, because Apple isn't the only thing out there, and it's not for everyone.

But does the fact a product was gifted for review guarantee positive coverage? Bloggers may cry, ‘NO!' but to be  honest, I don't see negative or even questioning reviews very often. Even for products that don't get good reviews elsewhere. Bloggers want to maintain good relationships with companies (I know, I try) as much as companies want positive press. It may be a symbiotic sounding relationship, but I have to wonder, for how long? How long before it starts to impede on editorial freedom and integrity?

Disclosure Doesn't Solve Everything

I don't have the answers. Even after looking for them, it's still not clear. I've personally tried not to accept gifts, and failed. Mostly out of feeling that if I don't I won't be able to keep up with the rest of the bloggosphere. I failed out of feeling like I don't want to miss out on building relationships with companies and providing quality content. Mostly I'm left with a big question mark on what is the best way to move forward. To be like the print editors? To try to stand apart?

I do know that disclosure doesn't solve everything. Transparency doesn't magically dissipate the question marks in the background. Even with disclosure, our readers still question the intentions of bloggers. We shouldn't ignore that. Not for a second.

Top image by MarcinMoga / Lolek

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16 Responses

  1. Madeleine Gallay

    It’s demoralizing that there had to be a law, not a standard, requiring bloggers to disclose gifts and sponsorship. But there also had to be a law requiring magazines and newspapers to actually use the lipstick they credited.

    I asked one company who had a new very expensive skin product if I could review it. By the time the box arrived, I was a wreck. I didn’t want to be in a position of writing a scathing review if it were just another product. Fortunately, it was all it was supposed to be and more so that was easy.

    Suzy Menkes remark was too wide open to really comment on apart from my deep admiration for her.

    Bloggers finally are responsible to their readers and I think that there are so many blogs with only a few hundred from the millions out there really gaining credible readership (I’m not there, alas) that shady practices will simply harm the blog and probably immediately. Taking guidance from fashion blogs that have climbed to the top with over 250,000 page views a month – you know the blogger would never do anything to harm their image and that’s a good guide for the rest of us.

    Reviews and give-a-ways are so tricky – not a fan anymore at all.

  2. Precilla

    Great post.

    It is flattery for a blogger to be able to review a product. It gives the blogger a certain power.

    I’ve recently gotten an offer to review a comic book, Since my blog is about fashion and art. Although I know nothing about comics, I still excepted it. But it wouldn’t be fair for my readers if I reviewed it alone, because I have no knowledge of the product. So I decided to contact some of my friends who do know a few things about comics. They can review the product with the knowledge they have and I can also say something objective about it.

    So..what I’m trying to say is, you can accept things as a blogger, but you have to be true to yourself and your readers. You can’t just review a product without knowing a thing about it. It’s not fair for you or your readers.

  3. Eli

    Most of my readers end up being bloggers anyway, I feel like they’ve caught the drift and are in the same boat as me. So they might know how things work too. We’ve all been approached with crap before and have learned to say no to weird stuff. But some things fall on the line – like your recent stint with the Pierre Hardy Gap shoes that you wanted to return but everyone said to keep them it seemed! Im not about blogging bandwagons, but I am about honest reviews and partnering with things you believe in or like.

  4. Chic 'n Cheap Living

    Gifting can be done responsibly. Fashion editors do indeed receive gifts and are still able to report (hopefully) objectively – doesn’t this mean bloggers can too?

    Disclosure doesn’t solve everything, but it’s an important step.

    It’s a constant evaluation as we bloggers try to prove our worth (not posting every company that e-mails us and starting to charge for our time) to maintaining objective and meaningful content. It’s a process, but hopefully something we can only improve.

  5. The Clothes Horse

    This is such a great article. I do think there is a lot of ambiguity about what is right and a sense of double standards across the board. It is wrong to assume that bloggers are less ethical than formal journalists–I’m more likely to believe bloggers are more naive than seasoned professionals, but ethics certainly don’t appear with a degree in journalism. Also, blogs are such a broad spectrum that rules for “fashion” blogs won’t be perfectly applicable for “personal style” bloggers and so on.
    Lately, the necessary disclosure practices almost make it necessary for bloggers to write “this post wasn’t sponsored/I didn’t receive this for free” whenever they write about things they organically discovered and liked. The scrutiny of gifts has made people suspicious of everything written!
    I agree there aren’t many negative reviews out there; my personal choice on negative products is to not write about them. I’ll send back things I don’t like and inform the company as to why it didn’t work for me. Partly I don’t want to write negative reviews b/c of my relationship with companies, but I also don’t want to give free press to things that go wrong. I’ve had totally negative interactions and I don’t see why I should up their SEO by writing about them.
    I’m honest on my blog, but everyone’s writing is flawed by being from their personal perspective. I read blogs like I listen to my friends–with a grain of salt. I mean, even a positive review of shoes that work for me doesn’t mean it will work for everyone or that someone else will find it up to their personal standards.

  6. Retro Chick

    I can honestly say that I’ve never been turned off a blog by a blogger disclosing they received something as a gift. The blog I read are those with a real personal touch, and I wouldn’t expect any of those people to turn down things they get offered for free.

    What does turn me off is when I read a “review” that quite obviously has lots of “PR” speak in it, as I don’t feel that it’s honesty from the blogger and that they might have been offered the product essentially as payment for a positive review.

    Personally I accept gifts IF they are something that I would buy anway (if I had the money!) I’ve turned gifts down in the past because I didn’t think they were appropriate, I’ve also turned down gifts where I suddenly started getting asked to insert specific keywords into the review to “help them out”. Anything I’ve ever reviewed or mentioned I’ve been completely honest about, the good and the bad. I think I made someone a bit unhappy once, but I’m very clear that I don’t accept anything that impacts on my content.

    It does worry me that people might feel that I’m not being honest about a product, but I can honestly say I’ve reviewed far more products I’ve BOUGHT than products I’ve been GIVEN!

    • Tiffany

      Agreed. If a blogger has received a gift and photographs it in a way that is cohesive with the rest of their blog, then I don’t see the issue. But when it starts to not sound like them, then it becomes a little fishy.

  7. Pearl Westwood

    I agree with the clothes horse and retro chick. I only accept gifts I personally am interested in and that have a place on my blog. I actually turn down 95% of the things I am offered as most are irrelevant (house hold goods, cookery etc) to the blog. I have actually read posts which are reviews of random products that dont fit into a fashion blog and I do find it really off putting. But again each to their own, I am confidant my readers know I will always be 100% honest. Pearl

  8. lisa

    When I do product reviews, I mention where I bought the product or whether it was given to me as a review sample. Regardless of the product’s origins, I strive to write balanced reviews that break down likes and dislikes. Recently I received a lot of eye makeup from Maybelline to review and I wrote that I wasn’t a fan of their eyeshadow formulas; one reader commented that she appreciated my honesty instead of me just raving that I loved it all. I wouldn’t feel at peace with myself if I’d said I loved it all when I didn’t.

    Jennine, you made excellent points about how bloggers tend to be more upfront about where they get products from whereas magazines aren’t always forthcoming with that information. When I flip through the latest issue of Elle Canada and see that they have loads of ads from Lancome, then notice that they’re featuring a few new Lancome makeup and skincare products in their beauty pages, I can’t help but wonder if advertising dollars and some free gifts had anything to do with the press. Just because mags have separate advertising/editorial departments doesn’t mean that they don’t influence one another to some degree.

  9. DWJ

    I think it is a bit unfair that magazines don’t have to disclose about gifts because a lot of people aren’t aware of the freebies they’re getting. I understand the disclosure policy totally and think it makes blogging transparent but I wish it was across the board. The thing I’ve realized is that blogs are still new and have blossomed so quickly, people don’t know what to do with them.

    My undergrad degree is in Journalism and my grad degree is in publishing, I’ve had the ethics courses, I understand about gifting. I have lots of friends in media who have various gifting policies at work. As a blogging, without gifting I couldn’t review some of the things that I have been able to, I just don’t have the budget. For things that I’ve hated I’ve still talked about it and told the PR person that before the post was going to go up, I don’t want to feel bad about anything I write or what I receive.

    Bottom line is that not everyone is ethical and unfortunately for the blogging industry a few bad apples can spoil it for the entire bunch.

  10. WendyB

    You know what I dislike? When some fashion bloggers put down fashion magazines then justify taking gifts by saying, “The magazines do it.” Do they not realize what they’re saying? “Fashion magazines are bad and we should be just as bad”?

    The panel before mine at the IFB event had quite a few bloggers talking about the self-censorship they feel need to practice in order to keep their advertising. Unless they have something nice to say about a product, they don’t say anything at all. I have to imagine that gifting would lead to a similar situation.

  11. Toni

    I think this discussion is missing the readers opinion, as opposed to simply that of bloggers…

    Gifting has made the “independent” personal style blogosphere tacky (and not delightfully tacky). Bloggers have began shoving products down their readers throats. I had to stop reading The Clothes Horse because of all of those Orbit Gum shots–in my opinion they were out of place and inappropriate. Taking free clothes from a small Etsy shop is one thing, but selling stuff that in no way relates to your blog is cocky in my opinion. Do bloggers think we will simply purchase whatever they suggest? Do you think we are that stupid? What’s next? Jiffy Lube ads?

    Also, in my opinion, personal style blogs (PSB) are supposed to showcase the eccentric styles of independent minded women, unlike magazines that attempt to dictate what we all should wear. PSBs subvert the mandates of fashion designers and magazine editors that believe all women must look and dress a certain way. When you submit to these people you simply become a cog in the corporate machine. You are not exactly “independent” if all of your outfits are comprised of things that designers send to you. You are not quirky/individualistic. You are simply a cog.

    Finally, sponsorship makes blogs completely and utterly boring. If I see another vintage-inspired Modcloth dress, I swear I’m deleting my Bloglovin’ account. Supporting independent businesses, like Modcloth, is great, but you lose your personal flair even then…

  12. MJ

    I think its a very fine line when it comes reviewing free samples you receive from PR companies. Its easy for a blogger to be swayed into “over-liking” a product that they received for free. Blogging is such a new arena and is forever evolving, so I can see when things can become very muddled and unclear (think about when the internet came out. The law still has a hard time keeping up).

    For me, I always remind myself to have a level of objectivity and if a product truly doesn’t work for me, I say so. If it isn’t a favorable review, I’m honest, not derogatory, or unprofessional. I think saying that a product “completely sucked” would definitely hurt a the PR/blogger relationship! I’ve had some of my contacts tell me that they appreciated my honesty when I put up a bad review. I also try to balance out my reviews of free samples with reviews of things I buy myself on my blog as well, using the same type of objectivity. A blogger has to remember that their responsbility is to their readers and you don”t want to say that something is absolutely great if you know for sure it isn’t.

  13. The Corner Girl

    Gifting itself doesn’t affect Blogger credibility, but when a Blogger has a track record of shamelessly promoting gifts from other people to make money/get more stuff, it loses the interest of readers. I understand that this is not always the case, but I definitely see a lot of people complaining about the amount of people who are extremely obvious about their money-leeching tendencies while blogging. A genuinely excited, occasional review doesn’t hurt anything in my opinion, though.

  14. Liz de Mer

    I have to confess that before starting my own fashion blog, I mostly read (still do) fashion/style news sites, I never really connected to the whole ‘personal style’ blog idea where the blogger fills the blog with their own photos.

    I do think that there should be different standards for personal style blogs and the more fashion/style updates oriented blogs.

    Like someone in the comments already said, if you take a picture of yourself wearing something you got for free … it’s just tacky. And if your site is more news/style oriented, you can simply review the product and send it back, and it just doesn’t seem as crude.