07 July 2010

Ethics of ads on science blogs

The unfolding blow-up at ScienceBlogs over the addition of a blog by Pepsico is a good opportunity to examine the ethical issues around some kinds of advertising. I’ve actually spent a lot of time arguing about this earlier this year, because I was helping out our university’s team prepare for the National Ethics Bowl. (My co-author Sakshi was a member of the team.)

Case #12 is a told as a piece of fiction, but it raises a lot of the same basic issues as the ScienceBlogs situation. Briefly, the case describes a company employee who goes around and uses the company’s product in a visible, flashy way, without identifying herself as an employee.

That this was a case for a national competition suggests that the ethical implications are not straightforward.

The response of many people in reading that case was that they thought they would be upset over being the target of guerrilla marketing, but they had a much harder time articulating why.

Part of the difficulty in articulating why people were upset is that, on the face of it, nobody is harmed by this kind of marketing. From a utilitarian position, it can be argued that many people benefit from this, in that they are introduced to products that they might benefit from; the company and its employees might also benefit.

I brought up Seth Godin’s thought on permission marketing. With Godin discussing about respect, it seemed that Kant’s ideas on respect for persons was a useful way to parse this. In essence, the marketer is disrespecting their potential customer, and only treating them as a means to an end.

The other ethical principle that was discussed was transparency. In the Ethics Bowl case, that it was the marketer’s job to display product was not clear. I told the team about cases of flogs (fake blogs), and others mentioned “astroturf” (fake green) marketing efforts by companies.

While several have argued that a blog from a corporation blurs the line between editorial and advertising content, but people’s forceful responses to this blog suggests to me that nobody is genuinely confused by its source: it’s a corporate blog.

More generally, I am not sure that the line between editorial and advertising as clear-cut as some would make it out to be. Newspapers and other outlets have long featured editorial columns from political pundits of all stripes. Many of them are associated with corporations, and promote views favourable to those corporations.

Seed Media Group, on the other hand, ran afoul of transparency by not warning their bloggers about the change. I can’t help but wonder if the response would have been so contentious if people knew it was coming.

In the wake of this, Kevin Zelnio mentioned a website that provides ad free icons. In the wake of the ScienceBlogs / Pepsi kerfuffle, I thought about putting on this site.

But I can’t do it. Use of the icon implies three points. The first one is a stickler for me:

1. That I am opposed to the use of corporate advertising on blogs.

I’m not opposed to ads. In fact, there are certain ads I enjoy, like movie previews. (If you ever see a movie with me, you’ll have to put up with “I wonder what previews they’ll show!”) But right now, there isn’t a way for me to put up ads from places that I choose. (Not that anyone’s ever asked me to run ads on any of my blogs, or is ever likely to do so.) Even if I could, I’m not sure I would.

Meanwhile, Seth Godin comes up with something eerily on point about payola and reputation.

Additional: Forgot to mention: What about the idea of “conflict of interest”? Fair enough. There are concerns about such things in science, but the solution has generally not been to reject all research which has apparent conflicts of interest. (There are exceptions at some publishers, however). The approach has been to declare real and possible conflicts of interest. Funded by a corporation? Be up front about it. And we’re back to transparency.


Kevin Zelnio said...

So what were the other 2 of the "three points" implied by the icon??

I haven't put it up either. I don't know what I really want. It is a sticky situation as you said. It would be nice for us not to pay for the website fees out of pocket, although split between craig and I the hosting and domain registration is pretty trivial. But I just enjoy being able to say ad-free.

I wonder if being "sponsored" vs. having ads is any different. DSN has advertising inquiries at least once a month, but we feel a little uneasy about it. One of our reasons for leaving Scienceblogs over a year ago was because of advertising practices (ie advertising red coral jewelry on our deep sea coral conservation posts, and the like).

Zen Faulkes said...

The other two pints were:

2. That I feel the use of corporate advertising on blogs devalues the medium.

3. That I do not accept money in return for advertising space on my blog.

#2 seems to me to be the same as #1, leaving only #3 - I don't accept money for ads - as the only thing I could sign off on.