The Truth About Caroline: Ethics, Marketing, ROI, and the Sad State of (Non-Mommy) Blogging
Let’s say you opened your e-mail one morning, and, lo and behold, you were offered an all-expenses paid trip to sunny San Diego. Airfare, luxury hotels, gourmet meals…sounds pretty fantastic, doesn’t it?
However, if you’re like most sensible adults, you’d probably assume that there was some sort of catch involved—after all, who’s going to spend around two grand to give you a vacation just because…well, just because?
Well, if you’re a mommyblogger named “Xenia,” you’d probably feel like it was Christmas morning. Or, at the very least, you’d tell the Internet that’s how you felt. How do I know this?
Because that’s exactly what happened. According to her blog at raisedbyculture.com, Xenia, who is, sadly, not a Warrior Princess, but simply a woman who “leads a blended family” and is a “unique social media influencer,” that’s exactly how she felt upon receiving an e-mail from Honda with just such an invitation. All she had to do to accept this swanky invitation was write some nice things on her blog about the newly reimagined Honda Fit.
How did Honda know that she would write nice things about the Fit? Because her blogs says she will.
From her “Review and Gifting policy” on her site:
In addition, If I like the product, I will happily write about it, however, if I do not like the product then chances are I will not feature nor write about it, adhering to “If you have nothing nice to say…
So, in other words, Honda was guaranteed that, in return for a four-figure vacay, Xenia would not write anything negative about the Fit. So much for journalistic integrity.
So why did Honda select Xenia to receive this boondoggle? It must be because she’s a well-regarded car reviewer, right?
Not so much. She has exactly one car review posted on her site. It’s of a 2014 Kia Sorento from September 13, 2013. In this review, she admits to being befuddled by an Engine Start/Stop button and posts three separate photos of the nav system. The review garnered eight comments, two +1s on Google Plus, and no Facebook shares.
However, she has tweeted an amazing 91,000-plus times, and somehow managed to write a post that compared her decision to take early maternity leave to unusually strong and soft toilet paper. Somebody at Honda must have found this to be a relevant comparison, because the invite went out, and Xenia happily accepted.
Xenia managed to tweet no fewer than thirteen times with the hashtag from the event, including the tweet at the top of this article where she mentions how baller the hotel, free gifts, and drinks are.
Then, yesterday, her review of the Fit hit her blog. The review contained such insights as “I’m not a professional car reviewer” but proclaimed that the Fit was “super techy” and “smooth.” As per her policy, there was nary a single comment that could interpreted as negative. The review garnered a total of three comments, including one from a friend that she met at the event.
I retweeted her link on Twitter yesterday, proclaiming my total lack of surprise about her positive review of the car. That led to this exchange (note: her bio used to say, “changing the way you think about before she edited it):
As you can see at the end of our exchange, she resorted to tagging the TTAC account, hoping they would admonish me for calling attention to her sponsored content blog post. Also, she wants to make it very clear that she is NOT a mommyblogger, despite this list of mommyblogger networks to which she belongs and events which she has attended.
However, the issue here isn’t Xenia in particular, or mommybloggers in general. It’s the total misunderstanding that car manufacturers seem to have about digital marketing and the blogosphere. It would be hard to think of a worse way for Honda to spend the money they spent on this event. Even if Xenia and every one of her commenters had immediately purchased a Fit as a consequence of reading her review, Honda would still have wound up in the hole. What percentage of readers of her blog, or any non-automotive blog, are in-market car shoppers?
And at what point does it become unethical to accept plush hotels, swag, drinks in exchange for a review? If OEMs sent the cash equivalent of a junket and a car to a reviewer’s front door, we’d all be howling. Why is this sort of behavior any different?
I will be spending my own money to drive my own car to NYC next week and paying for my own hotel so that I can provide my own, independent observations to you about what I see at the New York International Auto Show. Somehow, I don’t think I will see Xenia there.
(Note: Many of the B&B took a shot at our own Jo Borras for his frothy review of the Fit published here the other day. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to keep the discussion open despite the fact that we are in this case open to some criticism ourselves, and the fact that we’ve covered this ground before— JB)
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I would have loved to have read the general support this post gets and I generally agree on issues of journalist propriety but this feels like a moment where Caroline took it upon herself to create a dust up then write about it. Not that this hasn't been SOP for decades with any product the difference is now instead of offering Caroline, TTAC, Et al they're trying to draw in people with social influence and no such propriety to peddle their wares. I agree it is shady and underhanded but taking it to a personal level seems pointless. The average car review has far less influence than one of these people promoting a vehicle or your family/friends suggesting it. But hey, you got a cool post about it! I'll give credit, you know how to drive the eyeballs.
So if bloggers are given a product in exchange for a positive review, do they have to disclose that? Because if you read Raisedbyculture's latest piece, its obvious she was given a free carseat from Evenflo in exchange for a positive review but her only disclaimer is a sentence saying "this is a paid campaign". And as far as her credibility, she says safety is her number one priority yet her son who is under 2, is sitting in a forward facing carseat. She would have more credibility and I would take her review series if she followed the AAP recommendation of rearfacing until age 2.