If I’m reviewing wineries, can I get some of them as advertisers? If I’m reviewing books, can I get authors to participate and publishers to advertise or sponsor? If I’m doing photographs, is it conceivable that someone would want to pay me to go take photos of something for them? In other words, how does one establish commercial value if it exists?
This is such an interesting question because you present what is a clear ethical dilemma, then ask about commercial value.
Let’s start at the beginning: However you position it, it’s very difficult to be candid and honest when you review a product or service from a company that is also responsible for some of your company’s income, be they a sponsor, advertiser or otherwise. I mean, if Starbucks was paying me $1000/mo to endorse their line of coffee shops, it would be be really difficult to post an article saying that I actually hated something about Starbucks and was switching my allegiance to another coffee purveyor.
Maybe the deal would have included so-called editorial freedom, and certainly magazine publishers talk about “the wall” between advertising and editorial, but no company is going to be paying for ads in a publication that slams their product or service, just as an exposé on TV about a restaurant is unlikely to be sponsored by that same restaurant.
Those are the obvious cases. What I worry more about is that you have a secret sponsorship with a winery and as part of the deal you write about how delicious their wine is – for which you’re paid in wine! – without ever telling me, the reader, that you have an existing relationship. This holds true even if you find a wine you love and then approach the company. It’s ethics. It’s bias. It’s just darn tricky.
Books aren’t quite the same thing because it’s quite reasonable to seek the participation of a book author (perhaps an exclusive interview) and publish a review of their book at the same time, but even then if you don’t disclose or if you actually don’t like the book but are going to talk it up simply so you can gain access to the author, well, that’s not entirely on the up-and-up either.
My rule of thumb for all of these situations is that if my reader learned about the relationship, they’d still trust me to have been honest and forthcoming about the weaknesses and strengths of the product or service. That’s integrity and it’s the kind of thing that’s easy to lose and hard to establish, especially in the barely regulated wild west of the Internet. Is that review legit? Is that product testimonial from an actual customer? Did that company pay for that award or win it honestly?
And in terms of photography, yeah, I can see that if you’re featuring some beautiful photographs you’ve taken that you could end up having companies contact you about working with them. I see that as far less of an ethically questionable activity.
Finally, the most important thing in my eyes is to disclose any relationships, sponsorships, advertising, samples, etc that you’ve received, even if it’s something like “I bought this product. I just wanted to share it with you” rather than telling your readers that the company gave you free product / paid you for an endorsement. Transparent disclosure goes a long way to alleviate ethical issues and keeps you in line with the Federal Trade Commission and other law enforcement bodies that police the online world.
Hope that’s helpful!