Ann Taylor tried to schmear a bunch of bloggers and almost got busted by the FTC. This is good news because it will force bloggers to shill less and will put lazy PR guys on notice that payola shouldn't be the currency of choice in the blogsphere.
Here are the facts, as reported by Ad Age:
- Ann Taylor invited selected bloggers to preview the Summer 2010 Loft collection
- They promised those posting articles would be eligible for a "special gift"
- The "mystery card drawing" offered gift cards valued from $50 to $500
- To cash in bloggers had to submit their posts to the company within 24 hours
- There was a sign at the event reminding bloggers that FTC rules require disclosure
Whoever thought this campaign up clearly believes that "pay for play" is the rule in dealing with bloggers. The on-site signage was a CYA move that didn't really fake out the FTC. This is an effort to get right up to the line and exploit bloggers in ways that are impossible in dealing with official journalists.
Somebody probably thought that for a few bucks they might ignite a lot of attention because if they could get some action and attention on blogs, mainstream writers, who generally monitor blogs in their vertical coverage areas, might pile on. And eventually a PR snowball would build into serious coverage and some virility. I can visualize the pitch session, can't you?
Instead it didn't really work, the campaign invited unwanted scrutiny from the FTC and the whole affair sullied the brand. Ann Taylor ducked the enforcement bullet because it was their first offense and because the only got a couple of stories and some of the bloggers actually disclosed the gifts.
Shame on them. Ann Taylor has a legitimate story and should tell it in a legitimate way. Buying bloggers is bullshit and AT customers deserve better. [Full disclosure: I'm an AT loyalist and led the team that launched their first e-commerce site in 1999.] Bloggers, yours truly included, can't always be looking for freebies or have their hands out. Hordes of bloggers have taken all kinds of merchandise from desperate or cheap retailers and lazy PR people for years. But netizens aren't stupid. They see through the scams, they smell the shills and they instinctively understand when they are being conned. The FTC rules and the surprising FTC scrutiny combined with the nascent threat of enforcement is a welcome activity to keep the blogsphere honest.