Filthy lucre no cleaner on the Internet

“Filthy lucre.”

According to dictionary.com: “When William Tyndale translated aiskhron kerdos, “shameful gain” (Titus 1:11), as filthy lucre in his edition of the Bible, he was tarring the word lucre for the rest of its existence. … In Latin lucrum also meant “avarice,” and in Middle English lucre, besides meaning “monetary gain, profit,” meant “illicit gain.” Furthermore, many of the [word’s] contexts … were not wholly neutral, as in “It is a wofull thyng… ffor lucre of goode… A man to fals his othe” [it is a sad thing for a man to betray his oath for monetary gain].”

Tyndale was obviously not the last to participate in tarring the word “lucre” with filthy connotations. Even today, people are happily, willfully, albeit secretly offering “filthy lucre” to induce some people to change their behavior in ways that benefit a small group of people, most often by fooling large numbers of innocents who have no idea that money has changed hands behind the scenes of what appears to be a heartfelt endorsement.

And what’s key here, in my view, is money moving secretly from one hand to another. It’s one thing to pay for performance: to hire a person to build a brick wall or dig a ditch, or to pay a doctor to cure your bunions, or even to split revenues in the form of sales commissions with a person who can induce a prospect to buy a product or service. It’s also OK, in my view, to pay money in order to set the table for people to do something that benefits you, to set up a taste-test comparison, for example, where ordinary consumers — without getting paid — talk honestly to a camera and specify whether they like the taste of Item A more or less than the taste of Item B.

I’ve been involved in professional public relations, and I’ve spent a lot of money to contact editors, persuade them to run a story, and even to hire a writer to supply that editor with the finished story I’ve previously convinced them to publish.

But all that’s way different, in my view, from secretly paying a person to talk about or write about a product or service without letting on that he or she is getting paid to do so. I’ve never paid a publication to run a story, and I never would. Nor would I pass filthy lucre under the table to buy someone’s good opinion. Others have, and continue to.

You may remember that back in 2004 the G.W. Bush Administration paid Armstrong Williams, through Ketchum Public Relations, $240,000 to use his good name and his regular commentary broadcasts to put out a great many favorable opinions about the No Child Left Behind program, and also to persuade other commentators to do the same thing. Naturally, Armstrong failed to reveal to his audiences that he was being paid for his services on behalf of NCLB.

That’s pretty filthy, in my view.

Now the same thing is happening, albeit on a smaller scale, with bloggers. PR departments of various institutions and PR firms who hire themselves out to various institutions are contacting bloggers and offering to pay them to write about these institutions.

“We are looking to publish content that would reference our client,” they say. “We have a few keywords and two links that need to be placed within the content. Compensation is based purely on your quality of writing, blog relevancy, traffic, and page rank for wherever the content will be published. In addition, we’re open to any kind of content you’d like to write on as long as it has some sort of reference to [our client]. We’ve had bloggers relate French cuisine, electronic music, and amusement parks to [our client] in the content so it does not sound like spam and continues to stay within the theme of each person’s blog. This is an extremely creative project!

“If you have questions or want to inform us that you’re ready to get started, please do not hesitate to email us back. Also, if you do have access to post on other blogs or websites (where you can freely post content), please message us with the URLs so we can check them out and give you an accurate price.”

An “accurate price”. For what? For subverting the trust and confidence of your audience? For taking money to talk or write favorably about a topic you probably wouldn’t “reference” for free? For continuing to build the vile connotation of the world “filthy lucre”?

You might think I’m out of line, here, up on my high horse, asking for impossibly strict behavior, and stuck in a fool’s paradise. And you might be right, if it weren’t that the Federal Trade Commission has approved final revisions to the guidance it gives to advertisers on how to keep their endorsement and testimonial ads in line with the FTC Act.

These revised Guides add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.

To omit this information is a violation of FTC law.

I’ve long been cynical enough to take most things I read on the Internet with a grain of salt, or at least to consider favorable reviews and other endorsements to be far from ironclad. In the words of Ronald Reagan, I “trust, but verify.” Now that I’ve seen first-hand what kind of underhanded double-dealings go on behind the scenes of blogging, I’m going to trust even less, and verify even more.

I’m not being paid to tell you that you should, too.

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