Automotive journalism ethics, Audi’s Jalopnik sponsorship, and junkets filled with shrimp cocktail the size of lobsters!

Last week Nick and I gave a presentation at Ad:Tech on advertising, marketing, and corporate blogs. The discuss ran

the gambit, and one issue that came up”thanks to our new VP Shawn Gold”was the Audi sponsorship of Jalopnik. For the

record, I didn’t ask Shawn to ask that question, and Nick rightfully called Shawn out to disclose he was with

Weblogs, Inc. A slightly dramatic moment to add to the Nick and Jason history, but the start of a good

discussion.

I’ve been having a bunch of folks ask me about the issue, and Autoblog.com’s and Jalopnik.com’s editors have been

trading barbs on their blogs, so I figured this is worth some detailed discussion.

Let me state up front a couple of things:

1. I think Nick has solid journalistic ethics, and I know from his writers that he doesn’t tell them to give

advertisers special treatment. I’m sure he never would, and I think he sees the big picture in all of this.

2. I’ve learned a lot from Nick over the past ten months of us trading barbs in the press and hanging out at Soho

house. I consider us friends, as I always have, and I think he knows where I stand on these issues already.

I’m psyched Nick got Audi as a sponsor. The fact that Audi loves blogs is good for us, because at some point Audi

might sponsor Autoblog.com. If they do they will already know the value of blogs because they have worked with Nick.

We see this every week, as Gizmodo and Engadget share more advertisers then they do not. Sponsors are looking for

advice on leveraging blogs, and Nick and Weblogs, Inc. are both out there working with these folks. The more ground

we cover the better.

However, I thought that putting the Audi logo inside of the Jalopnik logo was not a great idea because it confuses

the user. The tiny Audi logo next to each date I don’t have too much of a problem with as it look sort of like and

advertisement, although it would look better if it said “Advertisement” on the top or bottom of it. Of course, having

advertisement on top and bottom of three of those on each page would break the design. So, that’s not such a big deal

on it’s own.

Weblogs, Inc. is”by and large”standardizing on newspaper/magazine standards when it comes to the Chinese Wall between

advertising and editorial.

A simple test of the Wall is to ask, “What is the reader experiencing?” In the case of seeing Audi in the Jalopnik

logo, and in between every half dozen stories or so, the reader thinks:

“Is this Audi’s blog?”

Sure, on the right hand column Nick points out “Jalopnik is sponsored exclusively by Audi,” but that disclaimer”if

people even see it”makes the situation even more confusing. OK, they are exclusive, as in the exclusive source of

revenue to pay the writer comes from Audi. Now, I’m not saying the writer on Jalopnik is favoring Audi, in fact it

seems they are penalizing Audi!

Audi had eight stories about them in Jalopnik in the since October 1st from my quick count. Autoblog had around 17

mentions of which 13 or 14 were mostly about Audi during the same period. So, it doesn’t seem that Audi is getting an

unfair number of mentions on Jalopnik, in fact Jalopnik might be giving them half the number of mentions to seem more

fair!

Now, the editor of Jalopnik did take a junket for Audi it seems (correct me if I’m wrong, but from your post it seems

like junket). In the auto industry, in case you don’t know, some car companies will offer to send you someone where

for free (like San Fran, Germany, Hawaii, etc), put you up in a great hotel, and feed you amazing meals and wine if

you agree to drive their cars for a couple of days.

Autoblog.com does not accept junkets, and neither does the New York Times. In fact, the way I made the decision to

not take junkets was by asking Len Apcar at the New York Times what their policy was. I’m pretty sure that the

only junket Jalopnik has been on, and the only test drive they have done is for Audi. Makes you wonder right?

As I said, however, I don’t think Audi is getting special treatment. Nope, I think that the exclusive sponsorship and

logo-in-a-logo treatment is making Jalopnik’s ethics *look* shaky.

Here are some clips from post about Audi on Jalopnik:

After the Audi junkey: “After two days of being wined, dined and double-yellow lined by Audi, we’ve come

to the end of our far-coast dunk into the carnival tank of automotive journalism. I suppose we should tell you all

about it, considering that doing so is the whole point, isn’t it? Let’s take a look at our notes, shall we?”

On traveling to San Fran to test drive the Audi: “Sure, it looks like we’re doing a lap dance for our

sporty, progressive and sophisticated sponsor, Audi, but no one else would give us the key fobs to their cars.”

On an Audi commercial they liked: “Before you say it, this post is 100 percent editorial not advertorial,

even if we are highlighting an ad created for our glorious and generous sponsor, which will remain nameful (Audi).

All disclaimers aside, this spot, created by the UK agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, is a must-watch for M.C. Escher (you

know, the optical illusion guy) geeks.”

If you take the test as to what the consumer is experiencing you wind up with a bucket load of questions

like:

“I wonder if the editor has to write about Audi?”

“I wonder if the writer is paid directly by Audi?”

“I wonder if Audi gets to edit the site, or blog posts about them?

…. etc, etc, etc.

Now, if you take the Audi logo out of the Jalopnik logo, and you just sell Audi various ad spots while allowing

other sponsors to come on board all those questions go away.

In fact, folks like the magazine industry, public radio and public television all have rules about have a single

sponsor for a media property. If the show’s topic is associated with the sponsor you can’t do it. So, you might see

Exxon sponsor something about nature or history, but you won’t see Exxon sponsor something about drilling for oil in

Alaska. Why? Because it makes the consumers have to work to figure out what the agenda is.

As much as I love the Audi TT, paying writers a good wage, and growing our businesses, I wouldn’t have taken the Audi

deal Nick struck.

Would we do a contest with Audi and give away an Audi backpack? Sure, NPR, PBS, Wired, Vanity Fair or the New York

Times would do that too.

Would we allow Audi to buy all the ads on our site for a period? Sure, the New York Times, Wired, Vanity Fair and NPR

would do that too.

Would I do the “logo in a logo” deal? Nope, and neither would the New York Times, Wired, Vanity Fair or NPR.

Nick’s done some wonderful things with advertisers and I respect Nick for what he’s done. Nike Art of Speed was

great, and so was the movie blog he did. I read Gawker often, and I’ve learned a bunch of things from Nick regarding

branding, finding talent and working with advertisers. However, this one didn’t work well.

Of course, I probably shouldn’t complain about it, because if people believe Jalopnik is in on the take that is good

in the short term for Weblogs, Inc./Autoblog.com. In the long run, of course, it is bad for all of us if people

suspect blogs of being in on the take.

If I were Nick I would not renew the deal, I’d let Jalopnik become it’s own brand. I would also ask Nick’s team to

not accept junkets. Sure, test drive a car for a week, but let’s set a standard of not taking thousands of dollars in

T&E from the folks we’re covering.

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