Sunday, January 4, 2009

O what a tangled Web

On Tuesday, The New York Times published a story about the popular Michelle Obama style-watch blog Mrs O, which, as it now emerges, is not an independent blog at all - as many assumed - but operated by New York ad agency Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty (a fact which was originally mentioned in passing in this December 29 National Public Radio report). The blog was launched in September by BBH's new brand-building division, Zag, following a pitch by a BBH employee, 27 year-old account planner Mary Tomer. The company reportedly invested US$2000 in launching the site, not counting the salaries of 14 BBH employees who have worked on the blog in various capacities. The NYT story was not presented as an expose, merely a news story about ad industry initiatives. And when New York Magazine’s The Cut blog blogged a post purporting that Mrs O had duped readers, Advertising Age responded with a counter-piece entitled, “So a Blog Is a Marketing Ploy? Who Cares?”. Frockwriter shares The Cut’s disappointment – and wonders if both the NYT and Ad Age are not perhaps missing the point.

Bartle, Bogle Hegarty’s involvement in Mrs O is indeed mentioned on the blog - that is, buried at the bottom of the site, within the Terms and Conditions.

Supposedly last updated on September 26, 2008, one assumes this page has been live on the site since the blog first launched, as opposed to being added in the past few days.

More fool anyone, therefore, who failed to check the fine print - that's the position, presumably, adopted by BBH and its legal division, which must firmly believe that the company's duty of disclosure was well and truly discharged.

However the blog’s "About" section makes no reference to BBH:

“Mrs. O is a website dedicated to following the fashion of Michelle Obama. It was first inspired by Mrs. Obama’s wardrobe at the Democratic National Convention in August 2008. The site hopes to be a central, ever evolving resource to chronicle Mrs. O’s look, while providing fashion commentary and information. The site will encourage visitors to contribute tips, photos and commentary, and share enthusiasm for the budding style icon, Mrs. O”.

Only one of the bios of the site’s eight writers makes any reference to Bartle Bogle Hegarty: that of Mel Exon, who is described as a company director at BBH in the UK.

Elsewhere on the net, Exon is additionally described as a managing partner of "BBH Labs" - and was, and possibly still is, the director of the lucrative global Levi’s account.

Describing BBH Labs as "a new, independent innovation unit", Exon recently advertised for a creative director, and noted the company was "looking for someone who has proven experience leading radical change in communications".

Not twigging that BBH has any other involvement in the blog, the average reader might simply gloss over Exon's bio, assuming that she is just another wage slave with a blog on the side.

Tomer however, we now know for a fact, is also a fulltime Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty employee - and one moreover, who most definitely writes the blog on the company's dime.

There is no disclosure of Tomer's BBH affiliation on her Mrs O bio.

Nor is there any reference to Tomer's ad industry affiliations in her bio on The Huffington Post, to which Tomer has contributed at least one story. Amusingly, the story is entitled, “The Face of Fashion Democracy”.

Now of course the names may be purely coincidental, however frockwriter located UK ad industry connections to the names of two other Mrs O writers, both of whom Mrs O reports have links to London: Patricia McDonald and Kirsty Saddler.

There is a Patricia McDonald listed as Planning Director at Bartle, Bogle Hegarty London (also with Levi's affiliations).

And there are numerous net references to a Kirsty Saddler, senior planner with Doyle Dane Bernbach London.

Then there is the domain name of the blog itself,

With already taken by an aspiring babywear manufacturer, frockwriter is curious precisely why Zag chose a .org URL – which is the type of URL that is normally reserved for non-commercial organisations, such as universities, libraries, NGOs etc..

The domain name also happens to have been registered via Domains by Proxy, which obfuscates the details of the real registrar.

And while the deployment of proxy domain registrars may be relatively commonplace nowadays - at least with individuals, who are seeking to protect their privacy - this additional element nevertheless just adds to Mrs O's laundry list of less-than-transparent details.

In the Ad Age piece, reporter Ken Wheaton notes:
“Say what now? Firstly, if a blog is worth reading, it's worth reading. Period. End of story. Who cares who's funding it? Secondly, and more importantly, in what unicorn-inhabited landscape are people living in when it comes to Web 2.0 properties?...Such discussions are fine, but let's call a spade a spade. It's marketing. It's marketing Web 2.0; it's marketing yourself; it's marketing your company; it's marketing your services”.

But from where frockwriter is standing, it's one thing for a blogger to market themselves – and even accept and display advertising. Provided that any commercial affiliations are clearly disclosed and that any advertising is clearly defined as advertising.

By the same token, a blog attached to a corporate website is not misleading readers, in much the same way that an editorial-style catalogue is not misleading readers, because the commercial affiliations of both the blog/catalogue parents are, one hopes, clearly delineated.

It’s another matter, surely, to fail to mention that the vehicle that you are using to widely disseminate information, and via which you are touting yourself as a credible commentator and possibly also opinion leader, is being semi-covertly financed by a multinational ad agency?

If Tomer and co harboured a secret passion to blog about Michelle Obama, then why didn't they just do it in their own time?

Or fess up at the very beginning, making everyone's affiliations transparently obvious, pointing out that BBH was footing the bill? They may well have no hidden agenda, however by having their details disclosed for them, it makes them appear secretive - or worse, ad industry shills.

In a comment on the Ad Age story, “Jack Jones” makes the following salient point:

“The Web has already made it very difficult for the public to distinguish content from commerce – or politics. Studies show a significant chasm between being able to distinguish commerce/politics on the Web versus other media. There certainly are instances where the creator is questionable, particularly when they turn out to be some lobbyist or PR scumbag covertly pushing an agenda. Ad agencies and advertisers are really guilty in this area too. In this case, there could be controversies. For example, it's likely that a large percentage of visitors to the Mrs. O blog are African American women. How do you think they might respond to knowing the blog was owned and operated by an advertising agency on Madison Avenue, where African Americans have faced discrimination for decades?”


Julie said...

I guess the question I have is what on earth were they marketing? A bunch of London based ad execs writing a style blog on an American first lady seems a dubious strategy for promoting BBH. And I haven't noticed any posts on how Mrs O looks great in her all American Levi jeans yet.

And should I have full disclosure now? I keep 5 style oriented blogs and I work for an interactive agency.

Patty Huntington said...

as i mentioned, i have no idea if they had any hidden agenda - or were marketing anything. they just appeared to go to some trouble to cover their tracks. i also have no idea just how many of them work for BBH. we know that at least two do for sure. a "patricia mcdonald" works for BBH in london (could be another patricia mcdonald of course), but i'd find it hard to understand how an employee of DDB could be connected to any business venture launched by a rival agency. so you have to assume that that name is coincidental. if not, i'd love to know what DDB had to say about it. either way, i'd like to see a full roster of BBH clients just so we're all on the same page here. tomer and exon not only earn a living out of telling companies how to advertise their products, their fulltime employer is bankrolling their blog. one of exon's chief responsibilities, moreover, is nutting out new "radical" ways of communicating ideas. advertising ideas.

i'll ask once again - if they wanted to launch a blog, why not just do it on the side, like everyone else does? they wouldn't have had to do it on the cheap - like everyone else. they could have pooled together their - presumably considerable - ad industry earnings and launched it as an indie venture. were they just too cheap to do so? and yes i would have still declared my day job, somewhere where it is easy to find.

in your case, if you are the julie i think you are (your blogger name does not link to your blogs FYI but i'm going from the comment you left on that xmas post two weeks ago) then first up, you already have a very well established reputation as an independent blogger. secondly, the interactive agency does not have any equity in the five blogs, is that correct - they are your own independent projects aren't they?

Anna Wintour said...

I would imagine that rather than using Mrs O as a vehicle to directly promote their clients, the agency could have bank rolled it as a "look what we can do" project. They probably made efforts to conceal the agency's involvement so that, when the blog reached critical mass, they could do a "Tahdah!" reveal, thus scoring attention (possibly even for the dubious ethics of not declaring in the first place) that they would not have received had they been open and upfront. Given we're talking about it right now, it worked. On top of this, because the link between BBH and Mrs O came as a surprise, it will probably be more cemented in people's minds than if it was in the author bios - bios that people read once and then forget about.
This isn't the first time this has happened - wasn't Socialite Rank originally thought to have been run by an ad agency? (It wasn't in the end, but I wouldn't be surprised if that's where they got their idea).
I don't think this issue is something exclusive to the internet though - undisclosed and underhanded advertising have been around for as long as newspapers have, if anything the internet allows consumers to be more aware of sales pitches and promotional techniques, thanks to blogs like yours that operate as a sort of fashion Media Watch on occasion. Not that it isn't sad to realise that a cherished site isn't as independent as it sells itself to be.

Anonymous said...

The Mrs. O. blog is not (yet) trying to cross-promote other brands that are cliens of BBH (like Levis, Johnnie Walker, and many other big names).

But go back and read up on what the new division of BBH called "ZAG" is all about: it creates new, BBH-owned brands with the goal to create new revenue from these new brands. Other brands/produtcs launched by ZAG 9which started out in their UK offices) are ready-to-heat meals and personal security alarms! Any revenue from cross-promotion, etc. of other brands would be in addition (but of course the Mrs. O. website would seem ideally suited to this type of activity and even gettign new clients like Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo and Narciso Rodriguez and Jimmy Choo to name a few).

So what is the brand - it is Mrs. O. And as of February 1, 2009 we learn that the first product line Mrs. O. will be launching is its own new line of clothing!! Go to and you too can order a $35 poly-cotton t-shirt branded Mrs. O. The t-shirt was launched a few days after the inauguration when Obama fever was at an all time high and when the site had reached 100,000+ visitors.

The creators of Mrs. O, have also admitted to the Wall Street Journal and NY Time that they intend to aggressively expand the line with more clothes, "tote bags" and a book! Just what we need!!

After a discussion erupted on the Mrs. O. blog (courtesty of moi) about the deception of not disclosing BBh's role and commercialisation of the blog, BBH still refuses to edit the "About Us" section to disclose the corporate connection and commercial nature of the site. BBH and the BBH-paid contributors to the blog insist their disclosure is adequate as is, buried in the fine print of 'terms and conditions'.

And to add insult to injury, the
poly-cotton t-shirt is being offered for sale with a claim that 8.5% of the proceeds for each t-shirt will go to "Mrs. O's favourite charity". Spare me the sales tactics.

I like the Frocker am concerned about the women who go to the Mrs. O. website, oblivoius to the real intent and purpose of the site. Many of these women will buy the tacky t-shirt along with the other over-priced crap-ola that will be offered for sale over the coming months. How many of these women should be using this money to pay off their credit card debt, buy groceries or saving for their kid's education...but are instead lining the pockets of multi-national advertising firm BBH / ZAG??

We need to monitor Mrs. O. carefully and take every opportunity to expose them. I have also written to the Office of the First Lady to understand if the real Mrs. O. is aware of an improves of this blatant commercialisation of her name and image and the exploitation present in the sneaky-ways of BBH.

Stay tuned...

Anonymous said...

Wow! I had no idea about the links between the blog on Michele Obama(whom I adore along with many other Americans, African American women in particular) and a professional, multi million dollar Madison Avenue ad agency. I feel deceived to be quite honest. I was under the impression that someone who seriously loved, and maybe wrote professionally, about fashion wanted to chronicle for the rest of us our First Lady's fabulous fashion style. I really enjoyed going to the site, just about every other day or so, to see what she is wearing and where she's been wearing it.

I must admit that my first thought when I visited the site though was, how many of the writers are Black? I was really just curious about that fact. I am angered, and a little disgusted to be honest, that readers of that blog aren't being told the "whole" story. My loose perception is that most bloggers are people interested in a particular area and write their opinions and some facts about that topic/area.

As pointed out in the Sun., Jan 4, 2009 post about the Mrs. O site, an Ad Age story (Jack Jones) is quoted in which the point about the deception is clearly understood. Black women, and other women too, probably don't know what is really going on here. African Americans are often (and regularly) misrepresented, or not represented at all at ad agencies, especially on Madison Avenue, and are further underepresented as employees. So to have this site being professionally run by such an agency where discrimination has existed and the relationship between the two is not fully disclosed is dishonest.

And to think all of this started because I was giving serious consideration to purchasing the Mary Tomer book. It won't happen now. Thanks for pointing out the facts!

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