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, www.mrs-o.org.
With mrs-o.com 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 mrs-o.org 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?”