Amanda Congdon in warm water
That sounds a little too sexy, doesn't it? I wanted to say "Amanda Congdon in chemical bath" but that just sounds gross. In any case, there's a bit of a kerfuffle over Amanda's infomericals for Dupont. CNet's Daniel Terdiman has a good analysis.
The spots themselves are pretty entertaining, naturally. It's hard to argue with the specific products she's endorsing - Kevlar saves lives. At issue is her status as a journalist. Most professional journalists can't get away with shilling for a product or a cause, because it would call their impartiality into question. If you're paid by Dupont, you might not report on a controversy surrounding the company - for example, their role in Iraq's nuclear weapons program or potentially cancer-causing products.
Is Amanda a journalist? Am I a journalist? Many bloggers are, at best, hobby journalists. We put on a citizen journalist hat when the need arises, often mixing our own opinion into the mix. Most bloggers are also independent, and understood to be one person's take on events.
Amanda, however, has an ABC News logo next to her videoblog. She's paid by a news organization and represents it to some extent. But she also represents their experimental foray into new media. Her show is a tour of what Amanda finds interesting. It weaves between entertainment and journalism, raising interesting questions along the way. In other words, we're firmly in gray area territory.
I was in a similar gray area earlier this year when I was paid to document John Edwards' campaign launch.
Amanda was critical of this situation:
I wasn't too happy about this video at the time, for a couple of reasons: (1) Amanda herself consulted with Vilsack's campaign about videoblogging
and didn't disclose that fact, though apparently it was unpaid. (2) I don't work for a journalistic news organization - I work for clients who pay me to make video.
She ends her piece with some good questions: "Since bloggers don't have to live by the same rules as traditional journalists, it leaves us - the viewers and readers - to question: Who's sincere? Who's a paid shill? And oftentimes, who's somewhere in-between?"
Clearly, Amanda is somewhere in-between. What confuses people is that ABC News logo screaming "official journalism!" It really comes down to trust. Do I still trust Amanda even though she's in paid advertisements for DuPont and Dove? Of course. I don't mind Amanda getting paid for her acting and producing talents in other contexts. But both Amanda and ABC News should tread carefully in the future, because many people won't be so forgiving.
...count me as one of those "not so forgiving" people, and I don't mean in the future, I mean now. Me no likey this DuPont/Congdon/ABC situation. Not at all.
The whole thing sort of stinks. "A little experiment that WORKED."? "Isn't that what new media is all about? Breaking the rules?". Don't get me started on the word "infotainmercials".
Are bloggers who blog about current events journalists, or do bloggers get to pick and choose when they want to behave like journalists? Do bloggers who work for companies that are major corporate news agencies get to pick and choose when to behave like journalists? There are bloggers out there fighting to be considered journalists while others are claiming to be nothing of the sort.
Actors act. Journalists report, hopefully impartially. Bloggers blog in a murky responsibility-grey-area.
I'm not sure it's possible to do all three while maintaining the public's trust when one's bread is being buttered by all three.
Posted by: missb at Mar 21, 2007 4:32:08 PM
Chuck, I certainly HAVE disclosed the fact I helped out Vilsack... It's sitting on the "disclosure" section of my blog. And, yes, I believe it's key that I didn't get paid for that.
Also, missb, to clarify, when I said that the "experiment WORKED" I meant my using the word "infotainmercial". The word was the experiment I was referring to. I've been very transparent about my involvement w/dupont from the get-go.
Maybe this is more about the product, or how the ads seem put together like shows. No one complained about my Dove ad.
Posted by: amanda at Mar 21, 2007 4:59:08 PM
Also, another important distinction should be made between bloggers being paid to *cover* something (in the case of Edwards) and someone making something that is clearly commercial (like a commercial).
Posted by: amanda at Mar 21, 2007 5:06:34 PM
I don't recall you having that disclosure there before though...? I searched Google and didn't find it at the time of your ABC report. Anyway, glad to see it. I didn't disclose I was getting paid by Edwards until a commenter specifically asked me about it. (This was before any of the media attention.)
I don't really see your distinction. I get paid to make video for my clients. Documentary is what I'm known for, and usually that's the style my clients want - including events, such as the launch of a presidential campaign, or a hotel ice bar, or a salon competition.
Posted by: chuck at Mar 21, 2007 5:29:06 PM
Chuck, the disclosure has been there all along. I believe I pointed you to it in my comment back to you on the abcnews website at the time of that post (when I also clarified that I had not been paid). But maybe I should have linked to it from the abc news site when I covered the story, in retrospect, that would've been the right thing to do.
I guess it's all in the packaging for me. I haven't seen many of your paid videos. Are they clearly marked as commercial works? It doesn't seem like the ones for Edwards would be.. otherwise they wouldn't be as worthwhile for him. I am proud of the DuPont spots because while I think they are innovative, in that they tell a story, they also are clearly commercial.
When it comes down to it though, we certainly are at a point in history where there is A LOT of greyness when it comes to these issues and I'm glad I have peers like you around the blogosphere to help work these ideas.
Posted by: Amanda Congdon at Mar 21, 2007 6:25:53 PM
"work OUT these ideas".
Posted by: Amanda Congdon at Mar 21, 2007 6:51:06 PM
First of all, I think Amanda is really good at doing what she did in the Dupont commercials. But, holy crap, talk about selling your soul -- gigantic chemical corp, gigantic news corp. What's next, the Haliburton vlog?
I mean this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it will be clear that you can't have it all. Amanda's "street cred" in terms of being a voice on the outside is going away.
The ethical issue of not knowing where popular blogsonalities (my new word!) bread is buttered is going to be disturbing, too. I want to believe that what Amanda and Chuck stand for is not for sale.
But I don't begrudge people getting paid, either.
Posted by: Michael at Mar 21, 2007 7:00:44 PM
I wish I could do advertisements. Then I could make some real money in this TV gig.
Seriously, though, this is a great conversation to have. As a news reporter now, I can't do ads. Even for things that I would never cover. But our sports anchors can do ads. Weird.
I think most people who watch Amanda on ABCNews.com know what she does. They know she does some acting, she's a vlogger, she's an entertainer, and through that, she provides information. Is she a "journalist"? Who cares? All that matters to me is that she discloses potential conflicts as they come up. Viewers are smart. They can figure it out.
Of course, everyone thinks journalists are bought and paid for as it is. If only that were true.
Posted by: Jason at Mar 21, 2007 7:40:54 PM
i think what really rubs me the wrong way is that it's DuPont.
Amanda Across America was sponsored by an Environmental Activist group, not that that makes Amanda an environmental activist...but still
seems like a huge contradiction. DuPont is so EVIL! it really kills me to see them trying to break into the new media world to appeal to, um, us.
but i guess a job is a job eh?
Posted by: ryanne at Mar 21, 2007 8:22:05 PM
@ Amanda: (wow...just typing that proves I need to lay off the twitter!)
Thanks for the clarification about the experiment. It was not particularly clear what "WORKED". Yes, there's a distinction between being a paid blogger and being a person hired to do perform in a commercial of any kind. Those are called "actors" because "videoblogging personalities who just happen to be actors hired to do commercials in story format on the web and presented on a web page that looks very much like a videoblog" is just too long. This is part of the problem: the Amanda that people see on the ABC cite is the same Amanda they see in an infotainwhatchahoosit. One has journalistic intent and one has commercial intent that weirdly looks like journalism. It's confusing for people. Ethics are always confusing.
I think the fact that it's DuPont--DUPONT for the love of Pete!-- leaves a bad taste in just about every mouth attached to a conscience. Christ, why did it have to be Dupont? That Dove spot looked like a commercial. The DuPont stuff doesn't. That's some grey area right there.
Grey areas exite some folks and make them want to push the waters and test the envelope. Grey areas mostly make me queasy and hurt my head.
Posted by: missb at Mar 21, 2007 9:31:12 PM
Yup, this is a good conversation! And yes, complicated.
Perhaps I should have disclosed my arrangement in the Edwards video itself, rather than just on my blog. Of course it ended up in the Washington Post, MSNBC, etc. I do disclose if a video on Minnesota Stories is for a client.
Anyway, I think the name of the game is disclosure and trust. We can cuss, we can get paid, we can do anything - but we have to consider the repercussions.
I like how the Lonelygirl15 producers asked their community if product placement would be acceptable, and now they have it. That definitely points the way to the future.
Vlog hug! Anybody? Anybody?
Posted by: Chuck at Mar 21, 2007 10:00:24 PM
Posted by: missb at Mar 21, 2007 10:42:01 PM
Posted by: chuck at Mar 21, 2007 11:37:46 PM
I became a fan of Amanda Congdon back on Rocketboom because she was smarter and more genuine than traditional TV. She had her own unique perspective and wasn't afraid to let it out.
I agree that she's got a right to get paid and work for whomever she chooses, but for me the real issue is that the duPont video is such naked corporate flackery that it betrayed all the reasons she was fun to watch in the first place.
Disclosure isn't the issue, since nobody could watch that and not see that she was paid to make it.
Rather, it was simply painful to watch: it seemed like she was losing 50 IQ points right before my eyes.
Had this video been done by any of the other vloggers I regularly watch, it probably wouldn't have bothered me. But the persona I knew couldn't have made that without at least some acknowledgment of the irony: "Oh my god! I can't believe I'm making a video for DuPont!"
Posted by: Shivering Timbers at Mar 22, 2007 6:22:38 AM
Thanks missb, I made a note updating what "WORKED" on my blog. You weren't the only person that was confused by the way I phrased that.
ryanne, your point was actually my only point of concern before accepting the gig. I never even for a second thought about the abc news/journalism angle, since abc accepted the ads, and what I do on their site is clearly not traditional news. But when I went into speak with DuPont in September, they were upfront about the environmental issues they'd had in the past (even before I had a chance to ask them about them) and talked to me about some things they were doing now to make things right so things like that don't happen in the future. I think what they do for the world Nomex, Kevlar, etc outweighs their big mistakes. And any 205 year old company has many mistakes. I also admit I was most interested in the innovative concept of the commercials, how they would be delivered on boing-boing instead of the regular banner ad route... I just thought it was kinda neat. So, while I am certainly a person who cares deeply about the environment, I am also a person that realizes that DuPont saves soooooooo many lives. That's important to me too, and when I met people from the company that said DuPont has been changing their ways (environmentally speaking)... maybe I'm a fool, but I believed them.
Posted by: Amanda at Mar 22, 2007 1:05:17 PM
It's very strange... it's not like Amanda is Abbie Hoffman or something. But because we came to know her through videoblogging, we've got her on a pedestal. We demand purity! Just wait until you guys see my fawning vlog series on Monsanto and Walmart...
Posted by: Chuck at Mar 22, 2007 1:43:02 PM
"I think what they do for the world Nomex, Kevlar, etc outweighs their big mistakes."
"DuPont has been changing their ways (environmentally speaking)... maybe I'm a fool, but I believed them."
But we all have to wonder, and you probably have to wonder yourself, to what extent you were influenced by the fact you'd be doing some "neat, hopefully well-compensated and high-profile work.
My company would work for Dupont in a second, but we aren't giving the appearance of endorsement when we do so. Personalities such as yourself, I believe, have to be careful because it does appear you are endorsing the companies you work for. Kevlar notwithstanding, Dupont is not a company you want to endorse. See for example http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=173
Posted by: Michael at Mar 22, 2007 1:49:59 PM
I think we should also differentiate between "endorsements" and "commercials". Notice I never say my name in the ads. That's on purpose. There is no "I'm Amanda Congdon, and I approve this product." There is a difference... although I do see your point, Michael.
Posted by: Amanda at Mar 22, 2007 2:02:30 PM
Imagine if Al Gore did a promo for Montana Coal. Even if he didn't come out and say "I'm Al Gore and I endorse Montana Coal," I think we'd all be a little dumbfounded, and Gore would lose some serious cred.
At some level, actors operate under different rules than normal people: you're allowed to don new personae as needed, and nobody thinks twice about it.
But most of us got to know you through RB, and part of the appeal of the RB Amanda was that she was Genuine. RB Amanda was more like Al Gore doing his global warming schtick than an actress playing a role.
Of course, RB Amanda wasn't entirely genuine, just as my Cocktail Party Persona isn't quite the real me either. But because it was some version of the real you, you've surrendered the actor's ability to shed your skin and take on new roles.
As an anonymous actress pre-RB, you could have done as many duPont commercials as you wanted and nobody would think that you, personally, endorsed the company.
Now that you've become recognizable, you can't expect to be able to lend your face, voice, or name to anything without it being viewed as an endorsement.
All IMHO, of course. The one thing separating you, now, from the anonymous pre-Rocketboom Amanda is your fans. If you think you've got a good thing going, don't blow it by alienating them.
Posted by: Shivering Timbers at Mar 22, 2007 3:43:43 PM
"They were upfront about the environmental issues they'd had in the past (even before I had a chance to ask them about them) and talked to me about some things they were doing now to make things right so things like that don't happen in the future."
Amanda, here's some environmentalism 101. Companies like Dupont can't be trusted to regulate themselves. Otherwise they're just going to shit toxins into the environment and say "whoops!" when they get caught. We need environmental laws and a government that actually enforces them so companies like Dupont can't make "mistakes" in the first place.
Posted by: John at Apr 12, 2007 4:27:01 PM
"Maybe this is more about the product . . . No one complained about my Dove ad."
It's about the product. And it's about the content of the ads. I made a post about it over on Perfect Duluth Day.
Posted by: John at Apr 12, 2007 11:39:49 PM