You may have read the story that broke over the weekend about two mobile bloggers from India who accepted a trip to Berlin from Samsung. If you missed it, in a nutshell, the story serves as a cautionary tale for tech bloggers who do not believe in the adage "there is no such thing as a free lunch" and companies seeking creative ways to boost positive online buzz.
Here is a breakdown of what happened based on online reports and official comments from Samsung. As an aside, I'm still waiting for Samsung to return my request for an interview request.
Blogging for airline tickets
According to The Next Web, which has the full, detailed story, Samsung offered the bloggers -- Clinton Jeff of Unleash the Phones and another blogger who requested to remain anonymous -- transportation and lodging to the IFA 2012 tradeshow in Berlin through Samsung's Mob!lers program. Samsung's Mob!lers program is self-described as an "exclusive network of bloggers who are first in line to trial and review the latest Samsung products, for free!"
Jeff and the other blogger reportedly accepted the trip, but only after they confirmed that they would be allowed to cover the show as independent bloggers, not as brand ambassadors or Samsung promoters. Long story short, they arrived in Berlin and discovered that Samsung expected them to promote the products. They refused, and Samsung allegedly told them they could either "be a part of this and wear the uniform" or they'd have to "get [their] own tickets back home and handle [their] hotel stay from the moment this call ends."
In other words, Samsung allegedly threatened to leave the bloggers stranded in Berlin. The company quickly reversed its threat, calling the bloggers back and telling them that if they agreed to wear the Samsung shirts at one event and to never blog about the incident, the company would fly the bloggers back to India on September 1. Of course, the conference ends on September 6, so the bloggers wouldn't be able to cover the event.
Luckily for Jeff and his fellow blogger, Nokia stepped in and agreed to pay for their lodging and transportation back to India.
Since the story broke, Samsung has issued a statement on the matter:
"Samsung Mob!lers is a voluntary community of active Samsung mobile device users, who are offered the opportunity to participate in our marketing events across the world. At these events, all activities they undertake are on a voluntary basis. No activities are forced upon them.
We regret there was a misunderstanding between the Samsung Mob!lers coordinators and the relevant blogger, as we understand he was not sufficiently briefed on the nature of Samsung Mob!lers’ activities at IFA 2012. We have been attempting to get in touch with him.
We respect the independence of bloggers to publish their own stories."
Samsung also privately apologized to Jeff for the experience and undue hardship he was put through.
Just like your mother told you: 'There is no such thing as a free lunch'
While this story is a distressing one, and I'm glad that Jeff and his fellow blogger are no longer stranded in Berlin, the question remains: why were they accepting trips from Samsung in the first place?
The Next Web points out that this type of offer is in no way uncommon, especially in the tech industry -- and it's not. Established tech companies routinely offer to pay for trips, and in other cases offer lavish gifts (such as decked-out laptops, etc.) to writers, editors, and bloggers, in hopes of reaping good reviews. I, myself, have been offered many trips, but I always turn them down -- mostly because I took a journalism ethics course in college, but partly because, well, let's just say that the last trip I was offered was to the middle of the Arizona desert and do you really want to get stranded in the middle of the desert?
Though programs such as Samsung's Mob!lers program makes it easier for bloggers -- especially bloggers who are independent and don't have the backing or resources of a larger publication, such as PCWorld -- to get their hands on hot technology right away, it's still a murky situation. And I'm not the only one who thinks so: the FTC has also been eyeing bloggers who accept gifts, or "payola," in return for positive reviews.
According to FTC guidelines, bloggers and prominent social media types must disclose conflicts of interest, or any paid endorsements to their readers. This is to ensure that the public at large is not mislead by positive reviews that may have been subtly, or not-so-subtly, paid for.
Social quid pro quo
Some of the less-subtle cases include a 2010 Ann Taylor campaign, which offered prominent fashion bloggers gift cards in exchange for positive coverage. The blogger-preview event offered gift cards, with a minimum value of $50, to bloggers who posted about the event and sent their post to Ann Taylor's publicist within 24 hours. Another case in 2007 involved Microsoft sending evaluation laptops pre-loaded with Vista to bloggers. The bloggers were given the option of returning the hardware after they reviewed it, or keeping the hardware -- though Microsoft claimed it had "no expectations" of positive reviews.
Far further down the blogging food chain are other equally murky questions to be asked about tweeting and Facebook "liking" in exchanges for rewards and chances to win prizes. In May publicists for the upcoming film Atlas Shrugged: Part II asked fans to follow them on Twitter and re-tweet their tweets along with Liking them on Facebook and sharing posts. In exchange you might be selected as an extra in the movie and be flown out to Los Angeles along with a friend.
Here is the description from the Atlas Shrugged Movie blog:
"We’ll be selecting an extra this Friday afternoon and flying the selectee and a guest to LA this coming Monday, May 14th - all expenses paid. Or, most expenses anyway - flight and hotel for two nights." The blog added: "The more you tweet and share, the more chance you have to be cast so, tweet and share early and often."
The "tweet to win" and Facebook "Like to win" phenomenon is huge. It seems so rampant I'm not sure anyone cares. Ethics aside, one thing for sure this trend raises the noise level of spam on Facebook and Twitter. Try googling "tweet to win" or "facebook like to win" or "comment to win" for a sampling of how to turn your tweets and thumbs into prizes.
Basically, it's not a great idea to accept "free" trips or gifts from companies. Though the two bloggers from India were given an opportunity by Samsung that they might have otherwise never been able to afford, it's hard to imagine that, even if they had been allowed to attend as independent bloggers, they would have been able to stay neutral about Samsung products and/or Samsung competitors.
(PCWorld's Tom Spring contributed to this report)