Five years ago, blogger swag was something that we all knew existed but never really discussed publicly. Then, the Federal Trade Commission got involved, and suddenly every online outlet—no matter how big or small—was required to make a full disclosure every time they wrote about something that was given to them as a gift. (Or, as payment in the form of coverage.)
For a while, it was fun to call out bloggers who were obviously (or not so obviously) shilling for brands without following the FTC rules. But soon enough, the community got comfortable disclosing these brand alliances, even showing them off.
In 2013, brand partnerships can make or break a blogger's success. In a "you've got to fake to make it" fashion, many newer, up-and-coming bloggers are allegedly claiming items they've bought were gifts from brands. Apparently, this act is far more common than imagined.
I asked around for real examples of this happening. One marketing exec, who wished to speak off the record, recalls a time when one fairly popular blogger (with one of those food-lifestyle-fashion blog titles) walked into the West Village store of a popular handbag brand. She asked for a free bucket bag, but the manager said she wouldn't be able to give her one, so she bought it herself. As she left the store, she tweeted/instagramed/tumbled a big thanks to the brand for the purse.
Another blogger—who writes about life in NYC—is so wildly known for doing this that she's become sort of a joke amongst the blogger "cool crowd."
"I've heard people at parties being like 'oh, such a brand sent me that swag bag too,' and then the PR people were like 'um, no we didn't,'" says the exec. "They're all so desperate to stay career bloggers."
But if you're making enough money to be able to afford a nice handbag, shouldn't you be proud?
"I've definitely seen people falsely associating themselves with brands that they do not have any affiliation with. Falsely representing yourself or lying is just a low thing to do or be caught doing," he says. "However, in my experience with the brands I've worked with, I can say, bloggers who have inadvertently mentioned my clients in a positive manner (whether they are hungry for attention or rather 'desperate' as you put it) will be rewarded and noticed whether I have sent them product or not. If they ever claimed it was gifted when it wasn't, yet they displayed the product in a positive light, I would most likely overlook that comment and thank them for their support."
So maybe it's not such a bad thing, particularly in such an increasingly cutthroat industry. Says Sokolowsky, "Breaking into the upper realms of the fashion blogging arena is comparable to becoming a pro-athlete or a Hollywood star." Do these bloggers deserve a scolding, or a little bit of admiration?