Ask the readers: How much money would it take for you to compromise your principles?

An Allegory

There was once a man who became a vegetarian. Because he believed that all living creatures have souls, he swore he would never again consume animal flesh. For three years, he ate only vegetable matter. People offered him money to eat meat, but he steadfastly refused.”Will you try a turkey sandwich for $2?” a woman asked one day. “No,” he said.

“Will you try this hot dog for $20?” a little boy once asked at the county fair. “No,” he said.

“Will you try a piece of steak for $200?” asked his mother-in-law at her 70th birthday party. “No,” he said.

“Will you try a piece of ham for $2,000?” asked his wife on Christmas Day. The man considered it for a moment, but then he shouted, “No. I am a vegetarian. I will not eat meat!”

One day a crafty gentleman appeared to him. “Will you try a piece of bacon?” the gentleman asked. “All you have to do is tell me what you think of it — and then tell your friends. If you do this little thing, I will give you $20,000.”

What did the man do?

Have you ever wondered how much money it would take for you to compromise your principles? I've thought about it, but I've never really been tested.

Today I was tested.

A major U.S. company offered to purchase advertising on this site. That's not unusual. What's unusual was the money involved and the method they wished to employ. They were offering to pay an enormous sum in order for me to provide “advertorials” — to promote their product under the guise of a series of blog posts.

Though Get Rich Slowly generates revenue through traditional advertising and through affiliate sales, I've always refused to provide paid posts. Maybe I'm performing mental gymnastics, but for myself, there's a difference between earning money when I recommend a product of my own accord, and earning money by posting an article for which I've been asked to be a shill.

I've spent the last two days laboring over this decision. I've talked with friends and family. I've talked with colleagues. I've sought sage advice from every corner. And I've considered a variety of creative solutions:

  • Have another blogger write about the product, and split the money with him.
  • Write about the product and then offer all of the income to you, the readers, via some sort of contest. (I really liked this idea.)
  • Write about the product and donate all of the income to charity.

I cannot deny that I've been sorely tempted by this proposal.

In the end, however, a problem still remained: by accepting the offer, I would be allowing an advertiser to direct my editorial content. And if I did this once, then what about the next time? Where would I draw the line? Would there even be a line? All of the solutions left me feeling a little bit dirty, and I didn't like it. The only way I could feel clean was to decline.

Note: I am not condemning bloggers who might choose to accept this offer and others like it. We each have our own personal codes of conduct. Some people are vegetarians, and others aren't. This isn't about whether paid posts are always right or wrong. This is about what is right and wrong for me, for my own conscience. It's about the general relationship between money and personal values.

Instead, I submitted a proposal that says, “Hey. Get Rich Slowly is one of the biggest personal finance blogs on the internet. It's good to advertise here. Give me the money and I will take down every other ad for a month. You can have all of the ad space.” Again, maybe I'm performing mental gymnastics, but this doesn't make me feel dirty. I've accepted paid advertising on this site since day one. The only thing different about this would be the order of magnitude.

But it's unlikely that the advertiser will accept my counter-proposal. It's not what they're after.

Posting an advertorial isn't illegal or immoral; it's just against my personal principles, and conflicts with my vision for this site. But if I had been offered a million dollars, I'm fairly certain we wouldn't be having this conversation. My principles would have vanished. I would have eaten the bacon — and then I would have told you all how great it tasted.

Have you faced a similar dilemma in your own life? Have your principles ever been challenged by money? What did you do? Were you happy with your decision?

More about...Psychology

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christy
christy
11 years ago

I hear your pain.

The only time in my life as a writer/photographer that I’ve intentionally destroyed negatives was when I had a large cash offer for some powerful images I’d shot in the midst of a tragedy. Oh, btw, the offer was from the New York Times. Would have changed the course of my career.

Problem was, I felt that these particular images didn’t belong in the newspaper. They were too … um … intimate (not sex; death).

I said no.

And I’ve never regretted it.

🙂

Valerie
Valerie
11 years ago

For me, I’m glad you didn’t take it. I like my ads along the side, where I know what they are. (Which is why they want to get around me by purchasing the content space.)

For you, I’m sorry they didn’t offer you a million. Then you could start a new blog telling how you invested your million-dollar windfall!

Mrs. Accountability
Mrs. Accountability
11 years ago

I love the solution you came up with. Would you have been able to go along with it, if you loved this company and what they stood for? Or was it just the thought of, in a way, having to pretend and talk up this company to us? I considered pay per post at one time, but I wasn’t able to fake my enthusiasm enough to get approved – I had to create an introductory post that raved about the site. I didn’t know anything about it, so I guess I was kind of dull. Besides my BlogHerAds let me… Read more »

cb
cb
11 years ago

Doing advertorials would also have been a bad business decision in the long run. Your blog’s cred would go down by the majority of readers who are smart enough to notice and traffic would also likely decrease.

Neal Frankle
Neal Frankle
11 years ago

Regardless of the outcome, I’m just inspired by your willingness to be honest with me, the world and yourself. This is something that’s really hard to do. Thanks for inspiring honesty. I had a situation where a client asked me to sell a mutual fund and i forgot to do it. It was a huge amount and as a result of the delay in taking action, the client lost $16,000. It was 100% my fault. I guess I could have tried to make up some story but I just picked up the phone and told the client what happened and… Read more »

Leila
Leila
11 years ago

Good for you. I’d only caution you about taking too much of a relativistic approach to this issue (“I’m not condemning others, it’s just not right for me”). It is wrong for anyone, and not just because of how it makes you feel. And it’s a little different from the vegetarian, because of your relationship with your readers. Why? Because in good faith you offer your blog as an independent view of your content. It’s an issue of trust. This goes for anyone who doesn’t say, right up at the top of their content, “I’m being paid to say what… Read more »

Betsy
Betsy
11 years ago

J.D., I think you made a good call on behalf of your readers. I’m sure you’ve seen it, but there’s some industry research that suggests that *unidentified* advertorial content erodes reader trust if/when they learn of it. However, you might consider the example of the Fug Girls, who have recently accepted advertorial content, but with rules. It’s all presented in a black-framed box (a completely different look from their design standard), and they pledge at the top to notify readers when they are presenting advertorial content. It’s also tagged and titled as a sponsored post. http://gofugyourself.celebuzz.com/go_fug_yourself/2009/01/test_peoples_choice_sponsored.html (I note now that… Read more »

Ellen
Ellen
11 years ago

There is another way, which is to label the blogpost ‘advertorial’. Either you or the company can write the blogpost. This way it’s clear that it’s a paid advertorial, not your personal opinion. This is the way I handle proposals like this, I have several (dutch) websites with a lot of visitors.

Patrick
Patrick
11 years ago

I strongly think you’re on the right track, there. Newspapers have (allegedly) kept a thick wall between the business/advertising decisions and the editorial decisions. Accepting payment for a blog post crosses a line that calls into question every product you recommend. We would have to start asking ourselves your motivations. Does he really like this product, or did he get paid?

You made the right call, even if it was a tough one.

Tim
Tim
11 years ago

Congratulations. I may not always agree with every article but they are unbiased (from corporations) opinions. Those unbiased opinions support free thought and discussion without the intent to motivate the readers to an inherent contridiction of the blog’s purpose. How can you help someone get rich slowly when draining them of cash on unneeded commercial items all for your personal gain. Again, congratulations!

Joe
Joe
11 years ago

I would consider it to have been fine, possibly a good idea, to have done the article but with a disclaimer at the top explaining that it was paid for by the company. You need not have lied during the article, just given an honest overview of how their product worked. Obviously if the advertisers wanted you to lie through your teeth about how great the product was even when it wasnt, then that’s a slightly different matter.

quinsy
quinsy
11 years ago

I write for another website for a small fee of $100 per article. Usually I write about any topic I choose. I was requested by my editor to write an article about a general topic of interest, but he specified that I should interview employees from a certain large advertising sponsor and get my information from their press releases on the subject. Since I am in medicine I absolutely would have rejected any request to write about something that was related to a pharmaceutical company, no matter what the pay, even for a million dollars, but we have to keep… Read more »

Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback
Paul Williams @ Crackerjack Greenback
11 years ago

J.D., I’m glad you didn’t take it. I’d have to agree with cb @ #3. Your readers might notice, especially if the company really isn’t all that great, and your readership would suffer. I’m sure you’d still get search engine traffic, but this sort of thing really could affect your credibility – especially among other personal finance blogs if it’s not a great company. If it were a great company, it might be harder to tell and people might not notice as much. It’d be like writing about Vanguard a lot. We know they’re a great company, so no one… Read more »

Jared Meyer
Jared Meyer
11 years ago

I think the if it was for a product that you really would endorse on your own, and if you make it clear that you were writing a paid-for-post, then I’d say it would be fine. Your readers do trust you, and they do want you to make money — you provide a great service to us. I think if you were upfront and honest with us (and yourself) about it, your readers would support you.

JC
JC
11 years ago

What does it benefit to man if he gains the entire world, but loses himself?

Sandy E.
Sandy E.
11 years ago

You would be deceiving your readers and tricking them for your monetary gain. And how would that make you feel over time? How would it change your character and your self-respect. It’s kind of like selling your soul down the river. For myself, I know that I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night knowing that I was secretly taking advantage of a whole lot of people in a way that they were unaware. You’ve done the right thing. You’ll make your money – but not in this way. Now you can change the name of your blog to: Get… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Mrs. Accountability wrote: Would you have been able to go along with it, if you loved this company and what they stood for? This is a fantastic question. I don’t know the answer. What if this were an advertorial for the Mini Cooper? Or for comic books? Or for bacon salt? I’m sure it would have been even more difficult for me to decide. RE: labeling advertorials or sponsored posts I did consider this. But it wasn’t really so much another option as a necessary component of any option I might choose to implement. That is, I felt like I’d… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan
11 years ago

It’s a tough issue, and you certainly chose the harder path for now. I hope I’m not being naive in this praise for Consumer Reports magazine (or Consumers Union, I suppose the company’s called) but this is exactly why they accept no advertisements whatsoever. The products and services they test are also acquired through normal means, not provided by the manufacturers. In the end, for the most part, Consumer Reports seems to be the most trusted and respected source of reviews and analysis in our country; and this is why. Others, like Car and Driver in the automotive world, are… Read more »

Sue
Sue
11 years ago

FYI for GRS readers….Suze Orman’s new book is downloadable for free from Oprah’s website. Oh, and I wasn’t paid for this!

Good call on the advertorial JD, that just sounds decietful and a “slippery slope” to me.
Just curious though; would you accept money from a product that you’d previously endorsed (without profit) to do an advertorial for profit?

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

p.s. I’m sometimes reluctant to post pieces like this that might be taken as self-congratulatory. Even this morning, I hate that it this can be read that way. My intent is not to pump myself up. It’s to discuss the nature of how money can corrupt personal principle. In a large way, I think our current economic crisis is a result of this problem. I’m interested in the philosophical nature of this question, not in adulation.

Nadjib
Nadjib
11 years ago

J.D.

A very inspiring post to say the least. Like the others who commented above, I believe you made the right decision and most difficult. One thing that comes to mind when reflecting over the decision you made is: What goes around, comes around.

Congrats.

Landon
Landon
11 years ago

J.D. — I think that your response back was a very good one. You have a very well known financial blog and many products would be extremely lucky to get the number of “views” that you can generate. Take a look at the following article to see what I mean: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20081230/0352103250.shtml. It’s not unheard of to have paid sponsorship since the content being created is meaningful and draws a faithful crowd. The Gaming website Penny Arcade has also always had a strong voice in their advertising. They will only promote the games/companies in their ads that they feel warrant the… Read more »

Pete
Pete
11 years ago

@Leila: Very well said. J.D., I understand why you are hesitant to condemn others who might do this, but Leila is right. There is a very clear distinction between paid advertising and editorial content. Or, at least, there should be. No mental gymnastics required to come to that conclusion. We read your blog because we trust you to give us honest information. We know what paid advertising looks like and we know the difference. Thank you for having the decency and good business sense to make the right call. And thank you for being so transparent about it. I hope… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Ryan (#18) When I first started this site, there was a period where I considered being completely ad-free, just like Consumer Reports. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t do it. For one, it’s allowed me to quit my day job and do this full time. For another, I feel like I’ve found a balance with advertising that I can live with. Over the past two days, I spent a lot of time with Chris from The Art of Non-Conformity. He’s taken a different approach that has allowed him to remain advertising-free. He produces “value-added” products of his own to offer… Read more »

Jessica
Jessica
11 years ago

Good for you! I have never been really, really tested that way. I suppose I did join the military, dispite my opposition to the Iraq War, because I needed a good job (there were many other things I hoped to get out of military service, and I’ve gotten most of them), and I’m staying in because I can’t get a civilian job that will pay me this much, and I’m living pay check to pay check already, but I don’t think that is the same kind of situation. I betrayed some of my principals because I desperately need something that… Read more »

Erin
Erin
11 years ago

I’ve had to deal with this. I’m a freelance writer, and I was offered $15K to do easy PR work for an organization whose mission was good overall, but which included a piece that most people would recognize as discriminatory, and which made me uncomfortable. Even though my work would not have touched upon the issue that made me uncomfortable, I wasn’t sure I could support their work. I wrestled with this decision for days, and came up with many of the solutions you suggested, including donating a portion of my fee to the organizations that fight this type of… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
11 years ago

Your general question about what one is willing to do for money is a good one, and one that in some everyone who works for someone else faces every day. When office workers first were given internet access, everyone had to create limits on how much time they surfed the web during working hours. The statistics seem to be that lots of people are willing to accept payment for hours they aren’t actually working for a company. Similarly, anyone who works as in independent contractor paid by the hour has the temptation to pad the bill. those examples aren’t quite… Read more »

Brigid
Brigid
11 years ago

I’d eat a dead beetle wrapped in dung for $5. If someone paid me so they could control me – that’s like mental kidnapping. I think you did the right thing by choosing to keep your free will intact.

Mister E
Mister E
11 years ago

As far as I’m concerned you made the right choice, the only choice really.

Passive ads are a neccessary evil but to personally shill a product or service for pay under the guise of a legitimate post would instantly break all trust between you and the reader. People come here for legitimate advice, once the legitimacy line is blurred there is no turning back. IMOHO of course.

Chris Gammell
Chris Gammell
11 years ago

Hi JD, I don’t think anyone answered your question directly yet, so I will tell you how much it would take for me to sell out: $2 million dollars. Or at least I hope I would be strong enough not to, up until that point. The reason being, it would have to be enough to retire instantly. $2 million at a modest 5% return produces a $100,000 revenue for the rest of your life. Even still, there would obviously be contractual obligations beyond that payment. The buyer would probably want to get a series of articles on their product which… Read more »

Byron Hicks
Byron Hicks
11 years ago

I applaud your principles. I enjoy your blog entries for a relatively unbiased view of personal finance issues. If you had done your “sponsored blog”, it would have probably come across as fake, and it would have turned off many of your readers. Good job!

partgypsy
partgypsy
11 years ago

This is one of those questions, what would Consumer Reports do? I look upon your (and a few similar blog sites) as providing honest and unpaid-for opinions. If you can’t provide that, then the blog becomes useless to me.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

Sorry to monopolize my own comments section like this, but I’ve literally been thinking about this for 48 hours now. It’s a lot of money. (On the order of Erin’s dilemma above.) Here’s another grey area: I heard the story the other day of how when blogger Steve Pavlina published his book, he sent it to hundreds of other top bloggers on the condition that they review it. He didn’t care whether they gave it a good review or a bad review, he just wanted them to review it. When I heard that story, I thought it was fantastic, and… Read more »

The Personal Finance Playbook
The Personal Finance Playbook
11 years ago

That truly is impressive, J.D. I feel like I am have rarely been tested in this arena. I hope I would make the same decisions you have in similar circumstances. Commendable.

Tom
Tom
11 years ago

This is a tough decision I’ve pondered on my own blog. I have plenty of advertising on my site but I’ve also rejected hundreds of dollars worth because I don’t agree with the business I’ve been asked to promote.

Would you ordinarily promote this business or is it something like a payday loan company which you abhor?

Kearn
Kearn
11 years ago

Though admittedly not the point of the post, since this is a finance site, I couldn’t resist: This was also probably a good financial decision. As you said, this is a popular site, and you can make plenty off of normal advertising, because you have a strong following. However, the sudden rise of “Product A by Company X is wonderful”, “Product B by Company X is wonderful”,…would be pretty easy to spot. I’m always leery of any product recommendations that don’t disclose the author’s relationship with the company, and I tend to unsubscribe / unbookmark sites when I stop trusting… Read more »

Kim Siever
Kim Siever
11 years ago

I get this all the time. I’m not sure why. I always respond back telling them I will do it, then I tell them what the terms are for advertising on my site. I think it is overtly presumptuous for someone to contact a service provider to advertise on the service and try setting the terms of the ad rates. I mean, can you imagine what the NY Times would do if someone asked to run a full-page ad and then laid out how much the would pay? Give me a break. None of the persons wishing to advertise on… Read more »

Faculties
Faculties
11 years ago

I think the difference in the Steve Pavlina example is that people may consent to review his book, but they don’t have to like it or disguise the deal. I personally am very glad you turned down this offer — and I think it is a very real benefit to you as well. I stopped reading another blog when it became obvious that the blogger was being paid for “product placement“ in the posts, and not coming clean about it. It destroyed his credibility for me. Your reputation is your most important asset. It’s built on not only the content… Read more »

Erin
Erin
11 years ago

I totally feel for you. It’s really easy to say what you would and wouldn’t do for money when it’s only a hypothetical. When they’re actually standing there with the check, well, it’s an awful lot harder. It’s also easy for me to say I turned down a lot of money, because this happened almost a year ago, and everything has turned out fine. Hindsight being 20/20 and all. I suspect this will not be the only opportunity like this that you will get. I wonder if there are other ways you could offer some sort of compromise. I also… Read more »

Jordan
Jordan
11 years ago

Thanks JD.

Colin
Colin
11 years ago

Advertisers have a clear and unmistakable bias and being paid to mask someone else’s bias as your own opinion without disclosing that is dishonest at best.

Frankly, had you taken the offer I would have stopped reading.

DaveD
DaveD
11 years ago

Advertorials that aren’t disclosed are a slimy way of advertising and I attempt to distance myself with any type of publication that has them. The great thing about the web initially was that you could read average people’s opinions regarding goods and services. You knew they were telling the truth about a product and how it held up or if it was worth the purchase price. Now that business has gotten involved, you AGAIN have to second guess everything, just as you do when reading magazines/newspapers. Why can’t companies concentrate money spent on advertorials with creating compelling products that people… Read more »

grapes
grapes
11 years ago

A long time ago as a fresh-faced college graduate, my then soon-to-be mother-in-law asked me if I would type up a paper for a friend of hers. I never met this guy but he offered, through her, to pay me what seemed like a large amount of money for this task. I was ecstatic even if a little puzzled by the high rate of pay being offered, but then, I reasoned that in the adult world, people must have a lot more money than in the college student world. He sent a stack of books but no paper. I kept… Read more »

ModernGal
ModernGal
11 years ago

JD, I am convinced that there is currently a bubble going on in the financial blogosphere where a number of bloggers are trading their reputations, page rank etc… for easy money by advertising for payday loans, ambulance chasers and the like. In my view this is unethical when they are simultaneously posing as promoting frugal, sustainable habits. Perhaps I’m naive in thinking that, in the end of the day, good and honest writing and advice will win out. Also, when you are given a book or product to review, and disclose that you did not pay for it and did… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
11 years ago

It’s completely different from getting a free book. That is a standard practice in every industry. Movie critics, theater critics, book reviewers – none of them pay for the products they review. As consumers, we know this and we understand that’s how it works – and has always worked. (As an aside, I think that if theater critics had to pay the $100-200 for a broadway show that the rest of us do, they might be a bit more judicious with their praise of some shows.) But advertorials are an entirely different thing – there is no way that being… Read more »

Nicki at Domestic Cents
Nicki at Domestic Cents
11 years ago

And that’s why I follow your blog. 🙂

Christiane
Christiane
11 years ago

This is a great post. I think there are a few other issues, however, worth considering. One of them namely is what your circumstances are. Let’s say you had five kids and one of them needed surgery and you were struggling under the weight of the cost. Would that influence your decision? Would it be wrong to take that money when you clearly have an obligation to your family? I think it isn’t often as simple as saying, “That goes against my values.” In life we are presented with gray situations where one choice is not necessarily wrong, and you… Read more »

Ashley @ Wide Open Wallet
Ashley @ Wide Open Wallet
11 years ago

I think you did the right thing. You were clearly uncomfortable with the offer of there wouldn’t have been so much thought. I think you were kind of in a lose lose situation since either way you were going to wonder if you did the right thing. So better to go with your morals in that case.

I don’t know how much I would sell out for. Way less than a million. WAY less. But I don’t have nearly as much at stake as you.

Michele
Michele
11 years ago

Here’s what I do… On my personal blog, I don’t accept paid posts or even reviews because it goes against my advertising contract with BlogHer. But I do accept straight advertising revenue. I have another blog, which is a review blog. I do indeed have paid posts and reviews… But my one stipulation is that I post what I actually think. So – if the person is buying a positive review, I decline. If I can say what I really think, then I do it. If I had been placed in your position – on my review blog since it… Read more »

BW
BW
11 years ago

JD, your blog is more akin to a news site than a lot of other blogs. If it wasn’t, you’d soon run out of material and the posts would get stale. I think this news angle is one of your greatest strengths and a reduction in impartiality would definitely harm your equity, since impartiality is implicit in the journalistic approach.

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