A few weeks ago, we received an intriguing invitation in the tips inbox. Ann Taylor wanted us to come inspect their summer Loft collection — and they were willing to pay us to do it.
"Come take a sneak peak at LOFT's summer 2010 collection before anyone else!" the note raved. "Bloggers who attend will receive a special gift, and those who post coverage from the event will be entered in a mystery gift card drawing where you can win up to $500 at LOFT!"
The fine print explained an unusual catch: the bloggers who went to the event would have to send their posts back to Loft's publicist within 24 hours — and then she would reveal what value of gift card they had won. The minimum card value was $50.
We did not attend. Thirty-one bloggers did; the company president says each took a gift card.
We made a mental note to keep an eye out for coverage of the event.
And aside from the Los Angeles Times blog calling attention to the attempted bribery, that coverage has been overwhelmingly positive. And almost none of the bloggers who typed write-ups and posted grainy cell-phone photos disclosed their financial relationship — or lack thereof, if in fact anyone turned down the cards — with Ann Taylor. A gift card might not be the most liquid form of currency, but it certainly has monetary value — and $500 is no small sum. And under recently revised Federal Trade Commission regulations, any online writer who fails to mention the receipt of freebies that might have swayed his or her coverage of a product is liable for fines of up to $11,000. (Now if only we could have such a regulation governing the print media.)
"We don't incentivize the press," protests Loft's president, Gary Muto. "We would never do that."
"They could write whatever they want. Obviously, there's freedom of speech." I'm sure as much will be obvious from this sampling of coverage of the collection and its three monthly deliveries:
- "Very chic and wearable...I so love what LOFT is doing with their brand. The collection looks really fresh and modern while still managing to keep the 'relaxed' attitude that has always been the essence of the line." — Saucyglossie.com
- "Thanks to an exclusive blogger preview of LOFT's (formerly known as Ann Taylor LOFT) Summer 2010 collection, I have a new store to add to my weekly shopping routine." — Tracy Hopkins of Splendicity.com
- "A collection that makes us wish we could press fast forward and magically appear on a St. Thomas beach in their 'Sailing Ferns Maxi Dress' ($98). Or at a see and be seen Brooklyn outdoors brunch spot in their 'Zebra Print Pencil Skirt' ($69.50) and 'Knotted Hobo Bag' ($148). The LOFT Summer 2010 collection is targeting the young jet setter with an exhilarating mix of prints and luxe accessories. The brand even boasts an industrious team of trendsetters anchored by a Fashion Director who wore a sporty cropped trench over a dress with the sailing ferns signature print. The LOFT has your Summer 2010 must-haves down to a sartorial science." — Geneva S. Thomas of Clutchmagonline.com
- "An oceanic pillage seemed evident when viewing the brightly colored coral and floral shaped accessories. Surfacing to another delivery the colors grew a little softer with airy ruffles and lighter fabrics. The last delivery favored a safari expedition; full of fiery reds and tangerines paired with earth tone shorts and jackets, with a touch of animal print. I adored how gallantly color and print were used, allowing a touch of graceful eccentricity." — Filecellia Sampson of Johnsimondaily.com
- "The collection contained everything a woman would need for the weekend or a vacation...Stop by your local Loft anytime starting in May to see the entire collection. You won't be disappointed." — Zia of Mylifeonandofftheguestlist.blogspot.com
- The Budget Fashionista posted 20 photos.
- "I hate cold weather and always look forward to warmer climes. But this year, I have an added urgency since I can't wait to don the adorable pieces from the upcoming Ann Taylor Loft 2010 spring/summer season! Last Wednesday, we were treated to a preview party featuring all their lovely dresses, tops, skirts, and accessories. Held in the beautiful Industria Superstudio with tons and tons of yummy hor d'ouerves [sic] and free flowing wine and champagne topped with a gift bag with a look book and a cute necklace: this was a preview done right!" — Thatgirlattheparty.com
A real free-flowing range of opinion, that. Of these bloggers, only two — Hopkins and My Life On And Off The Guest List's Zia — mentioned the gift cards. UPDATE: Courtney Henley-Anderson, the publisher of That Girl At The Party says that she was unaware of the gift card drawing as she was not officially invited to the event, adding,
"I was invited by a colleague to the 5 to 9pm Fashion preview, not the blogger event described in this article. As such, I was never sent the invite with the 24-hour posting incentive. Nor was I given a gift card since I was not aware of the offer. My post about the event went up on Monday, February 1st, a full five days after the event took place and four days after the gift card reimbursement described here. In addition, in keeping with the FTC rules, I duly state when I am given a product and review it."
We've noticed when other sites have failed to mention, oh yeah, that the Fabulous New Product You Just Have To Try! was given to them for free at a schoozy event. Just like we've drawn attention to the fact that magazines stock their pages with editorial payola; the fashion print media are so beholden to their advertisers that it's not unusual for luxury brands to dictate how the clothes they lend magazines can be styled and shot for editorials, and what their paid ads must be adjacent to in the book. Perhaps some editors and bloggers are too excited by the opportunities for graft to notice that it's precisely this kind of constriction of editorial judgment that atrophies creativity, and which is turning the fashion media — women's media — into a lowest-common-denominator whirl of focus-grouped, product-placed bullshit. The Internet was supposed to be different.