Ads, Sponsors and Legitimacy

If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

Stephen King

There’s this horrible little fiction we all embrace: the idea that money earned correlates to talent. It’s so engrained in our culture that unless you really explore the idea, you probably think that’s more or less correct. It’s especially prevalent in the USA — that old Horatio Alger fable — so of course it’s endemic on the internet.

Look at the ads on this site in the header. They lend legitimacy to the whole business, don’t they? I think they do, even if you’re not aware of it. We’re all conditioned by years of adjacent commercials and marketing that slapping an ad on something automatically elevates its level.

This is why when you get ads on your site, as a smalltime writer, people say “congratulations”.

Thing is, getting paid by ads or sponsors means one person liked what you do. That’s about it.

Fellow Scot Jamie Ryan covers this with a bit of passion in his recent podcast, and also this recent blog post, in response to some discussion of whether podcast hosts are capable of discussing negative aspects of products that sponsor their shows. He sums it up pretty well:

If you don’t trust a person enough to be honest and upfront with you then don’t listen to their shows or read their websites.


It’s odd that despite the overwhelming online cultural hegemonic rejection of the idea of absolute truths (“what’s good for you is good for you, man”) almost every discussion of this sort tends towards absolutism. Podcasters are either pure-minded souls or else money-grabbing slimeballs.

Do most podcasters and writers do their best to be honest in what they talk about? Probably.

Does being sponsored or having ads affect the creator? Of course.

  1. Being paid confers legitimacy.
  2. Being nice about your sponsors makes ‘em like you more.
  3. Not being nice about them makes you worry they might drop you.
  4. If you’re too honest you stand to lose both money and legitimacy.

Anyone who says they’re immune to thoughts of the above is lying or amazingly naive. Yes, it affects you, but that doesn’t mean that it has to affect your podcast or writing in a negative way. We’re not all slaves to every passing inclination that tugs at us.

I can’t speak for anyone else. But here’s how I look at it:

I have ads on the site, and they’re about the only kind of ads I’d be happy with: they’re all great products. I check out new ones as they get added to the rotation. OK, I’m not making a salary from them, but I make enough to cover my costs for running the site, more or less. So the money I get for them is non-trivial.

I’ve considered that, since Squarespace are one of the ad buyers that show on my site, I might not want to say anything negative about them. I’ve considered it. But actually the decision I’ve always come to is that, if anything, I’d be more honest about Squarespace when I write about them. I mean, I have a post about moving off their service.

If Yoggrt started running ads from something I disagreed with, I’d remove the ads and take the hit to my wallet.

I imagine that most people are exactly the same, writers and podcasters alike. Of course, podcasters have to be even more behind the product, as they’re actively rather than passively promoting it. But it’s the same principle.

The onus is always on the reader/listener to synthesize information from multiple sources, if they’re really keen to know the truth about something. If you blindly trust that everything you read on the internet is true, you’re the one with the problem. Legitimacy should be something the readership confers, not a little ad box.

Money affects people. Is that such a big scoop? If only common sense was as influential.

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