Anti-Ad Crusader Maria Popova Runs Affiliate Ads

Maybe you’ve heard of Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings website as it gets something like half a million views a month. The site mostly focuses on design, history, and literature (notably Susan Sontag as Popova falls over herself to discuss her) and has a pretty devoted following willing to donate to Popova on a regular basis. If you’ve only read one post on the site you’ll have noticed the large banner at the bottom of every post that reads “Donating = Loving…Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month.”* Or maybe you noticed the sidebar which includes a similar appeal. Or maybe you clicked the about or support pages, both of which also tout Popova’s willingness to provide a website free of advertisements.

Unfortunately for Popova an anonymous Tumblr has highlighted the fact that Popova places Amazon affiliate marketing links in all of her posts. Should anyone purchase the product indicated (or any other one) through the link Popova gets a cut of the sale. While affiliate marketing can be a effective way for a website to remain ad free in the traditional sense (e.g. no banners or text ads), by using affiliate links Popova doesn’t fully disclose her relationship anywhere on her site with Amazon and the potential  motives behind the links. She also doesn’t disclose she has access to data on what people who use the links purchase.

While I’m usually no fan of the federal government, the Federal Trade Commission has so-called “truth in advertising” rules which have three basic principles:

Endorsements must be truthful and not misleading;
If the advertiser doesn’t have proof that the endorser’s experience represents what consumers will achieve by using the product, the ad must clearly and conspicuously disclose the generally expected results in the depicted circumstances; and

If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed.

When these “revised” rules were released in 2009 they received pushback for essentially being “unworkable” and “government gone wild,” which are both true. Yet bloggers have traditionally made it clear when they use affiliate links and have been known to criticize those who don’t. So Popova deserves criticism for her unwillingness to see anything wrong with the affiliate links and her holier than thou attitude.

So while Popova may wish to claim it’s “the exact opposite of an advertising relationship” and has no influence on what she posts on the site (which is believable—at least in part—given that thousands of less preachy bloggers use the links in a reasonable manner) she has a responsibility to her readers to be forthright and honest about the relationships she has with Amazon.

*Side Note: She claims it takes a sum total of 450 hours a month to run Brain Pickings (200 for the site, 200 for the Twitter feed, 50 for the newsletter). That seems like an obscenely ridiculous number given an average 30 day month has 720 hours, which means if you combine her claim with an average of 8 hours a sleep a night she’d be spending over 14 hours a day on the site, or all but 1 and a 1/3 hours she’s awake. (29 nights x 8 = 232. 232+450 = 682. 720 – 682 = 38/30 = 1.26 repeating.) Popova has also said in the past that the Twitter feed is mostly pre-scheduled.

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Felix Salmon at Reuters has an excellent post on this whole affair. Like Salmon I don’t begrudge Popova for running affiliate ads, but rather for being opaque about her revenue streams versus her very public opposition to ads.

Two things of note from the story. This blog post highlights that Popova has been behind sleazy affiliate ad sites in the past, which are clearly advertisements and stand in stark contrast to her public stances on Brain Pickings. Additionally I missed the fact in her Twitter bio that she runs a second blog (along with her articles that appear on other sites) so her claims about how many hours spent on the site are clearly exaggerated. If Brain Pickings is her life (which it undoubtedly seems to be) she should be content to use that statement rather what are pretty clearly false numbers in soliciting donations.

As some people have pointed out Popova’s claims about how much it costs to run the site are incredibly high for what she cites. To quote the Reuters post:

For example, I don’t tell people how much it costs to actually run the site – which, when you add up web hosting, email newsletter delivery, the money I spend on books, TypeKit, VaultPress, proofreader, developer, designer, and various data plans, adds up to about $3,600 a month. That doesn’t include my hours which, if paid at minimum working wage – so if I were cleaning toilets instead of, say, poring through Edison’s diaries – would bring the total up to about $7,000 a month.

You can get top tier webhosting for less than $100 dollars a month. Typekit adds maybe $100 a month. I doubt she’s enterprise level VaultPress so another $40 a month. That’s only $280 dollars on stuff that’s easily guessable. Let’s say she pays her proofreader $15 dollars an hour/20 hours a week. $1480 dollars. I’ll stop now.

Here’s an interview from November in which she states she works for Lore, the company that publishes the other blog she edits. Given she states they’re her “employeer” I assume she gets paid by them, which seems to further destroy the 450 quote.

Dick Wisdom with an excellent old post on how Popova’s “curator’s code” was just a pretty much just a hand-wringing exercise to get more views to her site that she barely followed.

Notice a difference? Much nicer before when it all came from the users.

Before:

Before

After:

After

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