Sponsor Relations: Unshelved and Tutor.com

A minor brouhaha about webcomic advertising: On Monday, Unshelved put up a post explaining how they found their latest sponsor, an online tutoring service.

I told her we had been writing a sequence about online homework help, and she asked if she could sponsor it. If you think about it, that’s kind of brave. They were asking to pay to sponsor, sight unseen, a sequence of strips essentially roasting their product and the people who use it.

Except, having read this week’s strips, it’s far from a roasting. Take, for example, Tuesday’s, which is basically a plug for the product category. (I think perhaps we have different associations for the term “roasting”.)

Dave Carter sees the combination as selling out, questioning whether the strip’s editorial content is still independent of its ads. He seems to me to be jumping to conclusions, but his post does illustrate an important principle: it’s all about perception. It doesn’t matter whether or not you wrote your comic before or after you signed the ad deal — what matters is what your readers think. At that post, commenters say that they didn’t notice the combination or that they trust the creators, so they don’t see a problem.

The creators of Unshelved responded yesterday. I think it would have been stronger if they had simply stood on their policy instead of trying to convince readers they did nothing wrong. Point two, in particular, I find less than compelling — paraphrased, it’s “we’re not sucking up to our sponsor specifically, just all companies in their industry”. But I welcome their openness and I’m glad they answered the charge. It’s reassuring, and I’ll keep reading.

Update: A final statement from the creators sums up the reactions they received:

My favorite emails were the ones that said if we were trying to use our strips to promote this week’s sponsor we were doing a damned poor job at it. However, a small minority was uncomfortable. That’s mostly the word people used – they weren’t angry or upset, they weren’t accusing us of malfeasance. They were just… uncomfortable.

… So the lesson I’ve learned is simply to be more conservative. If we find ourselves having to explain why something we did is okay, we should probably rethink things. Because most people won’t sit around for the explanation.

That’s a pretty good philosophy for lots of things.

Similar Posts: Congratulations to Unshelved § Unshelved on Internet vs. Library § Unshelved: Book Club § Unshelved § Unshelved: Read Responsibly

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