Did Federated Media and Mike Arrington, Om Malik, Richard MacManus, Fred Wilson, Paul Kedrosky, Matt Marshall, and Mike Davidson cross an ethical line when they created a promotion for Microsoft’s “People Ready” campaign in which each of these well-respected publishers wrote what “People Ready” means to them?

Nick Denton said they did cross an ethical line. The issue is, of course, being hotly debated — as it should be. Trust is a publisher’s most important asset, if they want people to opt into reading and discussing what they publish.

But I don’t think this particular instance is a serious ethical breach. Why?

  • Everything is clearly labeled as “Sponsored by Microsoft.”
  • None of the publishers in question actually endorsed any Microsoft product or service — all they did was riff on the “People Ready,” tagline, but it’s pretty clear what’s going on. I don’t think anyone was manipulated or deceived, which I take to be the ethical standard.

That said, I do think this Microsoft promotion falls down in one critical respect — it creates very little value for Microsoft or for anyone who reads the blogs where the promotion ran as an ad unit.

Most of the blame falls on Microsoft and its ad agency — with all due respect, “People Ready” is a pretty dopey tagline — no wonder Federated Media sold them on a promotion where a bunch of smart publishers say what it means to them. But despite the effort, I still have no idea what it means!

So while none of the participants is guilty of deception along the lines of PayPerPost-like product endorsement, I do think they are guilt of not listening to that little voice that I’d guess probably spoke to all of them, saying, “This is ‘People Ready’ thing is stupid!”

Traditionally, there is no boundary that states when an advertiser has stupid creative for their campaign, you shouldn’t take their money and run the ad. But when they ask you to use your own name and voice to amplify the stupidity — well, perhaps there is a line there that shouldn’t be crossed.

Om Malik and Paul Kedrosky had the courage to admit they didn’t listen to the little voice telling them this was a bad idea. Fred Wilson still doesn’t think it was a bad idea, and I can respect that position as well. Richard MacManus takes the position that it’s all overblown (and the ethical aspect I agree is), then throws it open to comments — the comments on each of the participant’s blog post on this subject show the blogging medium at its best.

As Jeff Jarvis wisely states:

You must set your own boundaries and not let them be pushed. When you do — whatever those boundaries are — that is the very definition of selling out.

That’s the big takeaway for me — every online publisher needs to draw a dark line and be very careful not to cross it.