The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
July 30, 2009

Blogher ’09 and The Story of Stuff

What have you heard about #BlogHer09 so far? Stories are circulating around the web that the conference is no longer about connection and content and community and is instead all about sponsors and swag and greed. Check out this damning video by a Chicago writer who worked at the Pepsico booth for a few days. Read Jessica Gottlieb’s followup interview with him. Another blogger asks, “BlogHer ’09: Does Swag Pervert the Purpose?” and a disenchanted blogger I met at the Saturday night cocktail party posts a crazy photo of all the plastic swag she picked up.

Here are just a few of the big vendors represented at BlogHer09:


But lest you think I’m above all this, let me tell you a little story.

A (Fake Plastic) Fish Out of Water

For two weeks before BlogHer, I was staying up late and running around like mad trying to finish up projects and prepare for the trip. Finding out I had won the style consultation with Tim Gunn only accelerated the frenzy. Oh crap. Not only did I have to worry about what to bring, but I now had to think about whether it was stylish enough! I didn’t think I cared about such things, but somehow I got sucked in.

I got no sleep Wednesday night. I got to the airport late and had no time to eat anything but a muffin before boarding the plane. I refused all the snacks on Southwest because they are crappy and of course wrapped in plastic. After taking the train from the airport to the hotel, I arrived at the Chicago Sheraton exhausted and famished. In a word, depleted.

I needed a nap and a shower. Instead, I ended up at a BlogHer cocktail party with a glass of wine in my hand and then whisked off to dinner with my friends Jennifer (The Smart Mama) and Sommer (Green and Clean Mom) and Lyne from Ecostore USA, where I consumed more alcohol, the effects of which I tried hard to mitigate with food. Arriving back at the hotel (after freaking out a cab driver with Jen’s new tattoo) we made our way to the People’s Party (alcohol and swag) and the 704 Party (alcohol and swag.) And while I either missed out on swag (arriving too late) or refused swag that was offered, I never passed up an opportunity to drink. Finally, during a conversation with Sommer, I realized that my head was spinning and that if I didn’t leave the group immediately, I was going to fall on the floor.

Not the best way to start a conference and not the greenest situation either. To say I got sick is an understatement. I don’t think I’ve been that wretchedly sick from alcohol since I was in college and my dad was standing in my bedroom doorway saying, “Good! I’m glad you’re sick. I hope you remember this feeling for the rest of your life.” Well, I guess I remembered it for 24 years and then forgot this weekend. I refused the plastic spear for my martini olives only to end up with a plastic bottle of Pepto Bismol that my roommate Micaela (Mindful Momma) was kind enough to run out and get for me.

So why am I telling you this story? Because I feel like overconsumption is overconsumption. Whether we’re stuffing ourselves full of conference swag or too much food or too much alcohol, this need to fill the empty void inside us comes from the same place. And that’s what I want to explore.

How Do We Know Who We Are?

How many of us know who we are? What our core values are? I wish I had not arrived at the conference so depleted. I wish I had not in fact lost some of who I am in the frenzy leading up to BlogHer. Perhaps I could have attended sponsor parties without feeling defensive. Without feeling I needed to protect myself from aggressive marketers who saw me as prey and from aggressive bloggers who saw me as competition for swag. These were my perceptions. Other women had a completely different experience. I wish I hadn’t missed the opportunity to interact with the women grabbing swag bags and ask them how having all this stuff made them feel.

Because until we understand who we are and the needs that drive us to seek more, more, more we will never (I fear) get out from under The Story of Stuff. Marketers understand this. It’s their job. They get paid to exploit the fear and emptiness that we all feel occasionally (and some of us feel all the time) and to offer their brand of comfort. A new phone. A new plastic toy. A new color of eye shadow. A new backpack. A new pair of jeans. New new new new new new new STUFF. And yet we never get filled. We just want more.

Lynn Miller from Organic Mania succumbed to the barrage of swag without even intending to! She wrote about her swag experience and a bit of regret in her post, “Greenies in Blogherland: SwagHer“. She writes,

Aside from the environmental implications of all “that stuff” we really don’t need, the other major impact of “SwagHer” was that for many women, all that time lining up to get into swag suites came at the expense of deeper conversations with the women we commune with online everyday. It’s sad that so many women left Blogher bemoaning the fact that they didn’t have time to really talk and connect with the women they met. What were we doing?

I ended up with a bit of swag myself:

  • Born To Blog T-shirt
  • Coupon for a free pair of Gap jeans (not yet used, although I probably will use it)
  • 2 bags of soapnuts
  • Canvas tote and note pad from iVillage
  • Flash memory drive from Bounce (I returned the garishly scented sample of Bounce to the vendor)
  • Bamboo cleaning cloth and biodegradable bamboo wipes from Scotch.

This list is extremely modest compared to what most bloggers went home with. But that’s only because I was on my toes the whole time, refusing offerings as often as others were accepting them, and evaluating swaggetry based on personal criteria I’d already established. So while I too felt buffeted by advertising messages in the lobby, in the elevators, in the hallways, and in the sessions (Even the Green Session was sponsored by Michellin) I didn’t have to think twice about whether or not to believe those marketing messages or to accept their products. Why? Because I have already defined my standards.

We have the power to change the world. Why aren’t we using it?

Even before the Blogher conference, women had been writing about feeling overwhelmed by pressure from PR reps to accept and write about products. In fact, Momdot (a site for moms who blog, apparently) tossed out a controversial PR Blackout Challenge to members of their community so women bloggers would take a break from the stress of having to write product reviews. And in the Bogher Green Session I attended on Saturday, one of the women complained that she was on a first-name basis with the UPS driver who delivered products to her house every day to review.

My reaction: Huh? This really happens? I get pitches from PR reps every single day, and most of them I delete because they are not relevant to this blog. And while I do review and promote a few products that I believe in, I certainly don’t post my shipping address on my blog so companies can send stuff whenever they want. In fact, I actively ask for samples of products to review when I feel that they are important for Fake Plastic Fish readers to know about. And I certainly don’t feel compelled to write a positive review if I think the item actually sucks.

As bloggers, we have incredible power! We have a voice that people listen to. We have a platform. And the fact that so many big companies are willing to sponsor an event like BlogHer and court bloggers at such an event proves it. So why are we willing to give up this tremendous power that we have — power to help create a better world — to sell out for a few trinkets? Why aren’t we using the power that we have to demand BETTER products for ourselves and our children? Why do we accept the PR pitches at face value? Why aren’t we questioning every single promotion we receive and challenging the status quo?

Who Are You As A Blogger?

If you have a blog, please ask yourself these questions:

1) Who am I as a blogger? What is my purpose for writing?
2) Do I have a mission? If so, what is it?
3) What does my ideal world look like? How can I use my blog to help realize that ideal?
4) Who is my audience? Why do they read my blog? How can my blog help them (and me) to be our best selves?
5) Do I really want to do product reviews?
6) If not, do I sometimes do them even if I don’t want to? Why? Where does the pressure come from? How can I just say no?
7) If I do product reviews to receive merchandise, trips, or fees, do I fully disclose any and all compensation (including contest entries) I receive?
8) How does the free stuff make me feel? Is it in line with my core values? Or does the stuff take the place of other things I am missing in my life? Connection with other people and the planet? (Just asking!)
9) How can reviewing products help to create the world I want to see?
10) If I choose to review products, what are my standards? How do I know if a product is truly safe for me, my family, and the environment? What 3rd party resources can I check to verify that a product is truly green and not simply green-washed?

What Can BlogHer Do To Get Back To Core Community Values?

Here are a few suggestions for BlogHer. What else do you guys have to add?

1) Less Luxury. We understand that sponsors are important in order to keep conference fees affordable and to be able to offer scholarships. But does the conference need to be held in such a luxurious hotel? Couldn’t BlogHer keep costs down and reduce the need for big sponsors like Pepsi and Walmart and Proctor & Gamble by holding BlogHer at a more modest venue and focusing more on human connections and content?

2) No Branded Sessions. As @JMcNichols tweeted during the conference, “The sponsors don’t bother me. Brand every chair if you want. What bothers me is the sponsored programming. Not what I’m here for. #blogher09″ We could have done without 15 minutes of Michellin promotion at the start of the Green/EcoBlogging Session.

3) Stand up to Swag. The Green Team put together a list of green swag ideas that were presented to the vendors. But we were also told that the list was just suggestions and that the vendors were still free to bring what they wanted. Why? If we have so much power, why are there no rules for the kinds of swag vendors can bring and how they can present it? Why was there a huge plastic Mr. Potato Head toy in every official Blogher swag bag, even for women who don’t have kids?

4) Sunday Swag Recycling. It would have been nice to have had a swag recycling area open on Sunday morning. That’s the time many women are packing to leave and realizing they have too much stuff. I’ll bet many of them would have made use of a Sunday morning swag area.

5) Don’t Promote Unofficial Parties. I realize BlogHer was trying to be helpful by sending us a list of the unofficial parties (aka swag feeding frenzies) taking place during the conference. But since Blogher has no control over what happens in these parties, the organization would be wise not to promote them.

6) Sponsor-Free Swag-Free Track. There are many bloggers who write for the love of writing. Or to promote a social cause. Or to connect with others around a common issue. They may or may not accept advertising, but promoting products is not the main focus of their blogs. It would be great to have a track dedicated to Authenticity. Finding our authentic voices. Discovering what our values are as bloggers. Writing well. Developing leadership. Realizing our true power. Naked and unbranded.

I have more to say about BlogHer09 and about my trip to Chicago. But that’s enough for now. I had a lot of fun with my blogging buddies and would love to share some of those experiences as well as my personal plastic-free and plastic-full moments. I’ll write about that stuff next week. Just wanted to get the major issue out of the way.

And ironically, I’m hosting another product give-away here tomorrow. But please don’t roll your eyes. It’s a different kind of give-away.
 

27 comments
Condo Blues
Condo Blues

OK, I want to know who was giving out the free cats? :)

Aurora
Aurora

great post! I found the swag at the san francisco blogher last year bad enough--and even then it seemed very much a corporate co-opted conference. I spent 9 months with a pledge of "buy nothing new"--that sure raises your consciousness about over consumption ! and how easy it is to be sucked in...but I found myself wondering how much of the stuff I would have accepted at this conference---since it was "free"--even tho I know nothing is really "free": no such thing as free lunch. Getting in bed with corporations is not solving anything,as far as I am concerned---womenc ertainly can network without their help! and hopefully the next blogher will consider this--or maybe we need to start a different conference with different values?

cv harquail
cv harquail

Beth, thanks so much for mentioning my post about swag "Perverting the Purpose" of BlogHer09. The suggestions you offer in this post are just terrific, because they are practical AND get BH back to its core values. I especially like the ideas to focus on writing and also on community outreach. Great job, thanks so much.CV HarquailAuthenticOrganizations.com

Condo Blues
Condo Blues

{sarcasm}SoapNuts? You got SoapNuts! I wanted to check with them if they would work in my HE washer. I mean, go to the swagalious Soap Nuts party and get as much stuff as I could. Next, year I'm bringing a battering ram to get through the crowds and grab me some more stuff.{/sarcasm} Seriously though, one of the good things that is coming out of this swag hag situation is that its making a lot of non enviro people think and talk about how it's just too much. I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with this companies about their green (and not so) products more than just getting stuff. I wish the swag recycling was open later because I took home a lot of junk than I wanted to.

Anne-Marie at This Mama Cooks!
Anne-Marie at This Mama Cooks!

Beth, the BlogHer conference has always tried to walk the fine line between affordable and commercial. This year, unfortunately the scale tipped too much towards commercial and the promises that were kept successfully last year about recycling, helping out bloggers financially with the swamp meet, etc. didn't work out this year. But knowing the BlogHer team, they are listening and will make adjustments next year.As far as Less Luxury goes, I've been suggesting to BlogHer for years to have the conference on a college campus in the middle of nowhere (Montana? Ohio? Colorado?). We could call it BlogHer University, stay in the dorms, have picnics and cookouts on the lawn, have plenty of lecture halls to accomodate everyone who wanted to attend a session - and probably make it more affordable, too. Yes, it's fun to go to the big cities, but I'd rather hang out by the pool as we did at Blogher06, get to know people one on one, and not be distracted by fancy parties and restaurants.

Linda
Linda

I watched the video on your blog and was sickened when he said that the recycling boxes (at BlogHer Pepsi) with their contents were just thrown in the trash. If it happened like he said, Pepsico lied. There were a lot of these recycling boxes in their expo area. Maybe they want us to think they are doing the green thing, but when everyone leaves, they do what is convenient, rather than what is green. This makes me wonder, can they really be trusted? Are we naive for thinking that Pepsico agreeing not to hand out bottled water is a big victory?Linda A of Citizen Green

Diane MacEachern
Diane MacEachern

Beth,Women have to wake up and smell the (organic) coffee - or in this case, smell the swag and leave it alone! If we'd only stop foaming at the mouth over free junk companies would be forced to produce products and services with real value. We have the power to change the world. We should start acting like it. Harrummpph!

Green Bean
Green Bean

Great post, Beth. As you know, since we were there together, I went to BlogHer 08. I honestly left feeling sick to my stomach. So much of the focus was on stuff and commercialism and more stuff. Is that what we are all blogging for? What I write, is in many ways, an opening into my soul. Am I doing this to get some cheap crap for free.We as women need to figure out who we are and what we want out of life. With a little self examination, I'll be the answer is not a big Mr. Potato Head.

Erika
Erika

I'm really glad for your BlogHer 09 review. I had thought about attending, but having gone to many conferences for previous jobs, I had a pretty good idea what the experience would be like. Looks like I was right, sad to say.

kmevans74
kmevans74

I'd like to say, I particularly like what you said under "Who are you as a blogger," and I feel you can really extend it to say "who are you as a person." This summer, your blog inspired me to make big changes in our lifestyle. I started a diary using the same questions you posted, and I started writing a "mission statement" for myself. Without the mission statement, I would buy things I didn't need, and I had a long list of "wants" for the house that added extra stress to my life. It's amazing how such a simple statement gives me the backbone and confidence to become a smart shopper, and ulitmately simplify my life. I tend to hoard, store, and buy things when they are on sale even when I don't need them, and the mission statement is helping me get past that. Thank you for giving me the direction I need--you have become my own little cognitive behavioral therapist!

daharja
daharja

Hi Beth.I've been debating for a while now whether to add my blog to BlogHer.After reading this, I'm not sure I want to be anything to do with it.It just sounds like another means by which women are made to look like fools and exploited.Thanks for the thoughtful discussion of the event, and the serious questions you posed about it.Cheers,Daharja (Cluttercut)

Undersharing
Undersharing

BlogHer really isn't my scene and I don't plan on going, but I can see how annoying these things can be. Don't beat yourself up too much- you got to meet Tim Gunn! Michelin isn't the most unlikely sponsor for the green talk. I've been rollin' happy on their tires for thousands of car-free miles on my bike with minimal flats. That, right there, is one of the things that keeps a biker un-frustrated and happy ;)

shot in the arm
shot in the arm

Beth,Glad you got home okay!I can't believe out of everything you found that you found soapnuts. I've been wanting to try those since you blogged about them ages ago but keep forgetting to look for them at the store!mel :) Thanks for spending part of your day with me!

Binary Blonde
Binary Blonde

Great post! I wish I could say what you said so eloquently. :)Also, that's me.. naked and unbranded. And I plan to keep it that way, too. I've had myriad opportunities to accept items and advertising for stuff, but if I wouldn't use my own money to buy it for me or my child, I don't accept it. So far, that means I've accepted a grand total of... nothing. :)Both my husband and I try our best to live a clutter-free lifestyle. And I gotta say.. I have never been happier.

Brenna
Brenna

I am so pleased to read this post. It really is amazing what lengths people will go to for something for free. I have recently come to the conclusion that if it is worth having, I can get it myself, and if it's just free cheap crap, it's still cheap crap you have to deal with when you get home.I would love to meet some of the green bloggers, but am not sure BlogHer would be for me...

Max
Max

Have you figured out what needs to be done about the "plastic" problem? I was in the hospital the other day and almost everything was made of plastic...we do live in the plastic age. Wouldn't it be great if we could have the convenience of plastic and plastic that wasn't harmful to us and the environment? Is that possible? I believe it can be if consumers demand that any plastic they use be (1) recyclable, (2) biodegradable. Plastic products need to be designed to meet a cradle to cradle design. They should be something that provides utility and when its useful life is over it returns to the earth as a safe harmless substance. On the other hand...maybe we can't...as long as we have greed.Maxhttp:///www.ensobottles.com

Amber
Amber

Thanks for sharing your perspective. I haven't made it to BlogHer yet, but when I do I will be sure to keep them in mind and think before I swag. ;)And I'm with you on the product reviews.

Lisa Sharp
Lisa Sharp

I honestly after hearing some of the BlogHer stories I'm not sure I will ever go. I'm now wanting to go to Green Fest. Also I totally agree with your way of handling PR. That is what I do. I always look in to a company and what they sell before agreeing and turn down lots of people. It's crazy how some PR people don't seem to even read our blogs before e-mailing.I'm already careful about what free stuff I review but I'm going to start being even more so.

Fake Plastic Fish
Fake Plastic Fish

Virginia, I wish I had met you in person! I did recognize you across a crowded room at one point and then was sidetracked into something else.Yes, I surely did get some great things from the experience, which I plan to write about in more detail on Monday. It was fabulous to meet up with other bloggers whom I had only known online and to support them during the green panel. But I recognize that I didn't get as much out of the conference as I could have because of the unfortunate way I started the conference off. Which is why I am trying not to place blame in the post but to analyze the situation objectively. Thanks for the tweet!

Virginia
Virginia

I didn't go to any of the parties and barely hit the Expo floor except to look for the swag recycling area. So I had a very different experience from yours. But your observations on the experience you and many others had is one of the most thoughtful I've seen.My experience was more about connecting with people and talking about issues that interest me. I hope you got some of that out of the conference somehow, because there are some awesome women in BlogHer.

Crunchy Domestic Goddess
Crunchy Domestic Goddess

Thanks for this post, Beth. I was wondering what you would take away from Blogher in this regard. I rejected a lot of swag myself and still ended up with enough to fill a duffel bag. Some of it I probably shouldn't have taken home (did my kids really need another Potato Head?), but I did get a little caught up in the "free stuff." I totally agree that the recycling center should have been open on Sunday morning and, ideally, been located either in the lobby or right outside the ballroom. I feel it needed to be a lot more visible for people to take advantage of it. Interestingly enough, I heard rumors that some of the women were actually going to the recycling center to get what others had rejected - specifically they were looking for the Strawberry Shortcake dolls. I don't know why, but this surprised me. I guess as they say, one person's trash (recyclables) is another person's treasure. I hope that with some work we can green up Blogher next year and I'd also certainly be open to the idea of attending a green conference, though I don't know that I could plan one myself. It was wonderful to meet you. :) I hope you are over your cold soon.

Kellie
Kellie

Beth, I'm so happy to see the iVillage bag in there. I work for iVillage (er, "independent contractor" in case my boss reads this, lol) and am thrilled to know that we brought something that made it into your green swag pile!I promised myself last year that I'd make it to BlogHer '09, but alas, money got in the way. I did read each and every tweet from my boss though and thought some great points about "connection and content and community" were made. That's what iVillage is all about and it's my understanding that we'll be benefiting from much of the information that was shared there.Did the swag overshadow the information? I guess I can't say from a personal experience, but I have seen the photos and I'd have to vote for less of it.Let's hope there were no Michelin Man keychains this year!

Farmer's Daughter
Farmer's Daughter

I didn't attend Blogher, and I guess it was a good thing. I get annoyed by the plastic-bagged free newspaper that arrives on my driveway a few times a week. I didn't order it, I don't want it!

Lynn from OrganicMania.com
Lynn from OrganicMania.com

Beth, This post was worth waiting for. I think you've raised some very good questions, although we can't forget BlogHer is not a "green conference." It is a venture-funded business that aims to empower women economically - so the sponsorships from Pepsi and P&G, the luxe hotel, etc. are all signs of the success of BlogHer. I think we'll see even more of this next year. That said, I think the conference could be run much more sustainably and with sponsors that offer more (or less) for the green audience. Wouldn't it be awesome if Whole Foods had a suite with organic food and recycled wares of the type they sell in their stores? The women who run BlogHer are reflecting on all this. I've sent an email directly and tweeted with @ElisaC, and she's blogged about the feedback they've received. I have two other thoughts:1. There is the issue of "green swag." In my "other life" (non-blogger) I work with companies that are trying to be greener. Many of these companies have products that replace more toxic or less sustainable alternatives, and they're looking for ways to reach women bloggers. For them, giveaways and so forth are a very powerful marketing tool, and I support them. That said, there are very fine lines here that many people are struggling with - how much is too much? 2. For a blogging conference, there was more tweeting than blogging going on. I'd like to see BlogHer emphasize more BLOGGING. Wouldn't it have been cool if they awarded a prize (even if was just a goofy web badge) for best post to come out of each session? Think about the creative competition that would have ensued! Maybe women would have gone into a "quiet room" to blog their experiences rather than just out to party. As grandma always said, "everything in moderation." I liked the fact that BlogHer was very diverse - more diverse than the press coverage lets on. However, you've captured the overwhelming sense of the conference. It was a shock to many who came looking for something quite different. I appreciate you quoting from my post - I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. Thank you.Lynn

J Kingsbury
J Kingsbury

Thanks for writing about BlogHer '09 in your usual thoughtful, in-depth way. I was feeling out of the loop, not even having known about blogher, let alone being able to go. There are so many people I tweet with that I'd love to meet in person, so that would be a big draw for me. You've painted a great picture of the highs (few so far) and lows - typical of many such events I attended in my marketing days. Only without a hint of green.

Citizen Green
Citizen Green

Well said, Beth!! I agree with you all the way. It was my first BlogHer but I really expected more networking and community and was surprised by the swag. I really enjoyed myself anyway because I met many green bloggers. Thanks so much for allowing me to hang out with you and other members of the Green Team. You were so sweet and accepting and I appreciate it.Linda A at Citizen Green

David@TheGoodHuman
David@TheGoodHuman

Thank you so much for writing this. I was Twittering about this the entire time the event was going on, saying that so many attendees were pimping corporate products and BS all day long. Blogher, while I dont attend, just sounds like another event owned by corporations and pretending to be "for" the people attending - when it is anything but. Thanks Beth, for shining that light.