I'm lucky enough to have the opportunity to periodically get together with travel hackers around the country, whether it's at organized DO's, subscribers-only meetups, or spontaneous get-togethers while I'm traveling.
Almost invariably, the subject of affiliate bloggers comes up and someone will turn to me and say, "it was funny what you wrote about View from the Frugal Points Time, but when you meet him in person he's actually really nice."
I've heard this enough times now that it might be worth clearing some things up.
I'm not very nice (and I don't give advice)
I have met some nice people in my life, and I am somewhat in awe of them. You probably know the kind of person I'm talking about: people who always think before speaking, who are unfailingly polite, who seem to move through life leaving as small a wake as possible.
I'm not like that. I make snap judgments, I don't give people the benefit of the doubt, I take Donald Trump both literally and seriously. When readers offer to buy me a beer it doesn't occur to me to reciprocate.
I'm a jerk!
I also don't give advice. I go out every day and try to find ways to make myself and my readers miles, points, and cash. But all I know about my readers is that I don't know them well enough to give them, or anyone else, advice. So I don't.
I work for you
I suppose it must come across as corny to some readers, but when I say I work for you I'm not trying to be cute, I'm just explaining how this site works. I don't have affiliate managers breathing down my neck to get my conversions up. I don't have compliance managers telling me what I can and can't write and what font the terms and conditions have to be in. I get paid when people like my site enough to visit and subscribe.
The world is full of nice people trying to give you advice
Your Merrill Lynch stockbroker is a nice guy. He takes you and his other high-net-worth clients out for dinner (two entrée choices) a couple times a year to talk about market dynamics and the risks he sees in the year ahead. Then he churns your account and generates another commission.
Your insurance agent is definitely a nice guy. He listens very carefully to all your concerns about your health, your children's education, and your concerns about downsizing to a smaller house. Then he sells you a variable indexed annuity.
So it doesn't surprise me in the least that your affiliate blogger is a nice guy. He carefully responds to your questions and comments. He shakes your hand and looks you in the eye at Frequent Traveler University. Then he sells you a Chase Sapphire Preferred.
Being nice isn't enough
It may sound like I'm calling "being nice" some kind of stratagem or ruse people working on commission use to gain the trust of their clients in order to take advantage of them. But while there's some of that in the world, I don't profess to have any insight into the deepest recesses of either your stockbroker's or your affiliate blogger's soul.
The fact is that in the best case scenario your affiliate blogger is a nice guy who just happens to be in a line of work that requires him to put his interests before yours. Likewise there are coal mining engineers who got into coal extraction because they like being outdoors, not because they have anything against the ice caps.
I don't need to know anything about someone's heart of hearts to assess the impact of their choices on the world around them.
Disclosure isn't enough
Your stockbroker, your insurance agent, and your affiliate blogger are all required to disclose their conflicts of interest, and do so dutifully. The problem is that disclosure of conflicts of interest does not have any impact on the quality of the advice provided, and may perversely lead you to trust the conflicted party more, not less.
Let me be clear: the logical response to "I may be compensated based on your choice of mutual fund/insurance product/credit card" is not to discount the advice given by 10%, or 20%, or 50%.
The logical response is to discount the advice given by 100%.
If you are not the customer, you're the product
It's tempting to say that some bloggers are "ethical" while others are "unethical," but I personally find the question of ethics orthogonal to this discussion, since the requirements of ethics may be satisfied by "full disclosure" without improving the observed result of too many readers signing up for credit cards that benefit the affiliate blogger rather than the reader.
No, the problem of affiliate bloggers pounding the drumbeat of constant, mounting urgency each time a particular card or issuer offers them an increased payout can't be solved by resorting to ethical considerations. It can only be solved by judgment.
So I'm judgmental. Which, along with being rash, brash, and cheap, is yet one more reason why, unlike your favorite affiliate blogger, I'm not a very nice guy.