When Dunkin' Donuts spiked a coffee ad over bloggers' complaints that the scarf celebrity chef Rachael Ray wore in the ad resembled a Muslim keffiyeh, many observers marveled how such bombast on the blogosphere could make a corporation quiver.
The Massachusetts-based chain was flooded with angry e-mails stirred up by bloggers - notably Michelle Malkin, who lives in the Baltimore area and who operates one of the most-eyeballed conservative political blogs. The company denied the keffiyeh resemblance but decided not to get bogged down in some political row.
"In the ad that you reference, Rachael is wearing a black-and-white silk scarf with a paisley design that was purchased at a U.S. retail store," the company responded to bloggers. "It was selected by the stylist for the advertising shoot. Absolutely no symbolism was intended. However, given the possibility of misperception, we will no longer use the commercial."
Malkin relished the "victory" on her blog - "It's refreshing to see an American company show sensitivity to the concerns of Americans opposed to Islamic jihad and its apologists" - then recommended the doughnuts of another chain where she'd taken her child that morning in Towson.
"While we're on the subject of donuts, I highly recommend a visit to the Fractured Prune if you're lucky enough to have one in your neighborhood," Malkin wrote, with a link to the chain's Web site and its list of locations. "I took my newly-minted preschool graduate to the one in Towson to celebrate this morning. They specialize in hot, hand-dipped, made-to-order donuts that are pure heaven. Yummmmmm. No politics. Just sticky, sweet goodness fresh from the oven."
Folks at the Fractured Prune, a growing franchiser based in Ocean City, were thrilled at the mention but couldn't quantify whether they'd had an immediate bump in traffic, co-owner Sandy Tylor said. But a stamp of approval from a blogger with 15 million page views a month couldn't help but be a plus, she acknowledged.
The chain had received some other uncommon publicity recently when the local coastal paper ran an article about a U.S. Marine who carried a Fractured Prune Frisbee with him throughout Iraq as a reminder of the homefront. But a blogger recommending its baked goods to an audience of millions was something else entirely.
Blogs, particularly the most popular, have a profound ability to inform and influence consumers - a clout fraught with some ethical questions.
"Bloggers have this very personal voice, the unvarnished 'me,' and that's very powerful. It's almost like word of mouth," said Amanda Lenhart, who follows the form for the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a research group in Washington. She mentioned the product name-dropping on a popular blog called dooce, a personal journal by Heather Armstrong (whose claim to fame is she's regarded as the first person fired for blogging in 2002.)
"At the same time, blogging isn't necessarily grounded in the set of rules that the mass media are generally used to," Lenhart said. "It's a little bit muddier than the walls we've set up in the more mainstream media."
The mainstream media have long swayed consumer behavior - apart from the advertising side. When covering the opening of the first Apple store in the East years ago, I remember Steve Jobs seeming quite clingy to Walter S. Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal technology writer whose column can single-handedly propel a product's sale.
Ironically, while the mainstream media have often been accused of political bias in news coverage, product reviews were generally viewed as impartial and consequently carried a lot of weight.
Many bloggers are transparent about how they come across a product they're recommending, but they don't operate on the same plane as the media. There are no internal checks or codes of conduct about a blogger's product reviews.
Some companies or groups have even launched side blogs to convey grass-roots approval for their wares. Concerns about potential conflicts were raised a few weeks ago when Universal Music Group, the world's largest record label, invested millions in Buzznet, owner of the music blogs Idolator and Stereogum.
"Access to royalty-free audio and video streams from Universal could be another great asset for these blogs," Eliot Van Buskirk wrote on the tech news site Wired.com. "But they will not maintain their reputations if they start giving Universal artists special treatment or showing a bias against artists signed to competing labels. There's clear potential for a conflict of interest. It'll be interesting to see how Buzznet's new acquisitions navigate those tricky waters. Even the specter of bias could spell disaster."
Blogs have already demonstrated their potent currency in the marketplace of ideas.
Their ability to affect the marketplace of tangible goods could be another formidable power.
Andrew Ratner, a former technology reporter, is Today editor of The Sun.