Playing Dodgeball With Gawker -- and Other Cheap Thrills in the Big Blog Era

Why Major Brand Marketers Back Bloggy Mischief-Makers and Playground Bullies

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Remember when all you had to worry about from blogs was excessive snark? If you overdosed on the acid commentary, you could always just pop a few Tums or spend 10 minutes with the fluffy kittens on Cute Overload. (There -- all better.)

Now you might want to bring a flak jacket.

Consider what's been happening at the Gawker Media network of blogs, for instance. In its recent past, while it certainly enjoyed poking at the Establishment (especially the Establishment media), flagship blog Gawker tended to reserve its most surgical, sustained attacks for the little people -- self-promoting 20-something media types like Julia Allison (formerly of Time Out New York and Star) and her boyfriend-turned-ex Jake Lodwick (co-founder of Vimeo), who were conveniently already a part of Gawker's extended New York orbit. It sort of felt like playground bullying, except that Gawker was able to turn its serial torture of a select group of "Gawker-famous" types into a kind of reality soap opera. (And Allison, to her credit, parlayed her Gawker fame into a Wired magazine cover.)

But now? Gawker Media likes bigger targets -- much, much bigger ones. Apple , for one. After Gawker Media's Gizmodo blog paid for that notoriously "lost" iPhone prototype in the spring -- which caused Steve Jobs to go ballistic, prompting a police raid of Gizmodo Editor Jason Chen's home -- it's been gloves totally off.

Gawker racked up more than 900,000 page views with a recent story titled " Apple's Worst Security Breach: 114,000 iPad Owners Exposed" (some very determined hackers found a way to access the e-mail addresses of iPad owners) even though it was really an AT&T account information-storage problem. (After readers cried foul on the packaging, Gawker started to refer to it as "the AT&T iPad security breach.")

Meanwhile, Gawker's lately been hammering away endlessly at American Apparel -- the struggling maker of colorful cotton clothing for cool kids -- over its apparent sexy-and-skinny-people-only hiring practices, racking up hundreds of thousands of page views along the way.

American Apparel used to advertise on Gawker; aesthetically, the clothing is like Gawker Garanimals -- perfect for the readership. But now Gawker doesn't need American Apparel anymore -- and it doesn't even need Apple (an otherwise natural fit as a sponsor for wildly successful Gizmodo).

Gawker Media is privately held, mostly by its founder Nick Denton, and it doesn't reveal its earnings. But it's clear from the omnipresence of major brand marketers on its network of blogs, and its traffic -- 17.8 million monthly uniques and more than a quarter billion monthly page views -- that it's become a huge business. Huge enough to go toe-to-toe with Apple without really breaking a sweat.

Elsewhere in the margins of the big business of blogging -- a business Denton pretty much singlehandedly legitimized -- multimillion-dollar valuations are getting thrown around with increasing frequency. Gossip blogger Perez Hilton (n�e Mario Lavandeira) of, for instance, got an unsolicited buy-out offer last month of $20 million from Avid Life Media (the company that paid $20 million for back in early 2008).

It's worth noting that a couple weeks ago, all manner of blogs (including Gawker) were campaigning for Hilton to be jailed on child pornography charges because he tweeted an allegedly too-revealing "upskirt" paparazzi picture of 17-year-old Miley Cyrus (hosted on another site, not his own) that some said showed off her privates (the picture was quickly pulled from the web, but Hilton claims that Cyrus was, in fact, wearing underwear). There was some speculation that advertisers would bail on Hilton, but for the most part that doesn't seem to be happening.

Of course, Hilton has a long and shameful history of bullying his celebrity subjects (he called Cyrus a "Disney Whore" and "Disney Slut" when she was 15), crudely drawing genitalia on their photos, and even running hardcore pornography (last year he ran "leaked" photos of Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black having anal sex) -- so they know whom they're in bed with.

It's hard to believe that Establishment media companies like Viacom and Disney have been advertising on, but it's true -- Viacom for its MTV Networks and Disney's ABC for "The View" (which actually pulled its ads after the Cyrus upskirt-photo controversy -- but what the hell was "The View" doing backing Perez in the first place?).

This is the media word we now live in: The former playground bullies of the blog world have gone national, even global, and Establishment media players and marketers have no choice but to reckon with them, given that they're flush with cash and attract massive audiences. As always, it is more than a bit scary to watch playground bullies grow up and really start to throw their weight around.

Sometimes they wage interesting battles (honestly, the Gawker vs. American Apparel war has been great fun for us readers) and sometimes they just want to defile and degrade for kicks (arguably Perez Hilton's core brand proposition).

Either way, you can play ball with them -- or you can play dodgeball with them. Not that they'll give you a choice.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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