Five years ago, the landscape of advertising and celebrity endorsements was a well oiled machine, and one that consumers were growing increasingly attuned to. Consumers these days are savvy enough to know that your favorite celebrity has been paid to appear at that event, that outfit was given to them in exchange for a Red Carpet plug, and that "paparazzi" shot is probably a planned photo op. As growing mistrust of traditional advertising became palpable, brands turned to a previously untapped source of credibility and authenticity: the blogger.

But as bloggers begin to expect compensation for their resources and their reach, and rightly so, the waters of the blogosphere are muddied and their credibility called into question. While bloggers, YouTubers and brands navigate the uncharted territory of sponsored content, consumers today are faced with the challenge of discerning who they can and can't trust. Does my favorite blogger genuinely like that product, or have they been paid to mention it? Quite likely, it's a mix of the two. And that's where things get complicated.

To address this phenomenon as it evolves, NaturallyCurly hosted a panel with representatives from each interested party: the blogger, the brand, and the consumer. Host, TextureMedia Inc. Co-Founder and President Michelle Breyer, led a discussion between blogger, YouTuber and TV personality Shannon Boodram, curly community member and consumer Jordan Maney, and Sundial Brands Co-Founder Richelieu Dennis (of SheaMoisture and Nubian Heritage). 

Much as NaturallyCurly did 15 years ago, the blogger platform arose as a solution to a consumer need and the desire of women to express themselves and connect with likeminded people. "That's how this started," says Dennis, "it was women helping women figure out how to solve their issues, particularly as it pertained to their hair." Not only have these women had a profound impact on their friends and followers, as the co-founder of a well-liked brand in the curly hair community Dennis acknowledges that "we should also realize that the brands that have been impacted and helped by the bloggers and vloggers stand to benefit considerably." And he feels this relationship goes both ways, "bloggers themselves have benefited in terms of becoming more known, having some celebrity and being impacted in ways that have also advanced their experience. All in all I think it's been a very symbiotic relationship but I do see that that's started to change."

One of the biggest changes and indeed the hottest topic in the arena today is the question of compensation. TextureMedia Inc. President Michelle Breyer says "we know brands are compensating bloggers and vloggers, we know an increasing number of bloggers and vloggers are wanting compensation. How does that affect the message?"

Curly hair guru Shannon Boodram says the message should still be intact. "I look at it as you're paying for the amount of effort that I put in, but I'm not feeling influenced because I'm doing my brand a service and my audience a service no matter what I choose to say about the product." Dennis and Boodram are on the same page here, "one of the things that has always troubled me, is you have bloggers and vloggers that dedicate their time, dedicate their resources... and these brands have been very successful based on the work that they've done. Me personally I feel it's unfair that they don't participate in the financial rewards of doing that role," though he acknowledges that his personal view differs to others on the brand side of this exchange. So what the brand is really paying for here is not a positive review, but rather "direct access to a market" Boodram says, "and with that, authenticity is the currency - that's what you're providing in exchange."

This model challenges a lifetime of learned consumer behavior - if a positive review has been paid for, how do we know that review was not made under the influence? When giving product recommendations is a personal hobby, and one that you originally did for free, there's a fine line between promoting a product you love, and being paid to promote a product. However Boodram argues it's not a fine line, but "a huge gaping hole."

She compares it to television advertising in which actors are paid to promote a product, "you know she's a paid actress so her credibility is null and void, so once [a blogger] crosses that line of being a puppet, you no longer really have a voice as a blogger. You should now be on television in the commercials." If bloggers and professional actors are both being paid to perform the same service, what is the difference? Boodram points out that advertising in magazines is required to divulge that it is paid advertising, "if [bloggers] are going to feign authenticity... if you're sort of muddling the two, then you're not doing your service at all." To further complicate matters, blogs and YouTube are composed of many different personalities - that is what we love about them - so not every blogger or YouTuber will approach this issue in the same way.

As brands and bloggers work together to find the balance between sponsored endorsements and genuine opinion, it is the consumer that is left to discern for themselves the difference between the two. Luckily, Michelle Breyer feels that as a "savvy consumer, and I believe most women with curly and coily hair are a very savvy consumer, they can figure out if someone's being authentic or not."

You can view the full panel discussion on YouTube and decide for yourselves: do you feel the act of paying for sponsored content on blogs and YouTube diminishes the authenticity of that medium? 

Watch the Panel