Today is Prime Day, an annual sale event for Amazon.com, the online service where you buy things. If you need headphones, groceries, or a bad Android tablet, you can likely find one at a discount today. Those discounts are made possible by a lot of things: Amazon’s need to drive memberships on their paid Amazon Prime service (you need to be a member to get the deals, after all!), the payments retailers make to Amazon for the privilege of being featured as a Prime Day deal, and by substantially underpaying workers while their CEO makes more money in a minute than most people make in multiple years. Because of that last bit, thousands of Amazon employees in Spain, Germany, and Poland are striking today.
If you follow the news at all, you’ve probably heard a lot about Prime Day. The salesmagedon event is being covered everywhere from local news websites to the New York Times. It feels like no one can escape the allure of writing about the Prime Day DEALS! Splinter, a dependably remarkable publication that rose from the ashes of Gawker and Fusion.com, has a fun screed against Amazon disguised as a buyer’s guide:
When the dehydrated monopolist eventually gives in to your demands, use your Jaminer lock-picking set to enter his grotesque mansion and reappropriate its massive halls for public use. While you’re at it, redecorate. It will likely take quite a few cans of Krylon K05160202 K05160207 Colormaster to paint this white house black.
But you are not monsters. You would not leave a man out in the cold. Fortunately for Jeff Bezos, the video “Tiny-House Shed Living: Tips and ideas” is available for free on Amazon Prime.
But, funny enough, if you go a couple posts down on the Splinter website, there’s another roundup of the best Prime Day deals, sans any witty political commentary or mention of sub-living wages. No one escapes the Prime Day coverage!
So: why is every media publication tripping over themselves to cover a glorified membership drive for a company, seemingly devoting much more coverage than when the same company sees massive worker demonstrations in three countries simultaneously?
Because covering Prime Day directly makes these publications money, and covering worker strikes does not!
I don’t mean this is a cynical “ahh people care more about sales than labor, so those posts will get more traffic” way (although that is likely true as well).
I mean literally that these posts make websites money.
Enter affiliate links: a growing source of revenue for online publishing at a time where a new source of income might as well be water in the desert.
Remember that Splinter post about Prime Day? It’s created by Kinja Deals, the e-commerce division of Splinter’s parent company that makes up some 25% of the company’s current revenue. The New York Times article? It links prominently and repeatedly to The Wirecutter, an aggregator that the Times bought a few years ago specifically for its use of referral links. Affiliate links are a massive, growing business for media companies.
But how do they work? Look at a post advertising Prime Day. Click on one of the links. If the site is using an affiliate link, the URL you clicked on isn’t just the normal product URL, it’s a special URL specifically for that post; it establishes that you are coming from whatever site you clicked the link on. And if you buy the product, the publisher of the article gets a cut of the purchase. Through sheer force of content creation (Kinja Deals makes a ton of post daily and syndicates them throughout the Kinja network of sites), sites can turn those tiny commissions into a massive business.
Now, use of referral links need to be disclosed to the reader. The Wirecutter, and Kinja Deals, and most of the other sites that use referrals do that. That’s not what’s weird here.
What’s weird is that the ability to make money off Prime Day through referrals is creating an incentive for publishers to aggressively cover Prime Day, which in turn contributes to the wealth of one of the world’s largest companies. How to cover a business when it also pays you is a strange balance on a good day; but the contradiction is heightened even further during this artificial holiday that exists purely to drive Amazon Prime memberships; especially when Amazon is dealing with bubbling criticism about its working conditions, employee compensation, and ballooning wealth of its chief executive.
This is a situation where the press could really move the needle by aggressively covering Amazon’s labor practices. Many outlets are doing that. But their credibility is hurt when they all take a break from their coverage of Amazon’s worker problems to highlight Amazon’s sales. Here’s a horrific injury a worker at Amazon endured, also please buy this Amazon half-off electric toothbrush because oh god this whole industry could collapse at any moment and we really need the commission.
Who really holds the power in that relationship? The massive corporation? The press outlet that covers that corporation while simultaneously needing its readers to buy products from that same corporation to stay financially viable? The answer is available for 30% off today.