An Abbott iPhone app is drawing attention to the practice of compensating bloggers for app reviews, as some call into question the ethics of pay-for-play PR.

Missy Berggren, whose Marketing Mama blog is prominent in Minnesota’s parenting blogosphere (they’d actually just as soon you didn’t call them “mommy bloggers,” thanks very much), broke the story with a post last week which discussed Abbott’s Similac StrongMoms Baby Journal iPhone App. Berggren argued that the app slyly preys on parents’ fears to privilege formula over breastfeeding.

Blogged Berggren: “You know what else is concerning? The way Similac is marketing the app. I found out about it because a number of parenting bloggers are writing reviews of it. Paid reviews. The first two I read were by moms who had breastfed previously. I counted at least 10 blogger reviews by searching on Google for ‘Similac phone app.’”

All, she noted, were followed by following disclosure: “Note: I was compensated for my time in writing this post by Collective Bias. However, all opinions are honest and my own.” Collective Bias is a Bentonville, AR-based “social shopper marketing company.”

BNET blogger Jim Edwards spotted a similar grassroots effort for Novartis’s WheresFlu app for Theraflu. Edwards didn’t think much of the app, but found a bevy of posts extolling the virtues of the app, each followed by the disclaimer: “This is a sponsored post through the MomTrends Blogger Outreach Program for WheresFlu.”

Collective Bias declined to comment “for reasons of client confidentiality,” even to discuss their business model. MomTrends did not return reporter emails.

Berggren told MM&M the issue is an emotional one for many bloggers.

“There are many bloggers who work from home, and this is how they put food on the table,” said Berggren, who heads brand management for a big Minnesota hospital system when she’s not blogging. “They feel that they’re offering their unbiased views, that there should not be any question that the company should compensate us for our time and that there’s nothing unethical about that.”

The posts appear to be in line with FTC guidance (.pdf) concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials. Under revised FTC guidelines issued in late 2009, any connection between the endorser and the seller of a product “that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement” must be “clearly and conspicuously” disclosed. The guidance specifically said bloggers must issue prominent disclosures and manufacturers must advise them of their responsibility to do so.

Berggren is a member of the BlogHer Network, which claims to reach 20.5 million unique users a month and “curates an ad network of 2,500 bloggers via best-of-breed editorial guidelines.” BlogHer bloggers can opt in to hear about advertising opportunities or, through the company’s review program, receive email pitches that may offer compensation ranging anywhere from $5 to $150. Berggren recently received a pitch on the high end of that scale from a cosmetics company to review an eye cream.

“Nobody ever says you have to talk nicely about it, and then you get paid,” she said.

These budding social media marketing networks are arguably making the blogosphere more transparent. Abbott told Pharmalot’s Ed Silverman that it used Collective Bias in part to ensure disclosure.

Berggren recently blogged, unprompted and uncompensated, a restaurant review for a kid-friendly local café she’d visited and liked. She soon got an email from BlogHer. “They said you need to make a very clear statement about whether you were or were not compensated,” said Berggren. “We’re being asked to be that transparent.”

Berggren’s beef with the Abbott app isn’t about the compensated posts, but rather with the way she sees the app subtly undermining new mothers’ confidence in breastfeeding to sell formula.

“I think the story is the fact that a formula company is targeting breastfeeding moms through an app,” she said. “That’s the part that feels shady to me.”