Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Publicity Machine

It has recently become blatantly obvious that a number of well-known food bloggers in Melbourne, and no doubt elsewhere, have been contacted by publicity agencies and/or the publicity departments of major corporations. To their credit, I am aware of this because the arrangements have been disclosed. I am not accusing anyone of underhand cash-for-comment type behaviour, such as that which necessitated US FTC action. I will note, though, that the disclosure is invariably at the end of the blog post and in small, italicised (i.e. Less obvious) formatting.

I do have a few problems with these arrangements.

Firstly, from a reader’s perspective: the same food bloggers are now all blogging about the same things. I don’t want to read much the same post again and again.

Said bloggers came to my attention because they were articulate and original. They went to places that had perhaps less well-known because PR companies had not been involved, and raised awareness of cafes and restaurants to online readers in an honest, refreshing and genuinely novel manner. Real people, real places, real thoughts and real opinions. If not cafe and restaurant reviews, then it is product reviews.

This ethos is missing from so many recent posts, which now read like press releases or infomercials of the sort that I avoid as a non-commercial-TV viewer.

In at least one case, a blogger’s backgrounder/review mysteriously used near-identical wording to that on a product website, without attribution. At best this is lazy, at worst it is deceptive.

The bloggers’ sine qua non - of doing what everyone else wasn’t doing, and writing with both brain and heart - has gone.

If I want to read sponsored reviews (i.e. Reviews not properly named - let’s call them ads), I’ll look at a corporate website.

Secondly, these arrangements run the risk of bias. A lot of studies have been done on the medical profession, where corporate sponsorship has reached its zenith, and however much doctors think they are free from influence, this is often not the case. In the US, the problem is now recognised to be so serious that drug companies have, following extreme scrutiny, volunteered to stop giving doctors everything from pens to free dinners.

Is it really reasonable to believe that this sort of thing doesn’t influence people? Corporations need to pay attention to their bottom line - they wouldn’t have massive PR and advertising budgets if it didn’t work.

You may receive a packet of X from a company, but with no other products to compare it with, how is the reader supposed to know whether that product X really is worth buying? These reviews virtually constitute market manipulation/anti-competitive practices.

Moreover, it’s particularly egregious when the skew is in favour of massive multinational corporations who really don’t need a bigger market share, and should stop being such cheapskates and pay for some proper advertising instead of co-opting civilians.

I think the only time that a blogger has done a product review in a way that didn’t destroy all credibility they had, was Cindy and Michael’s couscous experiment - I was delighted to see that a more scientific (and unbiased) approach was taken, at their own expense. I took their opinions with less salt, so to speak, and I place more importance on what they have said since.

Reading food blogs has become a less pleasant activity. I’m learning less, I’m enjoying it less, and I’m not as inspired by my peers. The best I can say about bloggers’ disclosures is that they are red flags, and indicate that I perhaps shouldn’t bother reading.


Cindy said...

Yes, I'm similarly getting pretty sick of seeing 10 posts about precisely the same event! Much more fun to read unique accounts of local discoveries. :-)

Michael and I have thought about and discussed if/when/how to accept and blog freebies many times. It can be fun and flattering to be offered things but it definitely carries a risk of skewing your opinion, consciously or otherwise. It's important to me that we don't promote anything on our blog that we wouldn't fork out our own money for, and we've knocked back or not blogged a number of freebies on that basis.

I think this is an important discussion to have repeatedly in the food blogging community. Offers are increasing in frequency and changing in style all the time.

Michael said...

Also: food blogging needs more scientific trials. Science rules! If only I could figure out how to set up a double-blind for cous-cous.

Lucy said...


I knock every single one of them back - if journalists, i.e. the paid kind, do this sort of thing there is collective outrage, and rightly so. Not so long ago, many bloggers were attacking the traditional media on all fronts...

P'raps it's 'cos I'm an oldie (Gen X) and have a deep-seated mistrust of branding, advertising, all of that.

Great post, with a lot of sad truths, I'm afraid.

Zoe said...

Yeah, me too. It's boooooring, even though some of the people are very nice. I wrote about my own experience of it here

And thanks to Lucy's tweet for sending me to a real food blog!

Lucy said...

Miss Zoe, I must thank Cindy and Michael for their tweet!

Glad to have found your blog here...took me a while, sorry.

Eat to Live said...

Hi Cindy and Michael!

I did wonder if you had received various offers and solicitations, and not mentioned them - I'm so glad that you stuck to your principles and that you're continuing to do your own thing.

Something I love about the internet is that it gives people an opportunity to "broadcast" an original view. It seems ridiculous to shun that opportunity by being repetitive and biased.

Lucy: Good point re journalists. It'd be nice to think that some self-regulatory codes of ethics might be adopted... Good for you for sticking to your guns, and I dare say it's second nature to do so.

Zoe: Wonderful post. And that's exactly the sort of idiosyncratic review I'd be happy to read, and won't find in a lot of places.

thanh7580 said...

Great article.

I must admit that I'm one of those that has been accepting freebies. After about three events and a couple of incidents, I reassessed what I was doing and have written more critical reviews. I'm still torn between accepting or not as I do actually enjoy the events most of the time, and I see it as just another avenue to find more great places/things. However, there is that constant obligation to write something positive. My approach now is that more honest feedback is the way to go, even if that means upsetting the PR machines.

I plan on writing a discussive post that develops on some of your points. I agree with some of them, but disagree with some. But it's still great that you're writing posts like this that make us all think. I had already discussed with another blogger about writing such a post as I was really conflicted myself with these freebies, and then I was forwarded your post, so I think the topic is hot on everyone's mind.

P.S Cindy and Michael are exceptional bloggers who are way more thorough on their posts than I'll ever be, freebie or no freebie. I hate vegetables but still read their blog as I enjoy their writing and adventures. :-)

thanh7580 said...

P.P.S Michael, double blind for cous cous solution: you or Cindy cook the cous cous and plate it up. Whoever didn't cook it then serves it to the cat and tries to judge what the cat thinks of it. Good plan?

Eat to Live said...

Hi Thanh. I'll be interested to read more about what you think, since you're coming from the other side of the story - it's always good to get some first-hand accounts!

For what it's worth, I am less bothered if the reviews are constructive - but I have read the odd one out there which was uniformly gushy, and that's just not believable.

Cindy said...

Thanh, I'm looking forward to your post too!

We'll consider your suggested experimental design. Our cat is a pretty fussy eater so only an elite few products are likely to pass the test. :-D