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.