I ate the sponsored food: Why disclosure isn’t enough.

I was at a blogging conference, throwing cats amongst some pigeons by discussing ethics, public relations and why I don’t mix public relations and my own blog in a panel with Cyn from The Food Pornographer, who does. I ate the sponsored food, which I’ll never review. Here’s why.

Blogging was a very different place when I started in 2005. I felt like it spun off from independent publishing and zines, and the blogs that inspired me to start were all writing stories that nobody else had ever thought about writing before. It was a reaction against a media that wasn’t covering the food stories that I wanted to read and not treating food with the same journalistic rigour applied elsewhere.

I also started writing in Cambodia, where the travel journalists that were parachuted in covered the food in the country with undisguised disdain, flitting between luxury hotel and Angkor Wat with naught but a sneer for what locals eat. Local food wasn’t part of the hotel- or tour group sponsored freebie and most of the people who cooked Cambodian food didn’t speak English, so journalists could write it off as too hard and get away with the same repeated platitudes from every other journalist before them. Everyone loves that eating spiders story.

Cambodia is one of the most corrupt places on earth. Anything can be bought. When one of my near neighbour’s house burnt down, I found out that to make the fire engine turn up, you need to bribe them and the first person to call is responsible for gathering that bribe. If you see your neighbour’s house on fire, people are forced to do the cruel calculation: do I let it burn and hope it won’t reach me or do I risk a year’s wages having it put out, just in case?

It’s a society where trust in any institution eroded to a point where all but the family unit and village of birth were suspect. I decided early on that I wouldn’t accept anything in exchange for writing posts on my own site, just to prove that not everything in Cambodia has a price. The responsibility that I felt for my audience, however small, was that my favour couldn’t be bought. It took a few months before the PR offers started rolling in. At first, I kindly declined then ignored, then blacklisted their domains in my email so that all future communications landed in my spam box.

There’s a huge range of ethical positions to responding to requests and freebies from PR people, from openly appealing to PR folk to ensure a more “passionate” review to naming and shaming any PR company that dares contact a blogger. There’s a range of positions in between that disclose their material relationship to what they write about, or not disclose that relationship at all.

Since 2005, the interest of the public relations industry in blogs has changed. The mass food media is sinking, leaving both PR people and bloggers to sift through the flotsam and form their own cargo cults. In food, blogging has become the mainstream media. Worldwide, there aren’t many salaried positions left to write about nothing but food and blogs are left to fill the yawning gap. The interesting thing about the modern food media is that the successful new print publications are also the most brutally independent with the clearest editorial agendas, from Lucky Peach to Gastronomica.

Objectivity.

Food is the least objective topic that someone can write about. Writers bring their own inexplicable biases to the table which is passed off as taste and taste is so subjective that you can convince other people what something tastes like just by mentioning it to them. You can’t be objective about something that becomes a part of you like food. Apart from lists of ingredients, a restaurant’s location and opening hours, everything else is personal. It’s hard to argue against this backdrop that getting something for free will affect the objectivity of a reviewer.

However, if you get something for free, most people who aren’t sociopaths will respond in kind because the norm of reciprocity is powerful. For bloggers that accept freebies, this is compounded by the general aversion to publishing criticism – it seems common for the bloggers that accept free things to say that they knock back most of the offers that they don’t like – which means that they’re only publishing broadly positive sentiment about what they receive for free.

For the audience, this looks like this positive sentiment can be bought.

Google hates sponsored posts.

Blogs rely on Google for a huge portion of their audience, and Google’s Matt Cutts has mentioned in the past that Google will penalise sites that link to other sites via advertorial or sponsored posts.

A small part of Google Plus is the ability for authors to claim ownership of their work, by adding a few lines of code to their website and then verifying them with Google. If I could make one prediction for the future of ranking in Google, it’s that Google will begin to look at the authority of individual authors alongside the websites on which they write. My guess is part of the benefit of claiming an authorship for Google is that Google is building an index of the quality and credibility of authors as individuals. If an author is writing sponsored posts or advertorial, and Google penalises them in the same way that they penalise sites, then this will be hard to remove as a black mark against an author’s credibility on a subject.

Google has a memory that lasts forever.

Why transparency is not enough.

Part of being independent is paying your own way and if you’re not buying food or travel with your own funds then the underlying message is that what you’re writing about isn’t worth doing with your own money. The appeal and success of blogging is closeness to your audience and community. If you wouldn’t pay to do something, why would you expect them to do the same?

PR will always have a bias towards whoever can pay to make the most noise or the most appealing approaches: large industrial producers over small business; supermarket duopoly over smaller markets; established restaurant groups over new upstarts. When you write about something given to you from PR, it’s most likely a vote for the incumbent and an endorsement for the food system that already exists and not one that might be. We write about the world that we want to live in (or at least, I do) and the status quo food system is broken. The stories that most need to be told about food are the ones that public relations agencies are hired to nullify rather than promote.

20 Comments I ate the sponsored food: Why disclosure isn’t enough.

  1. Cindy

    Transparency isn’t enough… for what? I’ve been asking myself this repeatedly over the years and wondering what standards the blogging community should hold themselves to.

    Transparency isn’t enough to ensure objectivity, for sure. Humans are infested with cognitive biases, and vulnerable to all manner of influence on their opinions including freebies and sponsorship. While a minority might deny this, I suspect most food bloggers would point out that transparency at least allows the reader to adjust for such biases as they see fit.

    Transparency isn’t enough to ensure my continued interest. But whether I, Cindy, will roll my eyes and unsubscribe is of little concern to most bloggers.

    Transparency isn’t enough for Google, … but in combination with no-follow links it might come close (?).

    Transparency isn’t enough for credibility? I agree, but I reckon there’d be as many different assessments of credibility out there as there are blog readers. And perhaps a good number of blog writers for whom credibility isn’t particularly important.

    Transparency isn’t enough for independence? I suspect that there’d be even fewer bloggers concerned with proving independence than credibility. The “don’t promote what you wouldn’t/haven’t paid for yourself” approach appeals to me, but different people have different budgets. Are only the wealthy entitled to review high-end dining regularly? Food blogging is a pretty privileged pastime, but there’s still variation among us.

    I’m struggling to define independence any more rigorously than credibility in the context of food blogging. And I’m less and less sure of what common values all food bloggers share, and therefore what standards we should all be aiming to adhere to.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Phil.

    Reply
  2. Fitzroyalty

    I opted out of EDB after the first one because it was becoming more about cashing in than building community. Then I got booted out of the foodblogger Facebook group by the pro-PR princesses for initiating this kind of discussion. It’s obvious they have won and control what is left of the ‘scene’. But food blogging is dead anyhows…

    The only thing I’d question Cindy and Michael is the focus on high end dining. I regularly review sub $10 lunches on Smith St, visiting the daggy as well as the fashionable. There’s no shortage of interesting food related things to write about, so it doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby.

    Reply
    1. Phil Lees

      Food blogging died in 2005.

      I think that the idea that writing reviews of high-end dining is only for the rich is interesting. I saved for weeks to be able to afford to go to Vue du Monde for the first time. If you get it for free, can you ever be in a position to ask “is it worth it?”.

      There is a real creeping aspirationalism in restaurant blogging, as if you’ve got to be ticking off Michelin stars to keep up rather than writing about the restaurants that nobody is writing about. It looks a whole lot more like maintaining the appearance of a lifestyle that you can’t afford than writing about food.

      Reply
      1. Cindy

        I agree that for those of us with an internet connection, spare time and a bit of disposable income, blogging certainly doesn’t have to be expensive at all. My personal interest runs much more towards what’s in my neighbourhood for <$20pp, posted by a blogger who turned up unrecognised on an average night of business. That's informing where I spend most of my dollars.

        I suppose the "is it worth it?" question is still highly subjective. A $200+ degustation will be received differently by a mining magnate, a scrimping student, and any guest that's dining at someone else's expense. And if they've earned credibility with me in other ways, I might still be interested in the not-entirely-independent views of the latter blogger.

        Reply
      2. Kenny Consider

        Hi there!

        Regarding: “I saved for weeks to be able to afford to go to Vue du Monde for the first time. If you get it for free, can you ever be in a position to ask “is it worth it?”.”

        I think there’s another way of looking at this scenario.

        If such a meal in such a place is such a Big Investment, I think there may be the temptation or inclination to conclude the experience and the food is crash hot – no matter the actual reality.

        I can’t recall ever doing this with food or restaurants, but I know full well I’ve done it with deluxe, pricey books and music.

        Reply
  3. Elisa

    Very interesting post. I know I feel bad blogging negatively about a place even if it is not sponsored. Last time I had a bad meal, they spiked my vegetarian meal with meat, but I couldn’t bring myself to write it up because I was too upset about the whole experience. In general I love food and get excited about most meals – that’s why I started blogging. Going to a bloggers dinner, restaurants do go out of their way to make sure you enjoy it. Lately I have noticed that this often means giving people lots of alcoholic drinks too (even if they are not typically on the menu). Even if there is something not quite right about the food, I try to say it in a nice way (whether I have been invited or not). Friends sometimes have bad experiences (especially with the service) of places I have been to and all I can do is ask them to comment on it on my blog so that it is more objective. In the end I guess there is no such things as objectivity. Many hyped up places I have found to not be worthy, I will say so, but I never want to be too harsh as I know the restaurant business is tough.

    Reply
  4. Fitzroyalty

    Elisa that’s the kind of story that has great value to readers – vegetarian food tainted with meat. You should publish that if you have any concept of wanting to inform an audience.

    Without meaning to be critical of you, and without knowing your age or circumstances, I’ll venture to generalise that those of us who are older are also more analytical and capable of being openly critical, whilst younger bloggers are either less capable or less willing to be negative even when it is evidently the truth.

    Journalism isn’t about being nice. It’s about informing people. Informing your audience that you’re a nice sweet person with polite opinions is of limited value to them.

    Yes the restaurant business is tough, but some restaurants are run by naive greedy egotists who think the way to get ahead is to buy good PR and exploit their staff. They don’t deserve your kindness.

    Reply
    1. Nancy Baggett

      Yes, let’s say that again: Journalism isn’t about being nice, it’s about telling it like it is! I hate it when folks complain about newspapers only printing bad news. You want good news, sweetness, and light–read press releases!

      Reply
  5. Lee Tran

    I’m really glad you wrote this. I know it’s different strokes for different folks, but editorial independence is vital to me. I’m not some kind of editorial martyr though – I’ve definitely been to the odd launch or two, and gone to a few things that have been “sponsored” – but I try to pick things that I’d be OK with (one event was sponsored by a council to promote small family-run businesses in the area, another was a small pop-up essentially run by one person). I’m sure everyone has their own distinctions, too. Otherwise, in 99% of cases, I do pay for my own meals and, as Phil says, it definitely adds weight and perspective to what you’re eating if it’s coming out of the same pool of money that also has to service your rent, bills, etc.
    Yes, you can get a lot of freebies if you answer all those PR RSVPS, but there can be something incredibly impersonal about eating the exact same meal that 10 other people are eating at the exact time under PR-approved conditions. Don’t get me wrong, I know some people enjoy that and don’t see anything wrong with it. That’s their choice entirely. One of the few times I went to a PR dinner, as much as I appreciated it for what it was and do not at all want to come across as ungrateful, I also left thinking I would much much rather pay to have dinner with friends, unnoticed, and enjoy our night like any other common punter would. Whether it is true or not, there does seem like there’s a perception that food bloggers are more likely to give restaurants an easy, uncritical pass … So it’s good to see a debate sparked here about independence and editorial integrity.

    Reply
  6. Susanna Morley-Wong

    Interesting post.

    I would be genuinely fascinated to know more about this claim “The stories that most need to be told about food are the ones that public relations agencies are hired to nullify rather than promote.” Which are your top five in this category?

    Reply
    1. Phil Lees

      In terms of the stories that PR (and governments) don’t really want to talk about.

      1. Climate change. Welcome to the anthropocene.

      2. Ocean acidification – probably a subset of climate change, but the oceans don’t need to acidify much more to kill a whole lot of the ecosystem. A billion people rely on fish for their primary source of protein. Originally, my blog was going to be about the end of fish, but it’s still too depressing for me to think about too much. So I write bots that invent new donuts.

      3. Food security

      4. Role of women in food – there’s a great quote from Sarah Jenkins in the linked article: “I think that the media has an obligation to investigate and follow a story. I think honestly the problem is the prevalence of the media getting most of their information from PR agencies. And I think that’s true in politics. I think that’s true in technology. The old boots on the ground, gumshoe detective work that responsible journalists should be doing is hard to find. And I think Amanda’s right. It becomes this eternal circle of media people and PR agents kind of feeding each other. And that’s fine. But you’re not really getting at what’s really going on out there.”

      5. Cake recipes – there’s not nearly enough of them. Also debunking diets, bad food science, obesity.

      Reply
  7. Fitzroyalty

    Without meaning to speak for Phil, here’s some areas of the broader food industry that could do with more examination and other topics of interest:

    1 the restaurant business and in particular staffing, underpaying staff with cash in hand wages (which is basically tax fraud) and trying to push down award wages – http://mattcowgill.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/george-calombaris-would-you-like-penalty-rates-with-that/

    2 the ongoing secrecy of food hygiene inspections in Victoria compared to the transparency in other states

    3 reviews of farmers markets and what’s available at different markets

    4 reviews of specialist food shops and where to find obscure ingredients

    5 discussions of food and produce swaps and other community projects, community gardens etc

    Reply
  8. stavros

    Hi Phil, on Brian’s point #1
    Not all restaurant, cafes or hospitality venues underpay their staff and
    whilst there are definitely some nefarious operators out there, not all are guilty by association.
    The issue that rarely seems to get raised though when scrutiny is turned toward hospitality operators who bemoan high staff costs is the simple notion of adjusting menu pricing to cover these penalty rates?
    However if an operator decides to adopt this strategy they run the risk of pricing themselves out of the market.
    Now its reasonable to then argue that perhaps the product and service they are providing might not warrant this price hike which is a fair enough position to take. However it denies the reality that cost of goods, labour costs, rents and associated running costs have all risen whilst conversely the price threshold that most people are willing to pay has not demonstrated parity.
    Ok, you could then say’ Well knowing how hard it is to make a quid, why do you do it?’ fair enough question too.
    I mean all businesses have a plan of sorts etc so if operators did their homework then they’d be aware of these realities, yes?
    But imagine Fitzroy without a diverse restaurant/cafe scene with different price points, ambiance and styles?
    You’ve mentioned before your penchant for the restaurants/cafes on the ‘cheaper side of the ledger’ (my interpretation) as often these cheaper places are of ethnic background and seem to offer excellent value.
    However many of these places are cheaper because they regularly disobey the wage criteria set for hospo businesses. Or they save money by taking short cuts, like not cleaning properly, not buying the best food that they can or even exploiting family members and workers bought out to this country only to be treated as slaves.
    Its with alarming regularity that a news story emerges of a hygiene issue, a staff compensation claim or some sort of tax evasion leading back to these so called, cheaper places’.
    I also think that expecting ethnic eateries to be ‘cheaper’ for some reason is a throwback to some sort of colonial notion of superiority over a vanquished people. I’m not suggesting you hold this view as such but I do find it curious that we ‘expect’ ethnic food to be cheaper than western food.
    Disclaimer: I do not put all ethnic eateries in this basket but it is a topic that appears not to be discussed generally but it perhaps in our quest for eating cheaply, some operators have responded by cutting many corners

    Reply
  9. Fitzroyalty

    I don’t think anyone assumes restaurants serving ‘ethnic’ cuisines should be cheaper than any other. Huge straw man. #logicfail

    Perhaps someone with a good knowledge of Sydney and NSW could point out the more expensive restaurants that have received a penalty notice for failing a food hygiene inspection. The posh Bill’s in Darlinghurst got done in 2008, so it’s not just about cheap ‘ethnic’ places. http://www.smh.com.au/news/arts/bill-of-shame-trendy-eatery-outed-for-safety-breach/2008/08/06/1217702141346.html

    Reply
  10. Nancy Baggett

    A well-written, thought-provoking story–thanks! Having been a food writer/journalist and cookbook author well before there even were blogs, I’ve never written about any stuff I’m given (and don’t solicit stuff) and can’t make myself jump on that bandwagon now.

    Since my business is mostly about creating recipes and stories (and now accompanying pics), I do have to mention that the costs of competing against those who are less concerned about journalistic integrity is high. I pay for everything involved in testing (often multiple times to get it right). And I don’t “borrow” recipes and just change a couple things so I can use them without getting sued. It’s becoming harder and harder to compete time-wise and economically with those who do take the various shortcuts. Which makes me wonder if the real, independent content creators are becoming a dying breed….

    Reply

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