Failing the Pepsi Challenge

It took a couple of days, but the overlords at SEED Media Group have aborted the Food Frontiers blog. If anyone is still wondering why so many members of the Scienceblogs community abandoned ship after we learned that Pepsi had bought itself blogging space at SB, as good an explanation as any can be found in an email I received Thursday from a friend of the family. She had copied me on a letter she had written to SB CEO Adam Bly:

I am just a lay reader but reasonably well educated (law degree, clinical psychology BS summa cum laude). I follow climate and science issues as closely as I can – especially now since I live in a Gulf State and we are staring at catastrophe. Scienceblogs is on my tool bar so that I can check for new posts easily.

I have sent countless people to Scienceblog with the assurance that it was an independent site.

But no more. Not if Pepsi’s corporate interests are masquerading as science. I live in Mississippi the state with the HIGHEST rate of obesity and Pepsi and its zillion dollar advertising budget is right in the middle of all that fat and disease.

Sorry. I can not abide. I hope you will reconsider.

This doesn’t get at all the problems I and other current and former sciencebloggers have with the decision. But in the end, if the kind of reader we all hope to attract can’t abide the decision, then there really isn’t much room for debate.

The addition of the Pepsi blog a bad decision from a science journalist’s point of view. This should be clear after reading the explanations of the country’s best science-journalist-bloggers, including Rebecca Skloot, David Dobbs, Brian Switek, Maryn McKenna about why they’re leaving SB. I’m a lesser star in that particular constellation, but I share their fears about the damage the Pepsi blog has done to our own reputations.

I can’t speak for the scientist-bloggers. But there are plenty of them who couldn’t swallow this particular beverage, either. By the time I post this, the list of departees will probably be much longer than it is at the moment. Suffice it to say that the attrition rate — at least 1/10 within 24 hours — is worrisome. And it’s not just the quantity of that list that matters, but the quality.

What both scientists and journalists share is a need for credibility and respect. And we would have had neither in an environment in which bloggers that are paid to express their thoughts share virtually identical space with a corporation that pays for the same privilege. Attempts were made after the offending blog debuted to give it some degree of distinction, but slapping the silly term “advertorial” across the top in tiny type was barely a cosmetic change and didn’t address the fundamental problem.

Adam Bly argued that corporations deserve a seat at the table. But the truth is they have many such seats. They come with the billions of dollars in profits that can buy advertising.
Indeed, one of the primary explanations for the ascendence and popularity of independent blogging is the failure of conventional media to keep corporate influence out of the news pages. The Pepsi Scienceblog represented a step backward.

If, as many suspect, the SEED Media Group needs Pepsi’s money to survive, they maybe this five-year-old experiment in collective blogging isn’t long for this Earth. But for the time being, it looks like we’re back to some sort of ethical framework I can live with. Bly’s decision to accept Pepsi in the first place still troubles me greatly. But we’ve all had to face difficult choices balancing finances against principles, and first offenses aren’t usually cause for capital punishment. So I’m sticking around.

Comments

  1. #1 Roger Austin
    July 8, 2010

    One perverse thought: I didn’t know there was a SEED Magazine until this mess started. Now I do so perhaps they did it to get the exposure.

    Maybe, PepsiCo was the one that pulled out since they didn’t want to be seen as the bad guy in all this.

  2. #2 Pablo
    July 8, 2010

    PepsiCo has a multi-millions dollar marketing budget. Why don’t they create a campaign that demonstrates them to be serious about science? If they can do that, maybe they would be more acceptable to a scientific community? Instead, they are doing crap like funding projects based on popular support, allowing money to go to anti-scientific things like “alternative medicine” and anti-vaccination loons (I don’t know if those were the projects that “won” but they were allowed among the possibilities).

  3. #3 Joe Shelby
    July 8, 2010

    I suppose there’s a larger problem involved, which is a branding problem. The large corporations have to still have names, and usually they are the names with the most recognition, but along the way they still hold onto the other companies they’ve acquired or are tightly associated with.

    Such was the case with Pepsi, which (I think it was Greg Laden) inadvertently realized was the parent company of generally health-oriented Quaker Oats. There are numerous cases where a company with a bad rep in some way happens to also be the holding company for one with a very good rep, and most people buy from one and not the other unaware that feeding the small one keeps the larger alive. Even today there are people who don’t know that Disney owns ESPN (and ABC), or know the sordid history of the on-again-off-again Japanese ownership of Hollywood Studios.

    So while “Pepsi” has a reputation, as being a sugar-soda (excuse me, high fructose corn syrup-soda) junk farm infamous for celebrity ads and Hollywood product placements, PepsiCo is a much larger company with very diverse interests, and is a large player in the health food side of things.

    Would the reaction have been different if it wasn’t “Pepsi” is a common question I’ve yet to see a consistent answer on. Would it have been different if it was a company name that just happened to have held controlling interest in Pepsi (the way Pepsi does Quaker and any number of other products)? Shakespeare’s words continue to haunt us 500 years later…

    On the other hand, it changes nothing with regard to the way it was rolled out without warning or consultation with the SB members. It became a public relations disaster with consequences that will be felt for months, rather than something that could have been silently proposed, and silently withdrawn or modified, within the SB internal email lists you guys have.

    I can not fault those that have chosen to withdraw because of the means by which it happened, regardless of the “Pepsi” name.

  4. #4 EdK
    July 8, 2010

    Hopefully SEED learned a lesson from this and the withdrawal is not just damage control. One positive thing is that the bloggers did not meekly acquiesce or quietly leave. You made your voices heard and told the readers where to take their complaints. An important lesson for the rest of us.

  5. #5 koco
    July 8, 2010

    It costs money to provide content but every publisher has to decide on the advertorial benefit vs. cost equation.

    I think a site like this to accept advertorials is dead wrong.

    The question remains on how to earn enough to provide excellent content. We all want it free from ads and subscriptions, but the reality is you need income to produce good quality content.

    I for one would like an option to pay for it vs. advertorials that destroy editorial integrity in my opinion.

  6. #6 Tony Sidaway
    July 8, 2010

    I hadn’t heard that some science bloggers had decided to leave. I hope they will find a good home for their blogs elsewhere.

    Having heard about this affair at Pharyngula and Greg Laden’s blog, I seriously considered unsubscribing from the half dozen or more Sb blogs I follow regularly but I knew that couldn’t last long because some of those blogs are the best venues for the kind of discussion I’m interested in. That was a very uncomfortable time. Thanks to Sb for withdrawing the Pepsi blog.

  7. #7 Lurking
    July 9, 2010

    Snicker… and to think I drink unsweetened tea and boycott any business that sells Jeff Gordon Cool-Aid. Well, to be honest.. those that exclusively sell it. Coke I can deal with, but I rarely drink it. Pepsi just strikes me as… well, as a cheap imitation of something… just can’t quite put my finger on it. Well, it doesn’t matter, they are all corrupt.