On corporate content

i-b7159359f28a9f4d6509dcc328e541a8-cokepause.jpgThe ScienceBloggers have been whooping it up on Twitter, pissed as can be that PepsiCo has bought a blog on Scienceblogs to talk about nutrition and public health issues. This is very silly, and the tweeters have been working hard to come up with hypothetical examples that might match the absurdity of this situation.
Bear in mind that PepsiCo doesn’t just produce Pepsi and other tooth-destroying, obesity-producing fizzy waters seasoned with high fructose corn syrup. It produces a wide array of fast foods and snack products that have been credibly cited as instrumental in causing the obesity epidemic, and their efforts in Capitol Hill and city halls have blocked regulations that would have cut back on those nutritional threats.

Is this like selling BP a ScienceBlogs-branded blog about marine biology? Is it like Phillip Morris Altria buying a ScienceBlogs-branded blog about lung health? In my opinion: yes. It’s true that Seed has had short-term corporate-sponsored blogs like this before, but rarely in a context so … seedy.

GE sponsored a blog to talk about engineering and technology. A biotech firm sponsored a blog about biotech and biotech equipment. Shell talked about energy research. Those blogs were overseen by Seed staff and written by people outside the corporate sponsor.

And a couple of prominent scientific research institutions have recently started collective ScienceBlogs-branded blogs which will surely include a bit of institutional spin and puffery. But readers expect a certain amount of self-promotion from blogs, so that’s not the end of the world, as long as the content is good.

What’s scary about Pepsi’s blog is that, while it does identify its corporate ownership, it does not mark the content as advertising. It does not clearly indicate that ScienceBlogs was paid to publish that content, in contrast to most of the content on ScienceBlogs which they pay others to produce.

Where previous such blogs hosted bloggers not affiliated with the sponsoring companies, the authors of this blog are. And they are not marked as advertising, a violation of standards and journalism since way back.

Like many of my Sciblings, I’m nervous about this. Part of what makes Sb great is that the bloggers are independent, diverse, and expert in their fields. Some odd stuff will sneak in around the edges, there’ll be disagreements, but you can be fairly sure that the people writing here are writing what they think is the best science. Bringing in corporate bloggers as if they were doing the same thing breaks the trust of readers. It’s a different thing, and should be set apart clearly.

Heck, science journals are obliged to mark as advertising any papers whose authors pay page charges. That seems extreme, but it’s a reminder that standards exist for this, and Sb ought to hold itself to a high standard precisely because of the overall quality of the blogs it chose to bring into the fold. When someone buys their way in, it’s only fair to readers to mark that distinction.

I also know that ScienceBlogs and its parent company have been working hard to keep afloat in a difficult time for publishing, and I’m all in favor of their finding new revenue streams. But allowing corporations to whitewash their record by hijacking Sb’s good name and posting as if they were independent voices on matters of nutrition is just wrong.

Janet Stemwedel rightly notes that this creates huge conflicts of interest, and those conflicts ought to be divulged much more clearly, both on the blog itself, in links to the blog from the Scienceblogs front page, and in the Scienceblogs RSS feed. In all those settings it should be clearly marked as paid advertising. If the bloggers Pepsi employs do a good job, then those bloggers will still get lots of traffic. Otherwise it’ll go the way of all advertising, and be ignored.

PalMD notes that Scienceblogs is also indexed by Google News, and that failing to mark advertising content separately violates expectations outside the Sb sandbox.

Grrrrlscientist is so pissed that she’s talking about leaving Sb, and for good cause. I’m not quite ready to go that far, but if the bosses handle matters poorly, I’ll have to make some tough choices.

Mark Chu-Carroll is so upset that he’s suspending his blog for a few days until this sorts out. I probably won’t do the same, but again, we’ll see. Note an important point: Mark works for a big corporation and blogs on topics at least tangentially connected to his day job. But no one doubts his legitimacy because he proved himself as a blogger. Pepsi’s people could do the same, but buying access is not the right way to do it.

Anyway, weigh in in the comments, and keep an eye on the twitter hash tags #scibloxymorons and #scibloxymoron for proof that bloggers can make anything fun.

Comments

  1. #1 RBH
    July 6, 2010

    This is what’s known in the trade as “selling out.” Too bad.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    July 6, 2010

    We feel very similarly about this. (My link goes to my post on it). But I should note that the other corporate blogs you note were written in part by corporate research scientists. E.g., Collective Imagination was written by me, a guest blogger or two, and a small number of GE scientists from their research division.

    It is quite possible that the Pepsi blog could have been designed like that as well, and maybe (but I’m not sure) it really is supposed to be designed that way . It may be that the Seed staff did not quite realize that there was a line that they should avoid crossing to begin with. I’m guessing here.

    It will be interesting to see how this all turns out…

  3. #4 denature
    July 7, 2010

    I might agree with appropriate labeling for the new blog, but don’t the analogies to journalism and journal publications imply that the rest of SB content should be labeled as editorials?

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