The Thoughtful Animal

If you’ve been around Scienceblogs today, or on Twitter, you may have noticed that there appears to be a new blog around these parts.

On behalf of the team here at ScienceBlogs, I’d like to welcome you to Food Frontiers, a new project presented by PepsiCo. As part of this partnership, we’ll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo’s product portfolio, we’ll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging.

PalMD has some initial thoughts here. I share many of his concerns, but I’m also trying to keep an open mind about this.

Jump below the fold for a random smattering of thoughts and opinions, more on the ethics of corporate blogs here, and less on the issue of PepsiCo itself. Again, these are simply a collection of initial thoughts and reactions.


Some of my initial thoughts and observations:

(1) This is not the first time a corporation has paid for blog space here on Scienceblogs. Recently, GE sponsored and provided content for the Collective Imagination blog. There were three contributors to this blog: two worked for GE, and one was Greg Laden, already a scibling. The ones who worked for GE appear to have been researchers employed by GE (and not PR professionals).

In a somewhat different model, Shell sponsored a blog called Next Generation Energy, though the content was written by bloggers; none of the writers appear to have worked for Shell.

In both cases, SEED provided editorial oversight, which they do not do on the rest of our blogs, or on the new institutional blogs (like SETI, Weizmann, Brookhaven, etc).

The Pepsi blog, like the GE blog, appears to be set to include content provided by four individuals who work for Pepsi, and nothing from unaffiliated bloggers (as both GE and Shell had). Like the individuals from the GE blog who worked for GE, the individuals writing for Pepsi all appear to work in research or lead research teams (and not in PR or sales). One leads the Nutrition group, one is the Chief Scientific Officer, one directs the Heart Health and Global Health Policy group, and one leads the Global Human Sustainability Task Force. Read more about them here.

Are these legitimate research groups, or an elaborate PR stunt? I don’t know, but I’m willing to (for now) give them the benefit of the doubt.

(2) Is the issue the existence of corporate blogs on the Scienceblogs network in the first place? Is it the ethics of including corporate blogs? If the mission of Scienceblogs is to be “where the world goes to talk about science,” shouldn’t industry and corporations that have scientific interests have a place at the table?

(3) If the issue is that advertising, the drive to increase sales, and “the bottom line” are wrapped up with the content provided by corporations (and I would agree, they totally are), then these blogs need to be clearly labeled as corporate blogs and as advertisement. The LA Times recently came under fire for a similar type of advertisement. They ran an ad across the front page of one of their sections that was designed to look like news content. The ad was for the new King Kong attraction at Universal Studios.

king kong la times.jpg

Figure 1: The advertisement section, left, compared with a typical section from a different day, right. Click to embiggen.

It is clear with the red letters ADVERTISEMENT on the top, that this was an advertisement. The letters could have (and should have) been bigger, but I think there still would have been people who would not have noticed even if they’d have been huge, and would have become angry.

One of the LA Times blogs described the issue:

Readers were surprised to see reports in Thursday’s LATExtra section of Universal Studios’ destruction. The cover story was labeled “advertisement,” and the section was lettered AD as opposed to AA, but those distinctions were missed by many readers, at least on first blush.

What appeared to be news was in fact advertising copy for Universal Studios’ new King Kong attraction. The four-page advertising section was topped by the LATExtra section flag, while the actual LATExtra news section appeared inside.

Clearly this is different from a corporate blog, in some sense, as the content of the Pepsi blog (presumably) isn’t intended as a clever hoax (as it was with the King Kong ad), but in that the content still serves as advertisement, I think there are parallels.

The job of a newspaper is to sell newspapers and ad space. If they don’t do that, then they can’t do the business of journalism. Indeed, the LA Times publisher said as much:

In an article in Friday’s LATExtra section, Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein stood by the advertising section. “Our readers understand the ad-supported economic model of our business, which allows us to provide the outstanding journalism they rely upon 24/7.”

Likewise, SEED and Scienceblogs are an ad-supported economic model. If they can’t make money, they can’t provide a platform to the 80+ other non-corporate blogs so that we can go about our business of blogging about science.

(4) If the issue is not the mere existence of corporate blogs on our network, then is the issue with PepsiCo, specifically? In other words, if, say, Quaker Oats or 24 Hour Fitness was sponsoring a corporate blog, would the outrage be less? A Quaker Oats blog or a 24 Hour Fitness blog would still be designed to increase sales and drive up the bottom line, after all. Quaker Oats aren’t as unhealthy as Pepsi, to be sure, and going to the gym is a good thing, but content-as-advertisement is still advertisement. Science bloggers write books and promote them on their blogs, all the time. Is it okay for Chad Orzel to promote the sale of his book on Uncertain Principles? What about for Brian Switek to promote his book, on Laelaps?

Perhaps the reaction to a Pepsi blog is a visceral reaction to the negative things associated with their product, rather than the question of corporate blogs in the first place. If this is the case, where do we draw the lines? Who decides which corporations are “okay” and which “suck balls”? When is content-as-advertisement acceptable? I have no answers, just questions.

Concluding Remarks and Recommendations:
I’m not necessarily angry or upset with SEED for this move, and this move is obviously not a new one, given the previous existence of corporate blogs with content provided by employees of those corporations.

I would strongly recommend that the Pepsi name and logo be clearly included on the blog’s banner image (just as Shell’s name appeared on the banner of the Next Generation Energy blog).

I would strongly recommend that it be made clear on every post, in addition to in the profile space and on the about page in big bold red letters, that Food Frontiers is a sponsored, corporate blog. This is the lesson I took away from the LA Times debacle. Let is be unambiguously clear that this counts as advertisement, and is a corporate, sponsored blog. Obviously the word “ADVERTISEMENT” in size 12 font will not cut it. Let them post to the Scienceblogs Select feed, but not to the regular channels (e.g. “Brain and Behavior,” “Life Science”) that the rest of us use. Maybe create a channel for “Sponsored Posts”?

I would also strongly encourage all my sciblings as well as other bloggers around the sciblogosphere to engage with the writers of the Pepsi blog. When they mess up, call them onto the carpet. When they don’t back up their content with good peer-reviewed research, say so. If you know about scientific evidence that is contrary to what they claim, blog about it, or comment on their blog, or both.

I would encourage the bloggers at the Pepsi blog to allow arguments and disagreement in the comments in their blog. If they wish to disallow certain language (as I do), it takes a bit of extra effort, but they can make the rules clear, and go through and manually redact the words they don’t like, as I do. Also, I would encourage the writers at the Pepsi blog to invite and encourage posts from other bloggers not affiliated with their corporation (like Peter and Travis from Obesity Panacea, for example), as GE and Shell did with their blogs. (Perhaps they already have? I have no idea.)

While I do have concerns, and while I share the concerns of many of my sciblings, I’m trying to keep an open mind. They haven’t actually written anything yet (there is just the introductory post, from the SB editors), so I will hold off judgment until there are posts up from their staff. I will of course take everything they say with a grain of salt (or perhaps a pound of salt grains), and I am ready to change my mind and rail against the Pepsi blog, it I find it necessary to do so. I hope it at least provides some interesting discourse.

So, I’m not sure this is problematic or unethical, per se, but it needs to be executed properly and carefully. Starting with placing a gigantic Pepsi logo on the banner image.

What do you think?

[Update: Additional initial thoughts from GrrlScientist, Janet at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Abbie at ERV, Mark at Good Math/Bad Math, Grant Jacobs on Sciblogs’ Code for Life, Alex Wild at Myrmecos, Greg Laden, Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority, Zen of Neurodojo, Josh Rosenau of Thoughts from Kansas (and again), Dr. Isis of On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, Orac at Respectful Insolence, Zuska at Thus Spake Zuska, Scicurious of Neurotopia, Blake Stacey at Science After Sunclipse – and again, Christie Wilcox at Observations of a Nerd, Hank Campbell of Scientificblogging’s Science 2.0, Brian Mossop at the Decision Tree, Abel at Terra Sigilatta, James Hrynyshn at Class: M, PZ at Pharyngula, Brian at Laelaps, David Dobbs of Neuron Culture, Sharon Astyk at Causabon’s Book (and again), the Knight Science Journalism Tracker (and again), Eric Johnson of The Primate Diaries, Mike the Mad Biologist, Confessions of A Science Librarian, Maryn McKenna of Superbug, Martin at Aardvarchaeology, Erik at Eruptions, Dave Bacon at The Quantum Pontiff, …]

[Update 2: In an amusing little ironic twist, I’ve just realized that Quaker Oats is *owned* by PepsiCo.]

[Update 3: There was also the Invitrogen sponsored blog last year, which, like Shell’s blog, appears to have included content from people not employed by Invitrogen.]

[Update 4: A response from the SB overlords.]

Comments

  1. #1 Daniel Pellegrom
    July 6, 2010

    Hi Jason. Thanks for the feedback. As the editor of the new Food Frontiers blog, I’m always looking for good ideas to make our site better. You brought up a great point that it’s important to make our sponsorship of the blog clear in the banner — it’s always been our intention to be transparent about our sponsorship of the blog. We’ll work on changing the banner later this week. Thanks again for your feedback, and I hope you continue to take a look at what we’re up to on the new blog.

  2. #2 scazon
    July 6, 2010

    Jason,

    While I agree with a lot of what you said, I’m much more skeptical than you appear to be, and I don’t think some of your arguments really hold up. The question of who decides which corporations are “acceptable” and which are not, for instance, is something a straw man. The answer, obviously, is SEED and the institution of ScienceBlogs: they have given their imprimatur (literally) to the PepsiCo blog, and they have thereby tarred you and all the other bloggers who post on ScienceBlogs by association. They have compromised their own standards of journalism by doing this, and just because they’ve done it before doesn’t mean it’s okay, it means that those blogs also tarred you and the other bloggers on ScienceBlogs by association. I’m not sure why that doesn’t seem to hurt you more.

    Obviously I am concerned about the journalistic and ethical integrity of ScienceBlogs as a whole, and I agree that clearly marking the sponsorship, starting with your suggestion of a gigantic logo, is a good step. But the problem I have is, again, one of association. Say I don’t know you from Adam or your blog from BoingBong, and I stumble across your blog. “Hey, there’s some really interesting stuff here!” I might think. I then click my way over to Pharyngula and see more stuff I like. “Wow, this ScienceBlogs site is really neat!” Then I click over to Food Frontiers, and I am greeted by a big PepsiCo logo. “Wait—wha?” What is that going to imply for me about all the stuff I read earlier? What kind of questions will it raise about where that material came from, who was behind it, and what I might not have been told upfront? Or, if they don’t clearly mark Food Frontiers as sponsorship, the vague promise in the above comment notwithstanding (“it’s always been our intention to be transparent”, but you’ll notice the logo isn’t there now, so it wasn’t “always”, it was “since a big stink was raised about it on the Internet, so we’ll do it next week”), it’ll take me longer to figure out—if I figure it out at all. Either way, everyone gets harmed: me, you, ScienceBlogs, and journalistic integrity.

  3. #3 Jason G. Goldman
    July 6, 2010

    I’m certainly skeptical (ref my taking everything they write with a pound of salt grains).

    Now, I wasn’t here on Scienceblogs when the previous corporate sponsored-blogs ran here, so I don’t know if there was lots of noise made behind the scenes. But I’ve been reading SB for several years, noticed the brief appearances of the other corporate blogs (i.e. Shell, GE, etc), and did not see (or at least, was not aware of) a similar level of public alarm about them.

    So the issue I’m attempting to raise is how this Pepsi blog might be different from those of GE or Shell or Invitrogen.

    If the main problem is corporate bloggery, why didn’t the public outcry occur before? If the main problem is with a specific corporate entity, is it fair to cherry-pick the corporations we’d like to be affiliated with? Maybe it is, but that’s not really objective, either. If the problem is with a particular corporation, then the outcry ought to be redirected from “corporate bloggery is bad” to “we don’t want [corporation X] blogging here.”

  4. #4 Jason G. Goldman
    July 6, 2010

    Another thought: I understand the argument about corporate blogs reflecting on us independent bloggers. But, if I was concerned about how other blogs reflected on me and my blog, I might not have joined SB in the first place.

    You might be happy to click around from my blog, to Pharyngula, and what have you, but someone else might stumble onto my blog and think “animals! cool!” and then click to Pharyngula and think “atheism?” and over to Dispatches, and think “wha? politics?” (Let me be clear: I think Pharyngula and Dispatches both have a place here on SB.)

    I’d hope that people who don’t like PZ’s stance on religion feel perfectly comfortable reading my blog (whether or not I agree with PZ, I simply don’t blog about religion).

    I’d hope that people who disagree with Ed’s politics are likewise comfortable reading my blog (whether or not I agree with Ed, I don’t blog about politics).

    Likewise, I hope that someone who isn’t comfortable reading about the science at Pepsi (assuming they are going to discuss the legitimate science they conduct), will still feel perfectly comfortable reading my blog.

    And another: my perception is that most of the bloggers here – who are still doing research – are in academia. I don’t know if there are any industry scientists here, but if there are, they are the clear minority. I don’t know the first thing about life as an industry scientist, but given the relatively small number of tenure-track positions compared to the number of individuals on the academic job market, I think it would be *great* to hear about life as an industry scientist, and fill a real gap around here. That’s one thing I hope they choose to write about.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    July 7, 2010

    In other words, if, say, Quaker Oats or 24 Hour Fitness was sponsoring a corporate blog, would the outrage be less?

    I’d be just as irritated as I am now.

  6. #6 bsci
    July 7, 2010

    You mention the Brookhaven, Weitzman, & SETI blogs as an aside, but I think they are the key to getting at the root of the issue here. While I was giving all three the benefit of the doubt, Brookhaven and Weitzman seem to be operations of their PR departments with little or zero editorial control from the scientists at the institute. (SETI seems simply to barely post)

    At the core is what is the purpose of these types of blogs. If it’s to provide another location for PR, then why not make a semi-separate scienceblogs host for university press releases? If it’s to communicate, LINK, and converse with other science writers, then it can have a place here. The Brookhaven, Weitzmann, and SETI sites are currently failing at these basic criteria.

    If Pepsi uses it’s blog as a one-way communication device, it should just have press releases or an education site at its own address. If it’s going to engage with the larger community and allow it’s own scientists to more freedom to talk directly to critical and supportive individuals, I could see a place for this (as long as sponsorship is clear).

  7. #7 canuck_grad
    July 7, 2010

    I knew that Pepsi owned Quaker Oats and thought that’s what you referring to… so when I read that statement I was all like “Oh, Pepsi owns 24-hour fitness too??” LOL

  8. #8 NeuroKüz
    July 7, 2010

    In my view, if PepsiCo is to have a blog about science, maybe Scienceblogs is actually the best place for it. There are so many educated and critical-thinking readers as well as fellow bloggers here that if anything outrageous is written, readers will attack the blog via comments and/or complaints. I would hope PepsiCo is aware of this and will thus make an effort not to make any absurd claims. The readers here are not fools, so if this is to be a smart ‘PR stunt,’ it should be one that is used to gain some trust and respect from people who are skeptical of industrial science. The Pepsi blog should acknowledges both sides of the stories they are discussing and consider limitations of research studies, just like most of the conscious bloggers on this site. If they are here only to over-sensationalize research findings and promote their products, they probably won’t last here very long.

  9. #9 Interrobang
    July 7, 2010

    PepsiCo is a billion-dollar transnational corporation. They can afford to put up as many PR blogs as they want to on their own corporate site and any other “front sites” they care to create. So what are they doing on ScienceBlogs, unless it’s that they’re trying to gain credibility by association. For what it’s worth, I was not too impressed with the idea of the Shell blog and I don’t know anything about the Invitrogen blog, but don’t really have a problem with scientific research institutes having blogs on SB.

    My issue with PepsiCo running a food blog, or Shell running a blog ostensibly about alternative energy is that I have personally observed oil-company-funded disinformation about alternative energy in general and biofuels in specific appearing in media outlets. (I’m certain that if I had been paying more attention to food issues, I would have seen PepsiCo-sponsored disinformation too, and I believe Eric Schlosser documented some in Fast Food Nation.) To me, having them on ScienceBlogs just means they’re getting scientific credibility for whatever junk science, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda they want to put on there, which will of course (in the manner of modern marketing) be mixed with just enough facts to have the perfect mouth-feel of truthiness.

    And that’s bad for the non-sponsored bloggers who are here to write about real science that’s their real interests.

  10. #10 Casey Rentz
    July 8, 2010

    Yep. Science is happening at corporations, too. Making the big guys a part of the discussion and making their articles and opinions open to skeptic opposition may help to actually dispel some of the nonsense we hear from their advertising department rather than help spread it. I’m open to a totally transparent blog from a corportation’s R&D department (properly labeled.)

    That being said, the real issue might be how Seed has treated their bloggers. I hear many–Brian Switek, Rebecca Skloot–say this was just the last straw. I wonder–how can Seed afford not to treat it’s bloggers with as much transparency and integrity and collaborative commitment as they treat each other? Seed only hosts the community–it’s bloggers are the ones who create it.

  11. #11 Kate
    January 5, 2011

    Big corporations own everything, and our health is under threat!

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