White Coat Underground

Update on Pepsipocalypse

The crack SEED management team has made some significant changes on the new Pepsi nutrition blog. They have placed a small, grey band on the banner that says “Advertorial” (a word I abhor, but whatever). They have also placed the Pepsi logo everywhere and made it fairly clear that it is Pepsi content.

This is a move in the right direction as far as transparency and ethics are concerned. As I read the extensive comments being left across the blogosphere I see some that show a misunderstanding of the problem here.

The problem is not that Pepsi is “corporate” or “commercial”. This is not about “selling out to The Man.” What Pepsi produces and how it does is ironic but beside the point. The main problems are:

  1. Lack of transparency, which is somewhat improved
  2. Visual appearance, despite caveats, very similar to “real” science blogs
  3. Content produced by and for the benefit of the company that bought the space
These create all sorts of ethical problems.  It also erodes the credibility of some of us in a couple of ways, but I’ll speak only for myself.
I have spent a bit of time and energy building a little credibility with mainstream journalists, engaging them online and in person, and have started writing for a more mainstream outlet, Forbes.com.  I enjoy my role as both a writer and a physician; the more I read about journalism, the more I find myself questioning the best way to do what I do.  Given the multiple ethical challenges to what I do, I don’t appreciate being dragged into a new one with no warning.
One of the more fortunate things at ScienceBlogs has been the recruitment of experienced science writers such as Maryn McKenna, David Dobbs, Rebecca Skloot, and Deborah Blum (yes, I left some of you out, but it’s busy here tonight).  This gives me additional opportunities to learn the craft, but if they all run away from here, I lose out (as do our readers). 
I have relied on a reputation (even if I were my only reader) of independence.  Ads are inevitable and not undesirable, but deceptive advertising that looks very much like my own content poses special problems for me (and for other medical bloggers).
Unlike a number of my most respected colleagues, I’m not making a decision to jump ship just yet.  If I do, it wouldn’t be to “punish” ScienceBlogs, as the real numbers I bring in aren’t huge.  It would be to satisfy my own sense of what it is to behave ethically.  
So for now, I’m going to wait and see.  This isn’t the first time ScienceBlogs has had significant problems (not “issues”, “challenges”, or “opportunities”—problems).  It isn’t the first time we’ve lost top notch writers.  So I’m willing to watch a bit and see where this goes—but not for too long.

Comments

  1. #1 Anonymous
    July 7, 2010

    The problem is not that Pepsi is “corporate” or “commercial”. This is not about “selling out to The Man.” What Pepsi produces and how it does is ironic but beside the point. The main problems are:

    1. Lack of transparency [that it is run by a large company], which is somewhat improved
    2. Visual appearance, despite caveats, very similar to “real” science blogs
    3. Content produced by and for the benefit of the company that bought the space

    You do realize that every single one of your “main problems” has to do with the fact that the PepsiCo blog is, in fact, corporate controlled. It’s implicit in your argument, even if you don’t overtly want to admit it.

    Your argument, if dissected down to its core is that: a corporate blog may masquerade on SB as a blog run by someone with no corporate connections. This is the essence of the conflict of interest that you are pointing out.

    If the blog was run by someone who formerly worked at PepsiCo, would you have the same problem with it, even if the person wasn’t “open” about it? What if the topic wasn’t even food?

    So, in fact, your problem is with the fact that PepsiCo may use the blog to promote their products, the consumption of many of which have been hypothesized to be linked to real health problems. Nothing wrong with that.

    Anyway, I see nothing wrong with expressing the opinion that “selling out to the man” is not a good thing. In fact, it’s a valid source of discomfort, and that is what SB appears to be doing. It makes me question the content of other blogs on SB. I could give a rat’s ass whether or not PepsiCo plasters its name all over the damn blog, it’s still a total turn-off and I probably won’t venture much to SB from now on.

    Not that I read SB that much, anyway.

  2. #2 PalMD
    July 7, 2010

    I’m pretty sure you missed the point here.

  3. #3 Alex Wild
    July 7, 2010

    Pepsipocalypse?

    I like that. I’ve been calling it Pepsigate, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    July 7, 2010

    I suspect that the point is a bit less sharp to those who haven’t been accused of being Pharma Shills [1]. Caesar’s wife and all that.

    [1] /me included. In my case it’s easy to laugh off the accusation because I don’t even work in medicine (unless you count putting cardboard splints on broken wrists.) As a full-time silicon wrangler, the accusation is beyond risible. For you and Orac, not remotely so much.

  5. #5 Toast
    July 7, 2010

    ::::::Seems to me like a major PR cock-up. The “Editor” one David Pellegrom has been there (Pepsi) for 9 months. Will he be there for 12 months? “”broad knowledge of international affairs, development, and global communications. Strong professional experience supplemented by an MBA, MA in International Affairs, and service as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana. Specialties: Issues Management, Corporate Social Responsibility, International Development, Communications and Media Strategies” linked in.

  6. #6 MitoScientist
    July 7, 2010

    As a frequent reader of WCU and many other scienceblogs in general, I am wondering why (if at all) this reaction is so much stronger than when GE and Shell had sponsored content on here. And if a scientist who worked at Pepsico had a blog, but it wasn’t corporate sponsored, would that be an acceptable situation, hypothetically?

  7. #7 PalMD
    July 7, 2010

    Because those blogs were sponsored by, but not controlled by. Laden wrote a lot of the content, and he’s not exactly a corporate shill.

    It’s the transparency rather than the content that is the biggest problem.

  8. #8 daedalus2u
    July 7, 2010

    I suspect that the real reason that Pepsico wants a blog on scienceblogs is for the feedback in comments. Pepsico wants to sell what people want to buy. They don’t know what people want to buy or they would already be making it.

    They know they can’t get good honest marketing information from science-savvy individuals because such individuals don’t talk to their marketing people (and their marketing people can’t hear or understand what such people say anyway), won’t take surveys, probably are not susceptible to peer-pressure driven marketing BS. But if Pepsico actually found out what such people want, and actually produced such produces, then such people would buy them because that is what they want.

  9. #9 IanR
    July 7, 2010

    In the same week when another food blog has a post entitiled “Harvard, USDA: Soda Tax Will Cut Obesity”, this news makes me queezy. I hope that Seed reconsiders.

  10. #10 John
    July 8, 2010

    I think this is the same response we’d see to any blog here that was reviewed and edited prior to release – like Pepsi’s previous blog. Would any reader not care if any one of the blogs here started a policy of processing (process undocumented) each and every post through an uncited PR department with a stake in the results? It’s not the “Pepsi”. It’s the process. It’s the gaps in the scientific method. It’s the intellectual property contracts Pepsi forces their contracted researchers into. It’s the unanswerable questions about cherry picking, about censoring, about biasing in the vetting and editing process.

    Unfortunately… A business this well organized doesn’t walk into a contract like this without establishing avenues for low risk recourse. SB may not be able to walk out of this deal intact. Oops.

  11. #11 daedalus2u
    July 8, 2010

    John, how do you know that such things are not already going on in other Sb blogs? You don’t.

    How do you know for sure that Pal is not really a pharma shill? You don’t. I am pretty sure that he is not, I have not seen any evidence that he is, I am probably 99.99% sure, but not 100% sure.

    Do you think that Pepsico could do those things and no one would notice? Srsly?

    Do you think that Seed media is so stupid as to allow Pepsico to destroy the Sb brand?

    Pepsico’s cost in this is trivial. probably no more than a few tens of thousands of dollars, the labor of the marketing people and scientists putting this together. A hundred hours at $100 per hour is only $10k. What does a 30 second spot on tv cost? Do advertisers have a death grip on the networks if the network doesn’t like their ads?

    All large top-down organizations have gigantic levels of group think. Leaders of such organizations (if they are wise) try to reduce group think because it can be extremely damaging to the organization. It is very difficult for large organizations to do so because moving up in such organizations usually involves sucking up to those above you.

    Pepico wants to make money by selling stuff to its customers. Killing off your customers is a bad business practice. It is a bad business practice because then you have fewer customers. Pepsico would like nothing better than to sell products that taste like junk food, so lots of people buy them, but which also make people healthy by eating them. The food company that can do that will become the largest food company. Every food company would love to do exactly that. Why has no food company done that? I think because it is not possible scientifically. Why is it not possible scientifically? I think because the fundamental premise that bad health comes from eating bad food is wrong. That premise can’t be challenged because of the group think of the scientific community.

    The hysteria over Pepsico having a blog on Sb shows there is a lot of group think in Sb authors and readers. All corporations don’t have the same type of corporate culture as BP does.