ScienceBlogs Introduces Nutrition Blog Sponsored by Pepsi: Is It Unethical?

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ScienceBlogs is exactly what you think it is: a hub for blogs covering all kinds of crazy sciences. And, fittingly, the content comes from all kinds of crazy scientists. But now ScienceBlogs is introducing Food Frontiers, a nutrition blog openly sponsored by PepsiCo, the good people behind your favorite Pepsi products.

Now there’s always something dubious about corporate-sponsored science. When the research sponsored by big tobacco tells you cigarettes aren’t as bad as you think, you’re rightfully skeptical. And when car companies tell you cars are safe, you seek a second opinion. So when PepsiCo tells us nutrition facts, ought we not be wary? Yes, that is the appropriate response. But that’s the full extent of the appropriate response, and some people go way beyond that.

Update: ScienceBlogs will no longer be hosting the Pepsi-sponsored blog due to the mass backlash.

One ScienceBlogs writer, who goes by the name Abel Pharmboy, calls Food Frontiers “an affront to those who built the reputation of ScienceBlogs.” And he’s not alone. Here are some of his reasons for being in a state of pure outrage:

“However, accepting paid content within the main blogging space of the network is a breach of ethics and a clear conflict of interest for a media organization. Even the most vapid print magazine will cordon off as “advertisement” corporate-sponsored content made to look like magazine text. But as of this morning, Food Frontiers contains no identifying text to denote that it is comprised of paid, corporate content.

But what makes me most angry – and hurts personally – is that ScienceBlogs would not have been able to offer such an attractive package to PepsiCo if not for the reputation and pageviews built by the bloggers who have written here over the last four-and-a-half years.”

Another member of ScienceBlogs, PZ Myers, is equally if not more displeased:

They aren’t going to be doing any scienceblogging — this is straight-up commercial propaganda. You won’t be seeing much criticism of Pepsico corporate policies, or the bad nutritional habits spread by cheap fast food, or even any behind-the-scenes stories about the lives of Pepsico employees that paints a picture of the place as anything less than Edenesque. Do you think any of the ‘bloggers’ will express any controversial opinions that might annoy any potential customers?

There won’t be a scrap of honest opinion expressed over there that isn’t filtered and vetted by cautious editors before making it online, and it will all toe the Pepsi line. It’s going to be boring. It’s going to blur the line between blog content and advertising. It’s going to be bloodless dull blogging that will diminish the Scienceblogs brand.

Ok, so, in summary, people are pissed. But let’s take a step back here. Pharmboy makes one claim that just isn’t true: “As of this morning, Food Frontiers contains no identifying text to denote that it is comprised of paid, corporate content.” But here is the profile associated with the Food Frontiers blog:

PepsiCo’s R&D Leadership Team discusses the science behind the food industry’s role in addressing global public health challenges. This is an extension of PepsiCo’s own Food Frontiers blog. All editorial content on the blog is overseen by ScienceBlogs editors.

I would assume that the kind of people who read ScienceBlogs would be able to make the inference that if the blog is an extension of PepsiCo’s own pre-existing blog, then it’s going to be corporate content. This is made perfectly clear. And the first post is complete with “presented by PepsiCo.”

So the issue here isn’t one of transparency. Blogger Bill Sledzik wrote a great post covering this precise issue: sponsorship in blogs. Here’s the most relevant paragraph to this stage of the Food Frontiers discussion:

Smart bloggers are careful to disclose sponsorships at the top of their posts. But transparency isn’t the same as authenticity. Discerning readers are less likely to trust a sponsored post than an “organic” one. Some critics of sponsored posts say the practice devalues the entire social media space.

This is posted under the category “In opposition to sponsored posts,” but it’s not saying how they’re harmful like the other ScienceBlogs members seem to think. It’s just saying they won’t be as effective.

Whether everyone chooses to acknowledge it or not, it’s made pretty damn clear on Food Frontiers that the blog is corporate-sponsored by PepsiCo. Readers can choose whether they want to trust everything it says or not. After all, these are blogs we’re talking about. You’ve never been able to trust everything you read on the Internet, and this is just another dubious installment of Internet journalism. Nobody is making people read and believe this blog. If readers don’t trust it because of the corporate involvement, they’ll stop reading it and the blog will die. Or people will read it, believing what they choose to, and the blog will survive, having no impact on the site’s other blogs.

Perhaps Sledzik put it best:

Blogs are proprietary. The sites belongs to the writers. If readers don’t like sponsored posts, they can say so in a comments or simply stop reading. In Web 2.0, a blogger’s credibility is an individual judgment, not a collective one.

Sure, this particular blog is run through a larger organization, but Sledzik’s point still stands. If you don’t want to read corporate-sponsored science, and there are plenty of reasons to not want to, then nobody is going to make you. But ScienceBlogs can do what it wants, and like most everyone, it wants to make some money. And it’s making that money in a way that is fully disclosed to the public. It may not be the most honorable way to do it, but it is not a breach of ethics with ScienceBlogs’ readers.

(Via kottke)

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