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Scienceblogs: Pepsi, messy

Scienceblogs: Pepsi, messy

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(Note: Peter Lipson MD and I are both members of Scienceblogs, which imploded spectacularly during the past 24 hours over the managers' decision to accept a paid blog by PepsiCo. Peter cross-posted his entry on the controversy here at RoH, and with the OK of site managers here, I'm doing the same to comment and reply.)

Constant readers may have noticed that my Sciblings at Sb are in a justified uproar about the inclusion of a new blog, Food Frontiers, sponsored -- that means "paid for" -- by Pepsi Co. Sb runs on advertising, but this paid space is not in the ad rails and banners, but in the main column. This was sprung on the blog community without advance notice on Tuesday.

A crapstorm ensued.

In addition to the many critical posts you can see if you click "Last 24 hours" on the Scienceblogs mainpage, a number of excellent bloggers have left for good or suspended until this is rethought, including Dave Dobbs, Sharon Astyk, Blake, Laelaps, Rebecca Skloot, MarkCC, Class M, and I'm sure I've missed some. These are all significant losses.

Meanwhile, Sb has been excoriated in the Guardian and on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, WebNewser, Consumerist, Irregular Times (whose headline is: Scienceblogs Loses Online Respect With Pepsi Deal), and the journalism and science Twitterverses are abuzz.

In response to all of which, Seed Media Group, which owns this space, has done some dialing back. They changed the banner of the blog to include the PepsiCo logo, they added a more-clear explanatory note (more about that below), and they admitted they handled this badly. Meanwhile, the Pepsi blog, whose comments according to would-be commenters are heavily moderated and slow to post, is at 121 180 comments and climbing.

That's the recap. Here's my buried lede: I'm not leaving, yet. But I'm watching closely and reserve the right to change my mind on that. And I think this was, and remains, spectacularly crass, naive, and dumb.

I was a newspaper reporter for a long time, and I have no illusions about publications, print or pixel, needing to find funding. The traditional way to do that is via ads. The sneakier but widely accepted way to do it is to run an "advertorial," something that looks like a story or magazine page but was produced by a single company or other entity and contains content highly favorable to that entity, with no outside comment or other points of view included (e.g., "Dubai is a wonderful place to vacation and locate your business!," not "Dubai's economy is crashing and our airport parking lot is choked with abandoned leased cars.")

Most major magazines (including ones I now write for), and newspapers including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, accept such pages, and label them as such more or less clearly. The practice is common enough that the American Society of Magazine Editors has specific guidelines for print advertorials, and equally direct guidelines for online pubs that say, in part:

We recommend the following standards (subject to change as the medium evolves): The home page and all subsequent pages of a publication's Web site should display the publication's name and logo prominently, in order to clarify who controls the content of the site. All online pages should clearly distinguish between editorial and advertising or sponsored content. If any content comes from a source other than the editors, it should be clearly labeled. A magazine's name or logo should not be used in a way that suggests editorial endorsement of an advertiser. The site's sponsorship policies should be clearly noted, either in text accompanying the article or on a disclosure page (see item 8), to clarify that the sponsor had no input regarding the content. Hypertext links that appear within the editorial content of a site, including those within graphics, should be at the discretion of the editors. If links are paid for by advertisers, that should be disclosed to users. Special advertising or "advertorial" features should be labelled as such.

My feeling is that the Pepsi blog fails to meet these best practices in a manner that is at least sloppy. For instance, the logo, which was added after the crapstorm began, is small; the sponsorship language is not sufficiently detailed; and the placement within Sb and involvement of Sb's editors (first graf of first post, by Sb editor Evan Lerner: "On behalf of the team here at ScienceBlogs, I'd like to welcome you to Food Frontiers, a new project presented by PepsiCo.") implies Sb's endorsement of the content.

In addition, it is probably disingenuous. For instance: The clarifying statement that has been added to the left rail now says: "All editorial content is written by PepsiCo's scientists or scientists invited by PepsiCo and/or ScienceBlogs. All posts carry a byline above the fold indicating the scientist's affiliation and conflicts of interest." Yet the person who has identified himself as the blog's editor -- that is presumably the person who final-vets posts before they are published -- is a member of Pepsi's "sustainability communications team," which is not a science position, but sounds like some form of public affairs (social media, social engagement). In addition, the first post on the blog said that future content would include "We have some exciting things planned for this project, including a video series that will begin with a look at the role the food industry plays in health issues." Scientists don't script and produce corporate video. PR departments do.

Summing up: By including this corporate-written blog in its stable of otherwise independent blogs, and especially by presenting it in the same format as the independent blogs, with insufficient labeling and transparency, Sb has imperiled the credibility of all of its bloggers. The ethical shadow is particularly acute for the bloggers who write about obesity and food culture, but the question of conflict of interest, and influence over content, could now be asked of any of us.

There may have been a way to do this better: open the concept for discussion in advance of launching the blog, sequester the blog in a separate section, design the page differently to clarify its inevitably advertorial content, remove any PR management from the posts. This was not that way.


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