Brands and blog tours - not always so sweet.
Although in fairness, the CRA twitter feed informed me that it was not promotional. It was educational.
You know what's educational? This New York Times editorial by Michael Pollan.
And this one.
And this one.
I am totally not down with high fructose corn syrup (or Corn Sugar or Mercury-Laced Sweetener or whatever they call it now) and have been writing about it for a while now. You can thank Nate in part for that. He's my agro-idealism hero.
If you don't believe that HFCS bad for you, then believe it's bad for the environment. If you don't believe that, then believe that the corn subsidies are bad for us economically.
So while I can't blame an industry for trying to stay in business in the face of oh, pretty much anyone with half a brain who knows that foods processed within an inch of their lives are killing us slowly and that there's no need to have HFCS in bread, ketchup, or canned peaches--I find the CRA's entire campaign predatory and misleading. Case in point: This (infuriating) "advertorial" [*link fixed] on Mom Central, (also covered at BNET who doesn't like it much either) which includes claims like High fructose corn syrup, like sugar and honey, is natural.
Natural? Last I checked, there was no High Fructose Corn Syrup Tree.
All this said, I'm not a scientist. I'm not a nutritionist (or they'd kick me out of the club for malpractice) I can't cite as many sources as a lot of you can to defend my distrust of high-fructose corn syrup.
Also, I love Coke. And Pepsi. So full disclaimer: I'm a total hypocrite.
This whole thing is raising all sorts of questions for me about blogger-brand relationships, once again. Because it used to be that it was just some KY Jelly product hoping for a mention. I feel like this kind of lobbyist-created advocacy changes everything.
Alas, I can't change the world. All I can change is me. (Or us?)
So I ask myself, what's our personal responsibility when we accept campaigns like this? What's our responsibility to our readers beyond the little FTC disclosure bit (speaking of which, some bloggers disclosed compensation, some didn't).
Is a review the same as an endorsement? Is reprinting press materials verbatim the same as a "review?"
If we are to engage on blog tours and brand tours and sponsored posts, what do we owe our readers, exactly?
Then I wonder, what's a consultant's responsibility in disseminating the information to the bloggers they work with? I was saddened to learn that on the Mom Central advertorial post, the author is identified as an MD, but not as a paid consultant for the Corn Refiner's Association, which the BNET article revealed to me.
It makes me think about the big ol' Nestle Family twitstorm earlier this year. What was Nestle Family's obligation to their guests when Nestle boycotters took issue with the event and started challenging the bloggers there? If we use a hashtag or accept a free trip--or even a gift certificate--are we now spokespeople for the brand?
Really, what is the marketer's obligation to protect us as publishers or marketing partners, even as they are trying to sway us as consumers? And how can we insist on it?
Too many questions, it's hurting my head!
Personally, I would start with just making sure a blogger understands the outreach to begin with. One blogger on the HFCS tour wrote (no link out of respect)
The professional speakers used a lot of technical scientific terms and words that rather confused me, but ultimately the important message I learned from them is that there is no significant difference between HFCS and table sugar.
Judging from quite a few of the other posts I read, they also didn't seem to understand much more than the simple talking point "HFCS and table sugar are the same." And they didn't seem to research the issue much beyond what they were told by the paid endorsers before creating their posts.
One blogger confessed apologetically on her blog after her comments got heated:
We only know what we [were taught by the CRA]. I actually was thinking about doing more research after doing my post as I am not educated enough on this topic to really say how I feel about it in all honesty.
Now surely a blogger can't be held responsible for every action of every company we recommend. We all have different levels of understanding of brands and products, and different things we care about. I always feel defensive when I see bloggers being attacked in comments for whom they choose to endorse. Frankly, dig into most multinationals and there is some skeleton in some closet somewhere. If not right in the foyer. We have to pick and choose our battles, and my battle may not be the same as yours.
But--and I've said this many times before--I believe we all need to own our words.
And I do think we have an obligation to understand what we're posting about and who we're advocating for--not just when it's paid, but especially when it's paid.
This week, a whole team of bloggers got paid in gift certificates by a multi-million dollar lobbying organization so that when concerned parents hit the web and Google High Fructose Corn Syrup, they'll get a bunch of posts from "trusted moms" saying HFCS is just like sugar! Don't cut it out any more than you cut out honey! It's fine! It's NATURAL. Doctors told us so.
I hope it was a really good gift certificate.
For the follow up to this post, please see On ethics and integrity. The real kind, not the pretend kind for your press kit.