PepsiCo Buys Its Way Onto Science Blog Network As A Food Nutrition Expert

Update #2: On Thursday morning, July 8th, ScienceBlogs contributor PZ Myers posted that the founder and CEO of Seed Media (which owns the blog network) has announced that the PepsiCo sponsored blog has been removed–although as of this update (10:44 am EST July 8th) it’s still online.

Original post:
Yesterday, PepsiCo placed a full-page, semi-permanent advertorial on the ScienceBlogs network. Or actually, it created a micro-site within ScienceBlogs to provide compelling user-centric content that builds PepsiCo’s position as a thought leader in the field of nutrition. Or wait, no, it’s actually a blog, just like all the other science themed blogs on the network. Only the other blogs are written by paid contributors from various scientific fields, while this one was purchased by PepsiCo and will be staffed by a member of its “sustainability communications team.”

Update: Scienceblogs has posted a response and clarification today. (Thanks to reader speedwell, avatar of snark, for the heads up!)

Many of the regular bloggers on the network, as well as many of the readers, are upset. ScienceBlogs promises on the blog’s sidebar that “all editorial content on the blog is overseen” by its own editors, but it certainly doesn’t sound like the forthcoming material will be propaganda-free. In fact, based on ScienceBlogs’ editor Evan Lerner’s description, the promised content sounds exactly like what a PR-helmed corporate blog would push out to the public:

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.

In fact, “Food Frontiers” already exists on an official PepsiCo blog domain, and the editor there–he’s the one listed as a member of the company’s sustainability communications team–has identified himself as the editor on the new ScienceBlogs version.

One of ScienceBlogs’ contributors, an evolutionary biologist who goes by the name “GrrlScientist,” writes that she’s bothered by the deliberate blurring of editorial and advertising boundaries:

I and my colleagues were recruited by ScienceBlogs based on our track records of productivity, topic choices, traffic and whatever ephemeral talent that their corporate masters thought we possessed. Not one of us had to buy our way in. And despite the presence of advertising on this site, none of us is paid to write content that supports a particular corporate agenda.

[…]

I can only speak for myself, but as an unemployed scientist who’d love to continue my interrupted career path before I’m dead, the only thing of value that I have left is my integrity, but this surreptitious decision by the Seed overlords is casting a pall over all of us by selling the site’s integrity to the highest bidder.

Another ScienceBlog contributor, a physiologist who goes by Isis the Scientist, offers a more equivocal opinion on the new blog, pointing out that she’s worked for big pharma and has accepted money from big tobacco to fund a study. (The study did not turn out favorable for big tobacco.)

But Isis notes that at the moment, the difference between her work and what ScienceBlogs is doing involves transparency and a deliberate separation of church and state: she discloses her funding sources so that everyone is aware of any potential conflicts of interest. By comparison, ScienceBlogs hasn’t fully disclosed its arrangement with PepsiCo, and what it has disclosed doesn’t prove that there will be any clear division between editorial and advertising.

Isis writes, “Just because the potential for a conflict of interest exists doesn’t mean one must do dishonest science. …I hope that the ScienceBlogs overlords will apply a little more transparency to this situation, splaying the words ‘Advertisement’ all over the content.”

“Welcome to Food Frontiers” [ScienceBlogs]

Comments

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  1. Tim says:

    I would be a lot more comfortable with it if they made it entirely clear on every page that PepsiCo has paid for the privilege of posting the content. I don’t think they should have to disclose how much PepsiCo is paying for it though.

    On the other hand, even with a disclosure, this is definitely mixing editorial and advertising functions in a dangerous way. In a usual journalistic outlet, people with special interests are allowed to contribute opinions as long as their interests are disclosed. But they don’t actually pay for the privilege, and I think that’s a major sticking point here.

    And bloggers wonder why society and other media outlets don’t take them seriously as news sources …

    • dreamfish says:

      I suppose one saving grace is that each and every blog post will now be closely scrutinised in terms of the quality of the science (if any). Pumping out corporate-weasel language will more likely cause them more trouble than if they’d kept quiet.

    • Dean says:

      Actually, they often do pay for the privilege: http://www.talkleft.com/story/2009/7/2/142338/6642

      • Tim says:

        That’s by no means “often,” because it’s just one instance. Plus, it didn’t actually happen.

        • Dean says:

          Oh, it didn’t happen, right:
          “marketing fliers offered corporate underwriters access to Post journalists, Obama administration officials and members of Congress in exchange for payments as high as $250,000. “

          And of course, we are to take total faith in our media since this is exactly the kind of thing that they wouldn’t know how to keep under wraps. Knowing the industry, and all.

          Keep trusting your Washington Times and CNN. I’ll stick to AJE and CSMonitor, thanks.

  2. Dean says:

    It’s called “access journalism” and probably nearly all of our “respectable” papers, magazines and networks do it. 90% of the media is crap, utter crap.

  3. womynist says:

    “I and my colleagues were recruited by ScienceBlogs…”

    That grammar fail is enough to make me NOT read their blog. I think GrrlScientist needs to go back to 1st grade.

    • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      I think you need to go back to the third grade so they could make you write a hundred sentences saying, “I will not be a grammar or spelling Nazi.”

      Years ago, I used to have a full-time job as a copy editor for a publisher of scientific journals. Trust me, if scientists all had perfect grammar and spelling and could frame their thoughts in the most effective possible way, I would have been working at McDonald’s to put myself through school instead.

      • womynist says:

        Well, I am a word-nerd, so yes, I do scrutinize grammar & spelling. I guess I’m just baffled by the fact that an article would be printed, knowingly quoting someone who used improper grammar.

        • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

          I can has nollege of the difrunce tween heet-ov-da-momint blog post and prufred akademmik jurnle nao?

        • AnthonyC says:

          When was the last time you read a scientific paper? “Clear as mud” is the best description I’ve heard. High standards for content and form don’t always translate into high standards for grammar and clarity.

          • womynist says:

            I guess I’m just pining for the time when people had respect for language and grammar…it just doesn’t exist anymore.

            • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

              Gee, how do you react when you have a real problem? Seriously, worry about things worth worrying about.

    • mythago says:

      Yes, one sloppy grammatical error that doesn’t affect the actual meaning of the sentence totally means that the blog is unscientific, uninteresting and written at a kindergarten level. Grammar drama much?

  4. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    As a frequent Pharyngula commenter, I have been following various ScienceBlogs blogs for years now. Sb has been exemplary in its support of bloggers saying what they feel needs to be said, even when it’s extremely controversia, like the time PC Myers deliberately desecrated a Communion wafer, along with other religious and atheist symbols, to prove a point about the abusive fanaticism of Catholic fanboys; or the stalwart efforts of the medical and science bloggers there to fight dangerous anti-maccine lies and myths. That tolerance is going to change to the exact degree that PepsiCo’s money influences ScienceBlogs. Can you say “conflict of interest?” Knew you could…

    Even if PepsiCo’s blog includes no posts but discussions of scientific studies written by their lab scientists, it’s too late. It’s too late anyway. Their comment section is not only moderated, but heavily moderated. Make no mistake, they have to do it. Their legal department would chew them a new one if they weren’t all happy-beautiful-corporate on their shiny new scienceriffic propaganda machine.

    • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      I meant PZ Myers, of course, and as for the few other errors in my post above, I’m not exactly getting paid for my skill as a copy editor here. :D

      • Chris Walters says:

        Personally, *I* think your problem is you had too much maccine as a child.

        • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

          LOL. I’m ashamed to admit I was on a conference call while posting the above rant. No excuse, I know. :)

  5. Bakergirl says:

    It never changes, products like Pepsi always looking for an edge, something new to catch the ADD-like attention (that they helped to produce) of the public. I’m guessing they are still looking into adding more ‘healthy’ nutrients to their products? Maybe we will see a ‘Pepsi Organic’ line? Since that seems to be the trend.

    “What is the difference between unethical and ethical advertising? Unethical advertising uses falsehoods to deceive the public; ethical advertising uses truth to deceive the Public. “~Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 1964

  6. speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

    ScienceBlogs administration has responded to the criticism, in a post called “Transparency regarding Food Frontiers”:

    http://scienceblogs.com/seed/2010/07/transparency_regarding_food_fr.php

    • subtlefrog says:

      And at least one blogger has left Science Blogs as a result of this (the anthropology guy whose name I am blanking on). I don’t blame him – mass exodus to other pastures where science is valued over PR would be a great response to this.

      Yes, it’s a blog, not a peer-reviewed source, but there is a bit of guilt by association.

  7. stormbird says:

    While a large amount of science is involved in the making of that crap, sweetened soda is teh evil. Look at http://www.bspcn.com/2010/06/23/what-happens-to-your-body-if-you-drink-a-coke-right-now/ and you see how it actually rots bones and all. Now it also corrupts science! Yay?

  8. peebozi says:

    This is a victory for the free market system. those who object should answer one question…why do you hate America and the free market system?

    • speedwell (propagandist and secular snarkist) says:

      I don’t. I hate morons like you who read Wikipedia and think they know everything. Go read some Hayek and von Mises, or just talk to a knowledgeable economics professor who isn’t a crank, and in the meantime, shut up.

  9. XianZomby says:

    I totally disagree with Pepsi posing as a science expert on a science blog.

    HOWEVER:

    It’s not the gun that kills the innocent bystander, it’s the criminal holding the gun.
    It’s not the Pepsi that makes the boy obese, it’s the mom that bought the Pepsi.