Blindsided by my corporate overlords and PepsiCo

There’s a problem brewing and ScienceBlogs, a disturbance in the Force, if you will, and it’s a doozy. It’s a darkness that’s distubed several of my fellow ScienceBloggers to the point where I fear that some of them may leave. Indeed, it’s a spectacularly tin-eared and idiotic decision on the part of management that is leading me to start to wonder about my continued relationship with ScienceBlogs.

All in all, this is most definitely not good.

It all started when PalMD and I noticed something popping up on the ScienceBlogs newsfeed. It was a new blog in the collective announcing itself thusly: Welcome to Food Frontiers. That’s odd, I thought. We just added a couple of food and fitness blogs (Obesity Panacea and Tomorrow’s Table). Then I saw this and was not pleased:

On behalf of the team here at ScienceBlogs, I’d like to welcome you to Food Frontiers, a new project presented by PepsiCo.

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.

And this on the left sidebar:

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.


This is a problem. A big problem. Leaving aside what the heck it means that all editorial content on the blog is overseen by ScienceBlogs editors, what we have here is a corporate blog on ScienceBlogs. I realize that this isn’t the first time we’ve hosted corporate blogs before, but there’s something about this one that bothers me. For instance, there was Collective Imagination, which was sponsored by GE. There was also Next Generation Energy, which was sponsored by Shell. No big deal, right? What’s the difference between the PepsiCo blog and those previous corporate blogs? If those blogs didn’t bother me, why does the PepsiCo blog disturb me? There are a few reasons.

One reason is that these prior blogs were sponsored by a corporation, but the corporation didn’t take primary responsibility for writing them. In the case of Collective Imagination, one of our own, Greg Laden, participated in writing the blog, along with some GE scientists. In the case of Next Generation Energy, the blog was written by a combination of ScienceBloggers and guest bloggers. In contrast, Food Frontiers appears to be written entirely by R&D scientists employed by PepsiCo, leading me to ask: Why does PepsiCo need ScienceBlogs? Doesn’t the company have its own resources sufficient to produce its own blog? Does it need us to do the following:

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, and how industry research into chemistry, physiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, medicine, and nutrition can improve health outcomes around the world.

I would answer that it does not, nor does ScienceBlogs require such material to provide interesting, educational, and entertaining blogging for its readers.

Look, I get it. I knew from the beginning that ScienceBlogs is a business. I knew from the beginning that one of its goals was to turn a profit. I knew from the beginning that it would be advertiser supported. I’m not averse to advertising, even after the occasional ad has embarrassed the hell out of me because it was for alternative medicine quackery or some other pseudoscience. In general, our Benevolent Overlords would rapidly banish such ads when they were pointed out. There was also the understanding that the right bar and the top bar belonged to ScienceBlogs and existed for advertising, while the center bar belongs to individual bloggers. For the most part, that deal held. Even better, ScienceBlogs did something that is very rare in any sort of commercial website. It exercised no editorial control over what I wrote.

Let me repeat that. ScienceBlogs and Seed never exercised even the most minimal editorial control over my blogging or that of any other ScienceBlogger. If you don’t believe that, ask yourself: Would any blog network or magazine that exercised editorial control over content permit the desecration of a Catholic host as an anti-religion protest, as P.Z. Myers did a couple of years ago.

I think not.

It wasn’t just that, either. In the beginning, at least, there was a real sense of community among those of us chosen to be ScienceBloggers. Oh, sure, there was the occasional internecine dust-up, sometimes pretty nasty. But Seed sponsored blogger meetups and tried to keep a sense of community. True, the last couple of years there haven’t been any meetups, thanks to the economic downturn and the increased number of bloggers (at least, those are the reasons I suspect) and the sense of community has clearly eroded, but even so this remains a pretty decent gig. Those of us lucky enough to be invited to blog for ScienceBlogs don’t have to worry about technical upkeep of our blogs; we get paid a bit based on our traffic; and our corporoate overlords by and large don’t interfere with what we write. What’s not to like?

The blurring between advertising and blogging is not to like, at least not right now. What Seed has done is to set a dangerous precedent that goes beyond earlier corporate blogs. It has taken what is in essence advertising material and placed it front and center as a blog that’s coequal to me, not to mention to all my fellow ScienceBloggers–no, more than coequal. After all, it’s a corporate blog, written by scientists working for the corporation and edited by Evan Lerner and other ScienceBlogs editors. We don’t get that kind of attention from our management. But then we don’t pay what is likely a tidy sum to blog for ScienceBlogs. On the other hand, we drive the traffic that allows ScienceBlogs to attract a company like PepsiCo to spend money to promote its message through our blogs.

I admit that I didn’t pay much attention to the corporate blogs that preceded Food Frontiers. In retrospect, I now realize that I probably should have, because if I had I’d have probably seen this sort of thing coming. More importantly, my failure to pay attention to these precursor blogs was probably due to parochialism. GE is not a medical or pharmaceutical company, nor is Shell. It didn’t concern me. I recently made a snarky comment in the comments of PZ’s blog about how he didn’t decide that he was “done with” The Huffington Post until it started spouting what bugged him, namedly creationist nonsense. Maybe I’m the same way. I didn’t notice that Seed was getting a little too willing to let corporations spread their message through blogs rather than through ads on ScienceBlogs until it let a company responsible for producing huge quantities of junk food and arguably promoting the obesity epidemic have its very own blog. In other words, I was a “shruggie” until it was my ox that was gored. Now I’m left wondering: What’s next? The Merck Blog? The Sanofi-Aventis Blog? (If you’ve been paying attention to the antics of a certain member of the anti-vaccine movement you’ll know why I chose that latter one.) Here I am, trying very much to make sure that I can’t be legitimately charged with being a shill for pharma or the food industry, and Seed just cut my legs out from under me and left me open to all sorts of ridiculous charges by the loons in the anti-vaccine movement.

Worse, it came completely by surprise. Would it have been too much to give us ScienceBloggers a heads-up? No one in management sent out a notice that this was coming, and I discovered it only when the blog first popped up on my newsfeed yesterday afternoon. I e-mailed blog bud PalMD with a puzzled and dismayed “WTF?” and pretty soon there appeared to be a revolt brewing, with blogchild Mark Chu-Carroll deciding to stop blogging for ScienceBlogs for a while, to see what happens, referring to the deal as “sleaze” and Grrl Scientist writing about “sucking corporate dick.” ERV, on the other hand, appears to have no problem with the arrangement, going as far as referring to those of us who do have concerns about it as “arrogant idiots” and:

…snooty assholes who think that they look more educated or forward-thinking or refined because “they don’t drink ‘soda’ or eat Doritos” is unimpressive. Its simultaneously intellectually lazy and condescending.

I for one do drink pop (we’re in the midwest here; to me it’s pop, not soda) and I happen to love Doritos and other Frito Lay products as well as Lipton Iced Tea (although I have to admit that I much prefer Coke to Pepsi; alway have.) In other words, I’m a junk food junkie, and I have nothing against PepsiCo personally. That doesn’t mean I want to be so closely associated with it. DRV is free to snuggle up to her heart’s content with Pepsico; I don’t really care. But ERV would feel differently if she were a physician, like PalMD or myself, and were trying to promote science-based medicine. One of the most persistent false charges used by quacks and cranks to try to discredit us is the charge of being a pharma shill or a corporate shill. I myself just suffered having a bunch of loons from the Age of Autism try to get me fired from my job for made up conflicts of interest that I allegedly didn’t disclose. That ERV so blithely and sarcastically dismisses legitimate concerns about this situation does not speak well of her at all. My estimation of her just dropped a couple of notches. (Whether she cares about my opinion of her or not, who knows?) It would have been one thing if ERV had simply said she disagreed and stated why, but she went out of her way to show contempt for those expressing their concerns, and for that it’s highly tempting to go all Orac on her. Let me just point out that obesity is one of the biggest drivers of chronic disease, including certain cancers, and as a cancer surgeon I find it disconcerting–to say the least!– to see my corporate overlords applying lips to corporate anus in so shameless a fashion.

Now don’t get me wrong. As I said, I don’t object to advertising per se as a means of supporting ScienceBlogs. I do object to advertising being given coequal status to my blogging–greater than equal status, actually. What I do object to is the blurring of the line between advertising and content. At the same time, I do acknowledge that Food Frontiers is clearly labeled as being the product of PepsiCo. What bothers me is that it isn’t represented as advertising.

For the moment I’m willing to take a wait and see approach. I’m also going to be paying close attention to this new interloper. Just because it’s Seed-supported won’t inoculate it from a heapin’ helpin’ of not-so-Respectful Insolence. What happens next will also guide what would seem to be a mandatory reevaluation of my relationship with Seed and ScienceBlogs. Seed and ScienceBlogs have built up a lot of good will with me; so I’m inclined for the moment to give them the benefit of the doubt, although I remain disturbed that this project wasn’t announced to us before it caught us by surprise. My font of good will isn’t bottomless, however. Like Mike Dunford and Jason Goldman, I’m not reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to the mere concept of a corporate blog. After all, I didn’t react one way or the other to the two or three such blogs that preceded the PepsiCo blog. Nor am I necessarily planning to leave ScienceBlogs just over the concept of a blog like PepsiCo’s blog, but I am going to be watching it very carefully.