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Rethinking the PepsiCo / ScienceBlogs affair

July 7, 2010
If nothing else, I love trying to come up with other reasons things might happen, or other ways things can be done. Maybe this is why I’m such a science nerd, as that ties nicely into the scientific mantra of why? why? why? why? and how?

So when this whole PepsiCo/ScienceBlogs shit-storm hit the fan, a significant part of my imagination went to work trying to come up with how it could have gone down differently.
The major reaction, at least as far as I can tell on twitter and from watching the mass exodus from ScienceBlogs, is that SEED sold a valuable, credible and prominent platform to some corporate shills. This is definitely a strong gut reaction, and I had it too, but I think there are other ways to think about it.
One big issue is with how the project was presented in the initial post. I thought I would try my hand at re-framing the launch of the project by rewriting the statement. I don’t think it strays in spirit or content from what the Food Frontiers blog is actually supposed to be about – but it does stray significantly in the angle I chose to put forward. Compare it to the actual post here (see Edit at bottom).

On behalf of the team here at ScienceBlogs, I’d like to welcome you to Food Frontiers, the home of a new collaborative project on science, nutrition, and global health policy.

The blog is being sponsored by PepsiCo. in an attempt to bring people together to discuss these critical issues.

“PepsiCo realises that they have made a lot of money selling soft drinks and chips. But they also recognize that their future will be troublesome and time-limited without addressing the real and connected issues of obesity and under-nutrition in the world,” said Adam Bly, editor-in-chief of SEED media group.

The blog will play host to independent scientists invited to contribute by ScienceBlog’s editors or PepsiCo, as well as some of the thousands of scientist working on these problems at PepsiCo.

Among those will be Pekka Puska,  president of the World Heart Federation — as well as other global leaders in nutrition research who work in fields ranging from government, to academia, to industry.

PepsiCo’s research team draws from all of those branches: Dr. Mehmood Khan, PepsiCo’s Chief Scientific Officer, served as the director of the Mayo’s Clinic’s endocrinology and nutrition clinical trial unit, and Dr. George Mensah, PepsiCo’s Vice President of Global Nutrition, was the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Cardiovascular Health Program for almost a decade.

As we like to say, science is driving the conversation unlike ever before — and ScienceBlogs is happy to work with PepsiCo to host a forum for such an important discussion.

As far as I can tell, the deal between PepsiCo and ScienceBlogs wasn’t inherently sinister – but I think it could have been helped along by having a different face put forward.

Pepsi would be sponsoring a discussion, not a blog. The emphasis is on bringing together diverse people to talk about issues that PepsiCo decided was important to it. They benefit from being perceived as acknowledging and being open to discussion and criticism, but it also might have stifled some of the assumptions that the blog is just advertising-disguised-as-blogging.

This is of course assuming that the blog will actually be open to discussion and criticism. False engagement will just be a long-term detriment for PepsiCo (and we’ve already seen the short-term blow to Sb’s reputation.)

Another issue is, I think, the perception of ScienceBlogs.com and its role in fostering the online science community. A lot of comparisons have been drawn today between Sb and the magazine industry, but I think that misses some important elements of the Sb platform. I think there is another comparison that could be used in this situation, which might frame the PepsiCo blog a little differently.

If Pepsi is really sponsoring a discussion forum, and not just putting on a PR front, then this sort of sponsorship isn’t without precedent, and I think it’s one that both readers and bloggers at ScienceBlogs would be familiar – corporate sponsorship of conferences.

Corporations decide what topics they wants to promote (or want to be associated with) and then sponsor organizations or conferences working towards those goals. Even the most noble-hearted of conferences is reliant on corporate funding, and almost all display banner ads and logos around the venue. It’s also not unheard of or unreasonable(?) for corporate scientists to promote their products or services in workshops or presentations.

The difference between the magazine analogy and the conference analogy is that people don’t denounce the quality of the science being presented – especially not in all of the presentations – just because of the conference’s sponsors.

What I think is a really interesting issue that hasn’t been discussed yet is – what is the better analogy for ScienceBlogs? Are they a magazine, currating content from a diverse group of freelancers? Or, are they hosts for an ongoing, interdisciplinary scientific conference?

Something in between? Or something else entirely?

PS – It’s likely the obvious, but it’s fun to entertain alternatives.

(*Edit. Since ScienceBlogs decided to tear down Pepsi’s blog, so with it went the original post. It read:

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.
In June, I had the pleasure of meeting Pekka Puska, president of the World Heart Federation — we’ll be hearing from him on this blog, as well as other global leaders in nutrition research, in every context ranging from government, to academia, to industry. PepsiCo’s research team draws from all of those branches: Dr. Mehmood Khan, PepsiCo’s Chief Scientific Officer, served as the director of the Mayo’s Clinic’s endocrinology and nutrition clinical trial unit, and Dr. George Mensah, PepsiCo’s Vice President of Global Nutrition, was the chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Cardiovascular Health Program for almost a decade.
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.
As we like to say, science is driving the conversation unlike ever before — and ScienceBlogs is happy to be at the center of it all.
/end Edit)
3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2010 7:53 pm

    ‘Another issue is, I think, the perception of ScienceBlogs.com and its role in fostering the online science community.’

    Even then it fails the cynicism test. When it was founded, the invited people were the ones who had a lot of technorati links and they were brought in with the revenue candy that they were popular and could make money writing. It wasn’t the best writers, it was the popular ones so they didn’t foster a science community, they created a better way to make money talking at people and letting them comment.

    So it is a little baffling that anyone who was invited under that pretense is then shocked Adam cares about keeping his site alive. Seed the magazine has him swimming in debt and if he is going to be able to sell it, he needs Scienceblogs to be bigger.

    If you want to get into ‘other reasons things might happen,’ it has to be considered that this was planned for. Adam has now cleverly shaken out the troublemakers who will object to more of this in the future, while keeping the big people making the most money (and he is, none of them have announced a departure) while showing his corporate partners he will stick up for them.

  2. July 7, 2010 8:24 pm

    We may not like it, but big corporations are beginning to play the “foodie-sustainability-green” marketing game that has emerged in the past decade or so. And the thing I can’t understand is why everyone gets so up in arms about it when they do get on board; isn’t that the change we’re trying to foster by developing these ideals?

    I am one of the biggest opponents to Wal-Mart you will ever find, I am reminded of my high school history teacher who upon hearing my now ex-girlfriend was working there he said, “Oh! You’re working for the devil!”

    But for all the bad they do, if a company as powerful as Wal-Mart wants to shift to more ecologically sustainable food systems, why is that so bad? As I posted in an earlier blog post on my website, if people are turning green into gold, where’s the harm? If it genuinely makes the world a better place, all the power to them.

    We’ll never get rid of the big conglomerate’s (unlike what certain G20 protesters might think) so we might as well try changing a few minds in the upper-management.

    James D.E. Jackson

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  1. The PepsiGate linkfest « A Blog Around The Clock

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