When are food bloggers just meal blaggers?
Editor's note: On 8 July 2009, following a huge response to this posting, we added extra text to the original blog (clearly marked in italics) to clarify a few points that appeared to have caused confusion. No text has been removed.
London food blogger Krista (aka Londonelicious) recently set off a fierce debate when she asked: ‘What if every guy or gal with a decent food or restaurant blog in London knew that they could possibly blag a free meal at most restaurants?’
She was referring to, of course, the recent spate of food bloggers being approached by PRs, companies and ‘brand ambassadors’ to review their restaurants or products. Take a look at the handful of London’s top food blogs and you’ll notice a succession of similar postings on places such as Hawksmoor, Green & Blue, Belgo and even Abel & Cole organic veg boxes. Or, the spate of postings about St John, resulting from its use as a venue by winemakers Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco and 'brand ambassador'-slash-wine blogger Robert McIntosh of Wine Conversation.
At Time Out we have learned, through the experience of tens of thousands of review meals over quarter of a century, that the most telling experiences of a restaurant are those of the average, unknown punter. And, for a time, food bloggers seemed to be the best people to look to in a city where many professional food critics are known and easily recognised faces (on the very rare occasions that Time Out critics get spotted, it has led to a completely different restaurant experience). These blogs offered Londoners an alternative source of restaurant reviews to the celebrity critics.
And so in recent months the PR pack has become savvier. They’ve latched onto food bloggers, whose combined influence is growing day by day. Some of the most prolific and better food bloggers such as Kang of London Eater, Lizzie of Hollow Legs, Helen of World Foodie Guide and Helen of Food Stories to name but a few, may not be trained journalists, or even writers, nor is their readership as large as any publication. But their increased visibility and influence in the food media has sent many eagle-eyed professionals scrambling to butter them up. What the PR pack may not yet realise is that a free meal does not necessarily equate to uncritical coverage.
'Invited to review'
The aim of such PR offensives is, of course, to generate favourable coverage to a readership who may not be aware of the difference between an ‘advertorial’ and ‘proper journalism'. After all, if they can’t manipulate trained journalists to write favourable reviews after a complimentary meal, why not target food bloggers instead? Ply them with free wine and all the lobsters and cow they can eat? What self-respecting food lover would turn down the chance of a free (or at least partially paid) meal at Sketch, Morgan M or Nahm - three of London's very best restaurants, that can be expected to garner praise even from the most critical critic? The danger of this is that many of us who have greatly enjoyed reading ‘average food blogger’ experiences of restaurants over the last couple of years are now in danger of being 'duped' – 'duped' in the sense that most readers assume that bloggers visit as anonymous customers. and receive no special treatment.
It’s a tricky subject. While it seems we can’t flick through a series of blogs these days without seeing the words ‘blogger feast’, ‘invite(d) to review’, or ‘free meal’, there have also been some highly critical posts of late from the same bloggers questioning the ethics of writing about free meals and events laid on to them. (Again, see Krista’s blog – and the resulting comments – for the great debate, or Chris of Cheese and Biscuits for his musings on the matter).
The cost of a free lunch
For Time Out’s reviewers, this is a very old argument. Restaurant critics have received much criticism over ‘not representing the punter’ and for supposedly having a skewed perspective of the restaurants they review. Among bloggers, the general consensus is that readers would rather trust the opinions of bloggers over critics. (We would argue that this depends, of course, on who the critic or the blogger is.) What, then, happens when this assumption is challenged? What is the value of a post that is compromised by the very act of accepting a free meal? Readers, I imagine, would feel rightfully betrayed.
In the US, the Yanks are planning to crack down on bloggers who fail to declare such conflicts of interest). Recently, the Food Blog Code of Ethics has been doing the rounds, with declarations such as ‘we will reveal bias’ and ‘we will disclose gifts, comps and samples’. It seems a good place to start – by acknowledging the extent to which they can be impartial about a restaurant. Whether or not someone will then take the review seriously is another question.
In the end, these ‘invite to review’ posts are but a fraction of what’s already out there. The food blog community is a real asset to anyone even remotely interested in eating. To discount all of them on the theory that some bloggers might only be in it for the freebies would be a fallacy. And it has to be said that all of the bloggers we’ve mentioned here have all offered full disclosure, by clearly stating those occasions when they have accepted a free meal or other favours.
In the end, it’s the reader who needs to make an informed choice. Be alert as to what are the genuine anonymous reviews, and what are the thinly-veiled advertorials. And be aware that there are many shades of grey in between.
And the debate seems likely to roll on. We credit Shuna Fish Lydon for raising another issue – should bloggers be asking for free meals or products for review?
Read Charmaine's response to your comments here