Sunday, October 24, 2010

Are Freebies The Root Of All Evil (In Food Blogging)?

Like a hot new restaurant that's just opened, there's a buzz around the Melbourne food blogosphere right now. But the current hot new thing isn't a restaurant, it's a discussion about the "ethics" of accepting free products/meals or attending free events from PR companies and if that is ruining the food blog "scene".

I've been a very interested reader of all the opinions that have been floating around. I too had been questioning all the same issues, more than three months ago when I talked to a fellow food blogger about my concerns. I then spoke to yet another food blogger about it via some very extended email exchanges. None of us could form a firm stance on all the issues, as there are a multitude of factors. What the three of us did agree on was that it was up to each individual to form their own opinions, generally through experience.

It's been three months since and I have had quite a few experiences and have decided to write it all down. This post will present some arguments that have been asserted in the blogosphere, and my views on them. This post obviously contains my opinions on the topic, but is also discussive as I am still trying to work my way through some of the topics. No issue is ever black and white. It's always a shade of grey, with each person acting in the manner in which they deem suitable for themselves.

Let me first declare that I do take free products/meals and attend free events, happily. I've never tried to hide this and all my friends and work mates know about it, and encourage me to accept them. I do not tell them in an egotistical way, but when I mention that I ate at such and such place, I alert them if I dined there for free, as I think it's one of the contributing factors to my overall view of a restaurant. I can already hear a lot of you thinking "sell-out", but to be honest, it doesn't bother me. I'll address that later.

Let's get started or you'll probably fall asleep after reading more than three paragraphs and not seeing a photo. Scientific research has shown that to be true. Try not to get distracted and continue reading this post before clicking all the links. In the mean time, YAKAWOW.

So now that you are alert again and hopefully have a smile on your face after seeing the picture, let's start.

ISSUE: Accepting freebies is unethical.
MY VIEW: I do not see anything unethical about accepting freebies. No one is breaking any legal laws, or even offending anyone. If the freebies are not disclosed, you may question the moral ethics of the blogger, but in most cases I know, bloggers do disclose the freebies. However, should a blogger not disclose a freebie, does that necessarily make it unethical?

The answer is maybe, I think. Everyday, we are saturated with marketing in all forms. The approach that is taken with marketing is evolving with technology and maybe that is where the problem lies with some people. Whereas you clearly know an ad on TV is a form of paid advertising, it is now unclear where other forms of advertising start and finish. Celebrities endorse products and may drop product names during interviews. Products are placed within movies, music clips, TV show and web videos, and people are getting confused as to which part is paid advertising. Maybe this is what is causing some of the disgruntlement towards bloggers accepting free products. Legally, to not disclose a freebie is not a crime. Bloggers are not in the same situation as a doctor or policeman who not only have a legal obligation to serve the community, but are also morally obliged just due to the position that have chosen to accept. Morally, if a blogger does not disclose a freebie, I do think it is slightly unethical, but again, where do we draw the line? Do we expect celebrities to say disclaimers before talking about anything as they might be secretly endorsing a paid sponsorship? These are all a lot of questions that I do not have answers for. But one thing that I am certain about is if a freebie is disclosed, I see no problem whatsoever.

ISSUE: A freebie will bias a bloggers opinion and review.
MY VIEW: I think this is definitely the case. A freebie will always carry with it implied pressure by the PR company that is spruiking the product. There is the thought of "if I don't write something nice, I won't get any more freebies". But the pressure does not necessarily translate to a blogger writing a misleading review. It is merely another issue to assess and each blogger will make up their own mind on how to deal with the situation. It iss no worse pressure than if a blogger knew the chef or if their friend worked at a certain restaurant. It all provides pressure to write a more favourable review. But that does not equate to writing a false review. It's merely another hurdle to deal with.

I can say for myself that initially I did feel the pressure and that my first few reviews did gloss over a few negatives. But, those events were still extremely fun and I did like them. That is true for most freebies/events that I get. They are highly enjoyable and hence the reviews are favourable. There may be elements that aren't as good and I am now writing about those now. Events that are fairly bad may not get a mention, not necessarily because they might be viewed negatively by the PR company, but generally most bloggers do not blog their paid bad experiences. Why waste time and effort writing up bad reviews unless it was truly awful and you felt a strong desire to inform everyone.

ISSUE: Bloggers who take freebies are "sell-outs".
MY VIEW: Firstly, I am unsure who myself, and other bloggers, are selling out to? If selling out is in reference to receiving money for providing a service, I think that I sold out many years ago when I first started working. I happily take money from my employer to do what they ask of me, with actions that I sometimes do not agree with. I am not talking about harming people, but for example, the company is based in a strategic overseas location to reduce tax. I do not agree with this but I am not exactly doing anything about it. I would guess that most other people do not agree with everything that they have been paid to do previously, so does that make everyone a "sell-out"?

To me, we are all merely prostitutes who sell our services for monetary gain. Why should it only refer to bloggers who take freebies, especially when it is clearly disclosed that they are freebies. And what makes me laugh the hardest are bloggers who "pick and choose which freebies to take" or "don't blog every freebie". If you're a prostitute, it doesn't matter which clients you choose, you are still a prostitute. I do not understand how picking which freebies to take makes any difference to if I took every freebie (which I do not, if that makes you respect me any more)? Surely, some freebies will still turn out different to expected, so does so called blogger then write those or not? If they do not, is it any different to if I took every freebie and did not write some? Is not writing up an awful freebie just as bad a sin, as it is deceiving the audience by omission, because if you had paid good money for such an awful product, you would definitely want to alert others?

ISSUE: That freebie is totally unrelated to this food blog.
MY VIEW: This view has me totally perplexed. Someone must have forgot to tell me that my blog has been labelled a food blog and that I cannot write about anything else. So hence I cannot accept other types of freebies as they don't "fit with my blog". I have many diverse interests and just because I choose to mainly write about food on this blog does not exclude me from writing about other things. If I label my own blog a personal blog, can I then write about food, tv shows, novels, philosophy, psychology, technology, music and photography, as those are all interests of mine as well, and then accept any type of freebies I want?

Whether a product "fits" with a food blog is up to the discretion of the food blogger anyway. I'm sure a trip to Bali at a five star resort will miraculously "fit" with everyone's blog, whereas a block of chocolate may not. I am happy to be sent offers on all freebies, as ultimately the decision is still up to me. I appreciate every offer, big or small, as I know that they are not an entitlement to me and will not be available all the time. I do pass up some offers as I really have no interest in the offer or believe it will be more work than it is worth. Let us not try to hide from the fact that we live in a commercialised world, and whether we like it or not, the reward to effort question crosses everyone's mind when they make a decision that involves some monetary gain.

ISSUE: Bloggers are being taken advantage of by PR companies and also losing credibility with their readers.
MY VIEW: I think that bloggers who view other freebie taking bloggers as ignorant, are the ones who are truly ignorant. I can only speak for myself, but with every freebie that I accept, I make an assessment of how much work is expected of me. I consider myself to be a fairly smart person who has two university degrees and was without a single dollar when my family immigrated here from Vietnam. I know the value of every dollar and what effort is needed to acquire them. It is just a business transaction where I assess whether my effort is equal to the payback, as we all do with every situation in life. I am no one's fool, and for another person to think that I would waste my valuable time and effort for a block of chocolate only makes me disgusted and pitiful for them. Both emotions are linked to the same thought, that another human being believes they are so much more clever and better than everyone else to think so lowly of me.

The same emotions are again what I would use for bloggers who think blog readers are so easily deceived. The perception that a reader, upon seeing a clearly stated sponsored post, would then buy a product or visit a restaurant without doing further research or understanding the implications of that post, is again a very naiive or egotistical thought. I choose to believe that people are much smarter than that and will be able to make up their minds weighing up all variables. Should a reader really buy a bad product after reading a sponsored post, and feel so strongly about it, I am sure they will let people know. With social media so prominent, that one reader can tell their friends via Twitter, Facebook, email or face to face, who could then pass it on to yet more people. They can even post a comment on the blog from which they read about the product. If that happens more and more, readers will know not to trust that blogger.

The good thing about the web is that with so many contributors, it is in a way self regulating. The community will decide what is acceptable and what is not. If a blogger starts to write more and more sponsored posts such that they lose readers, they will not be offered any more sponsored posts, and will need to change their way. There is no need for other bloggers to assume what readers will or will not accept, as the readers will ultimately vote with their clicks and it will naturally happen.

In this whole discussions, many of the comments on this topic are by blog writers themselves. Not many comments are actually from readers. My ad-hoc non-scientific study of ten of my work mates and friends showed that none of them cared about advertising on blogs. They are all so used to advertising everywhere that they just ignore it if they do not like that ad. Regarding freebies and sponsored posts, again, all were of the opinion that as long as it was disclosed, it was not a problem. Maybe my friends are smarter than the average bears but they all said they would seek multiple information sources if it was really important.

ISSUE: It is all same same.
MY VIEW: Food blogging can be a bit repetitive, but there are only so many products and restaurants in Melbourne. This topic was brought up previously already, and again it is not without merit. If a group of food bloggers are invited to an event, obviously there is a lot of repetition in the descriptions of the items and also of the photos. But, this is where the key is for me, each blogger still is an individual who has a different opinion and a different style of writing. Each post will still be completely different and individual. If you get bored after reading two posts about that event, then stop there. Do not read anymore. It really is no different to if all the food bloggers had gone to that event separately, you would still get similar posts.

To claim that due to these free events, there is no original content being generated is incorrect I believe. All the content by each blogger is still uniquely theirs. What is true is that going to the events may mean that the food blogger does not go elsewhere. But that is up to the food blogger as to where they wish to spend their time. There is no obligation to go eat at a particular place just for the reader. A blog is there to catalog a food bloggers experiences.

I can say that an advantage of the events is that food bloggers meet each other, often resulting in catch ups at other restaurants, events and cook ups. It results in different content that is often interesting and not something a food blogger may normally participate in.

ISSUE: I don't like reading food blogs anymore.
MY VIEW: You are free to do as you wish, but to stop reading food blogs would be a shame. I have found that accepting freebies has not muted my independence or creativity at all. In fact it has been the total opposite. I have attended so many great events and have had access to food industry professionals that I would never have had. I have been able to conduct in-depth interviews with chefs and learnt about their passion, attended learning events and discover facts about food I never even thought of, seen behind the scenes of restaurants/events to appreciate the hard work behind seamless food, and discover new product and places that I would not necessarily have chosen myself. In fact, I know buy many of the products in which I have sampled, and go back to restaurants in which I visited for free the first time.

As with anything in life, you need to use your own judgment and seek multiple sources to ensure you get a full picture of anything. After all, a food blog is just one person's (or a few at most) opinion. Even if a food blogger paid for something with their own money, it is still only one opinion, and their opinion on it may still be different to yours.

So, if you've managed to make you way through all my grammatically incorrect sentences, thank you for reading my views. Obviously I am neither a well versed lawyer or arts literature graduate who is able to use words to their full effect, so please do not bother wasting your time and picking up on single words and trying to use that to prove that I am incorrect. I do not claim to have definitive answers, merely stating some views. The overall message of the sentences are what I intended to project. I value your views and am happy to discuss any topic. Just remember that it is only my opinion about a small food discussion and there is no need to get nasty. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and to express it. That is what I love about this country, so feel free to drop a comment and express your thoughts.

Lastly, just remember that we are only talking about food here, so just take it all with a grain of salt and continue happily eating. I know that I have been quite philosophical and talked about life quite a few times. I feel it is justified despite my own words of how this topic is only about food. The topic is only about food, but other food bloggers have felt the need to implicitly suggest that those who take freebies are greedy, ignorant and without integrity. That, to me, is not acceptable and where I strongly take offence. I am happy to agree that taking freebie will obviously add another factor that may bias my views, but to equate that to a lack of integrity only shows how high a pedestal the accusers believe they are on.

To answer the initial title question of "Are Freebies The Root Of All Evil (In Food Blogging)", my answer is no. It merely adds another level of complexity to an already very tasty soup. So I encourage everyone to go out and eat, write what you want and continue enjoying Melbourne's very rich food scene. I will, even if it is free.

This post has been sponsored by Thanh Do from I Eat Therefore I Am. Thanh has blogged for free, and freely as a semi-intelligent human being who happens to write a semi-informed food blog in Melbourne.

Here are some more views on this discussion from other food bloggers in chronological order:
Confessions of a Food Nazi
Confessions of a Food Nazi
Last Appetite
The New Epicurean
Melbourne Gastronome
Syrup and Tang


  1. First, thanks for writing this. I wish I could articulate it as well as you did.
    Secondly, I need to again emphasize my distaste for the ones in denial. I love LOVE the point made in regards to prostitution. Made me laugh.

  2. I'm a food blog reader and agree w what you said. I think you covered a lot of the issues in depth. If I were a food blogger, I think I would want to enjoy the benefits too. The most important point to me is that a dinner being free does change your perception (at least a little, which you mention) and if I read a blog and then go out to that place and it doesn't match up over and over, then I will eventually think, that my tastes don't match w the blogger. but hey that could happen anyway.

    The other thing I personally get tired of are the giveaways of products - I just don't care that much for contests and often the free giveaway isn't so interesting either, and if the blog ends up being mostly that, then I probably will take it off my list.

    I think in genl food bloggers work hard and I really appreciate being able to read a variety of opinions about a restaurant.

    I also think it is great that you recognize that there is work involved in a "free" meal and sometimes it might not be worth it. I think eventually people will tire of the offers and be inclined to eat where they want to. It will all sort itself out.

    All I want is honest disclosure, other than that, enjoy it!

  3. I think you put forward your views well.

    I still don't know how I feel about this topic, I know there are one or two blogs on various topics where the posts are always so gushingly positive on everything they get given, it just smells bad to me.

    Do I think this shuld preclude the acceptance of a freebie? no. As you said, it's up to everyone to make there own choices, go/don't go, blog/don't blog, read/go somewhere else.

    I agree with Debbie Ann, I'd like to see disclosure in the post. ie This product was provided for free for evaluation or this event was a sponsored event etc.

    I am only just starting out blogging and since my blog will be about mostly baking I don't expect any freebies to be coming my way anytime soon, so I will continue to read blogs and make my own decisions on what is truth and what is sponsored comment.

  4. Interesting. I don't think there's anything wrong with accepting freebies but I have noticed that (depending a bit on the blogger) I often don't enjoy the posts that come from them as much as the non-freebie ones. I think the reason is that I read blogger posts to get an idea of the kind of experience I'd have if I went to the restaurant. If the freebie is some kind of launch party, obviously I'm not going to experience that. If the freebie is just a free meal but there is some indication that the reviewer got special treatment (eg. gifts from the kitchen, tours of the kitchen, meet the chef) then I'm probably not going to experience that either. So I find those kind of posts a bit less interesting but I'd imagine that people who like different aspects of a blog post don't have those issues.

  5. On point here. This issue is obviously causing a split within the food blogging community in Australia and rightly so as we are quite small community but a rapidly growing one at that. I've lost count of the amount of food blogs which is a great thing.

    I can see both sides to this issue. I do receive freebies occasionally. But I would never demand a freebie nor would I refuse any unless they were totally unrelated to my blog. Will I review each one? No. Why? It takes time write a decent post. If I were to write about each freebie, that would suck the passion I have for food blogging and the telling of my experiences, which is why I stared it in the first place.

    If I was actually impressed by the product, then yes I would take the effort to write a post so I can inform others of my opinion. Will it be perceived as 'gushing' about what was offered? Perhaps to some, yes - especially if I truly believed the product was worth the tasting.Of course any cons would be outlined. Other industry type blogs- take beauty or technology blogs. Many review products that have been given to them from time to time- never comparing it with another product. Just a review solely on the product given. I do have great respect for those who do go out of their way and purchase another product to compare but each is their own. So long as it's an honest review, I see no problem.

    The above applies to free restaurant meals, restaurant/book launch events. If the meal/event was worthwhile and enjoyable, I would definitely blog about it and have done so. If the event was 'eh' then, I may or may not write about it. Whatever the case, if I disliked some aspects of the restaurant/book, then this would be outlined.

    On the other side of the spectrum, I can see why others may be a little tired of seeing sponsored post after sponsored post. Again, I have no issue with these so long as they're spread out so it doesn't turn into a product review website, be honest and the freebie fact be disclosed.

    I could go on further about this issue which seemed to blow out of proportion after the alleged Singaporean blogger incident, but it would turn into an essay. Everyone has an opinion, some stronger than others. Whether you accept freebies or not, is up to you.

    Great write up! Detailed as always.

  6. Thanh, I keep meaning to leave you a comment on this post - but - you've said it all! I understand that some people don't like freebies and choose not to take them - that's up to the individual to choose. Just like reading blogs is a choice... and if you don't like the direction a blog is going it's pretty easy to stop reading...