PepsiCo has earned a good deal of publicity and praise for its aggressive push into social media through efforts like the Pepsi Refresh Project and crowdsourcing of new flavors for Mountain Dew as well as its decision not to buy a Super Bowl TV spot this year.
But the beverage giant's plan to sponsor a blog on food nutrition may have been a step too far. ScienceBlogs, a site aggregating dozens of science blogs, on Thursday killed Food Frontiers, a new blog developed and written by Pepsi following a fierce backlash by the site's bloggers and others in the scientific community.
Launched earlier this week, the blog was pulled after an outpouring of criticism over the Pepsi-sponsored blog undermining the scientific credibility of the entire ScienceBlogs platform, operated by privately held Seed Media.
Acknowledging the outcry, the site's editor, Adam Bly, wrote in a blog post yesterday: "We apologize for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs." "Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way."
In a prior post introducing Food Frontiers, Bly had explained it would include a video series looking 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."
The new Pepsi blog was met with a swift and scathing response from other site bloggers, including PalMD of The White Coat Underground, who called Food Frontiers not only "a spectacularly foolish decision" but "deceptive" because it should "clearly be labeled as advertising." Many also expressed concerns about the potential for conflicts of interest in a Pepsi-sponsored blog and blurring the line between independent editorial and promotional content. Still others said they would quit the network.
For its part, PepsiCo said Friday it concurred with the decision to pull the Food Frontiers blog and would reconsider its approach in light of the controversy. "In hearing the community's feedback, we agree with this decision and feel that the best approach is to take a step back and first examine the role industry scientists, such as myself, can play in the discussion about nutrition science within the larger scientific community," wrote Mehmood Khan, PepsiCo's chief scientific officer, in a blog post.
He added that the company would continue to run Food Frontiers -- one of five corporate blogs it operates along with ones for Frito-Lay Snacks and the Refresh campaign -- separately from ScienceBlogs to "talk about specific science, nutrition and global health policy topics."
Bly had apparently tried to ease the storm of protest by assuring ScienceBlogs contributors that the site would more clearly indicate that Food Frontiers was written by PepsiCo scientists or scientists invited by the company. He also noted that the site had begun to experiment with sponsored blogs a couple of years ago in an effort to create additional ad revenue.
In an internal communication published by The Guardian, he drew comparisons to The Atlantic's Ideas Festival and The New Yorker Festival that place employees of sponsor companies on stage with writers and thinkers. "We think this may be a digital equivalent. But we accept that we haven't got it 100% yet."
But that wasn't enough to end the uproar. Not surprisingly, the removal of Food Frontiers from ScienceBlogs was welcomed by many posting comments to Bly's announcement Thursday. But the debate over finding the right balance between advertising and editorial on the site is likely to go on.