If you've been around Scienceblogs today, or on Twitter, you may have noticed that there appears to be a new blog around these parts.

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.

PalMD has some initial thoughts here. I share many of his concerns, but I'm also trying to keep an open mind about this.

Jump below the fold for a random smattering of thoughts and opinions, more on the ethics of corporate blogs here, and less on the issue of PepsiCo itself. Again, these are simply a collection of initial thoughts and reactions.

Some of my initial thoughts and observations:

(1) This is not the first time a corporation has paid for blog space here on Scienceblogs. Recently, GE sponsored and provided content for the Collective Imagination blog. There were three contributors to this blog: two worked for GE, and one was Greg Laden, already a scibling. The ones who worked for GE appear to have been researchers employed by GE (and not PR professionals).

In a somewhat different model, Shell sponsored a blog called Next Generation Energy, though the content was written by bloggers; none of the writers appear to have worked for Shell.

In both cases, SEED provided editorial oversight, which they do not do on the rest of our blogs, or on the new institutional blogs (like SETI, Weizmann, Brookhaven, etc).

The Pepsi blog, like the GE blog, appears to be set to include content provided by four individuals who work for Pepsi, and nothing from unaffiliated bloggers (as both GE and Shell had). Like the individuals from the GE blog who worked for GE, the individuals writing for Pepsi all appear to work in research or lead research teams (and not in PR or sales). One leads the Nutrition group, one is the Chief Scientific Officer, one directs the Heart Health and Global Health Policy group, and one leads the Global Human Sustainability Task Force. Read more about them here.

Are these legitimate research groups, or an elaborate PR stunt? I don't know, but I'm willing to (for now) give them the benefit of the doubt.

(2) Is the issue the existence of corporate blogs on the Scienceblogs network in the first place? Is it the ethics of including corporate blogs? If the mission of Scienceblogs is to be "where the world goes to talk about science," shouldn't industry and corporations that have scientific interests have a place at the table?

(3) If the issue is that advertising, the drive to increase sales, and "the bottom line" are wrapped up with the content provided by corporations (and I would agree, they totally are), then these blogs need to be clearly labeled as corporate blogs and as advertisement. The LA Times recently came under fire for a similar type of advertisement. They ran an ad across the front page of one of their sections that was designed to look like news content. The ad was for the new King Kong attraction at Universal Studios.

king kong la times.jpg

Figure 1: The advertisement section, left, compared with a typical section from a different day, right. Click to embiggen.

It is clear with the red letters ADVERTISEMENT on the top, that this was an advertisement. The letters could have (and should have) been bigger, but I think there still would have been people who would not have noticed even if they'd have been huge, and would have become angry.

One of the LA Times blogs described the issue:

Readers were surprised to see reports in Thursday's LATExtra section of Universal Studios' destruction. The cover story was labeled "advertisement," and the section was lettered AD as opposed to AA, but those distinctions were missed by many readers, at least on first blush.

What appeared to be news was in fact advertising copy for Universal Studios' new King Kong attraction. The four-page advertising section was topped by the LATExtra section flag, while the actual LATExtra news section appeared inside.

Clearly this is different from a corporate blog, in some sense, as the content of the Pepsi blog (presumably) isn't intended as a clever hoax (as it was with the King Kong ad), but in that the content still serves as advertisement, I think there are parallels.

The job of a newspaper is to sell newspapers and ad space. If they don't do that, then they can't do the business of journalism. Indeed, the LA Times publisher said as much:

In an article in Friday's LATExtra section, Times Publisher Eddy Hartenstein stood by the advertising section. "Our readers understand the ad-supported economic model of our business, which allows us to provide the outstanding journalism they rely upon 24/7."

Likewise, SEED and Scienceblogs are an ad-supported economic model. If they can't make money, they can't provide a platform to the 80+ other non-corporate blogs so that we can go about our business of blogging about science.

(4) If the issue is not the mere existence of corporate blogs on our network, then is the issue with PepsiCo, specifically? In other words, if, say, Quaker Oats or 24 Hour Fitness was sponsoring a corporate blog, would the outrage be less? A Quaker Oats blog or a 24 Hour Fitness blog would still be designed to increase sales and drive up the bottom line, after all. Quaker Oats aren't as unhealthy as Pepsi, to be sure, and going to the gym is a good thing, but content-as-advertisement is still advertisement. Science bloggers write books and promote them on their blogs, all the time. Is it okay for Chad Orzel to promote the sale of his book on Uncertain Principles? What about for Brian Switek to promote his book, on Laelaps?

Perhaps the reaction to a Pepsi blog is a visceral reaction to the negative things associated with their product, rather than the question of corporate blogs in the first place. If this is the case, where do we draw the lines? Who decides which corporations are "okay" and which "suck balls"? When is content-as-advertisement acceptable? I have no answers, just questions.

Concluding Remarks and Recommendations:

I'm not necessarily angry or upset with SEED for this move, and this move is obviously not a new one, given the previous existence of corporate blogs with content provided by employees of those corporations.

I would strongly recommend that the Pepsi name and logo be clearly included on the blog's banner image (just as Shell's name appeared on the banner of the Next Generation Energy blog).

I would strongly recommend that it be made clear on every post, in addition to in the profile space and on the about page in big bold red letters, that Food Frontiers is a sponsored, corporate blog. This is the lesson I took away from the LA Times debacle. Let is be unambiguously clear that this counts as advertisement, and is a corporate, sponsored blog. Obviously the word "ADVERTISEMENT" in size 12 font will not cut it. Let them post to the Scienceblogs Select feed, but not to the regular channels (e.g. "Brain and Behavior," "Life Science") that the rest of us use. Maybe create a channel for "Sponsored Posts"?

I would also strongly encourage all my sciblings as well as other bloggers around the sciblogosphere to engage with the writers of the Pepsi blog. When they mess up, call them onto the carpet. When they don't back up their content with good peer-reviewed research, say so. If you know about scientific evidence that is contrary to what they claim, blog about it, or comment on their blog, or both.

I would encourage the bloggers at the Pepsi blog to allow arguments and disagreement in the comments in their blog. If they wish to disallow certain language (as I do), it takes a bit of extra effort, but they can make the rules clear, and go through and manually redact the words they don't like, as I do. Also, I would encourage the writers at the Pepsi blog to invite and encourage posts from other bloggers not affiliated with their corporation (like Peter and Travis from Obesity Panacea, for example), as GE and Shell did with their blogs. (Perhaps they already have? I have no idea.)

While I do have concerns, and while I share the concerns of many of my sciblings, I'm trying to keep an open mind. They haven't actually written anything yet (there is just the introductory post, from the SB editors), so I will hold off judgment until there are posts up from their staff. I will of course take everything they say with a grain of salt (or perhaps a pound of salt grains), and I am ready to change my mind and rail against the Pepsi blog, it I find it necessary to do so. I hope it at least provides some interesting discourse.

So, I'm not sure this is problematic or unethical, per se, but it needs to be executed properly and carefully. Starting with placing a gigantic Pepsi logo on the banner image.

What do you think?

[Update: Additional initial thoughts from GrrlScientist, Janet at Adventures in Ethics and Science, Abbie at ERV, Mark at Good Math/Bad Math, Grant Jacobs on Sciblogs' Code for Life, Alex Wild at Myrmecos, Greg Laden, Mike Dunford at The Questionable Authority, Zen of Neurodojo, Josh Rosenau of Thoughts from Kansas (and again), Dr. Isis of On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, Orac at Respectful Insolence, Zuska at Thus Spake Zuska, Scicurious of Neurotopia, Blake Stacey at Science After Sunclipse - and again, Christie Wilcox at Observations of a Nerd, Hank Campbell of Scientificblogging's Science 2.0, Brian Mossop at the Decision Tree, Abel at Terra Sigilatta, James Hrynyshn at Class: M, PZ at Pharyngula, Brian at Laelaps, David Dobbs of Neuron Culture, Sharon Astyk at Causabon's Book (and again), the Knight Science Journalism Tracker (and again), Eric Johnson of The Primate Diaries, Mike the Mad Biologist, Confessions of A Science Librarian, Maryn McKenna of Superbug, Martin at Aardvarchaeology, Erik at Eruptions, Dave Bacon at The Quantum Pontiff, ...]

[Update 2: In an amusing little ironic twist, I've just realized that Quaker Oats is *owned* by PepsiCo.]

[Update 3: There was also the Invitrogen sponsored blog last year, which, like Shell's blog, appears to have included content from people not employed by Invitrogen.]

[Update 4: A response from the SB overlords.]