Food blogging & freebies: a moral minefield…

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I’ve been toying with the idea of writing this post for a while. Feel free not to read on if you feel that it’s not relevant!

A lot of people seem to assume that I’m spending all of my time going out for free meals – unfortunately, that’s not the case. The majority of the meals out I have and events that I attend are paid for with my own hard-earned cash, and are either full price or paid for with vouchers from Groupon, Living Social and the like.

I am sometimes offered freebies in return for posts, though – I challenge you to find a blogger that isn’t. Businesses and PR agencies seem to have realised what bloggers can be worth in terms of reach, and value the opinions of a ‘real person’ – especially one with perceived influence. It’s a contentious area, though – as I’ve been asked before, ‘how can you write an objective review if you’re essentially being paid to write about something?’ Hopefully this post should clarify a few things…

1. I don’t ask for freebies
Let’s face it, contacting businesses and asking for free products, meals or otherwise in return for a favourable review just isn’t on. What’s the point? This is an example of where objectivity goes out of the window…and if your readers find out that you’re doing it, then you’ll lose all credibility. If you’re a blogger and there’s somewhere you really want to go, then go, pay for your meal, and share your experiences with your readers afterwards. It’s much more satisfying, and if you enjoyed it, then your enthusiasm will probably stand out more in your writing – and more genuinely – than if you think you could have had special treatment on the night. And if you didn’t enjoy it…well, you’re more likely to be open and honest if you went along as a genuine paying customer.

2. I don’t let freebies cloud my judgement
Following on from the end of the last point…an opinion isn’t a genuine opinion if it’s biased by a third party.

I can understand how some people could find it difficult to criticise something that’s been gifted to them, but those of you who know me will be aware that I have a tendency to be pretty blunt and opinionated(!) and say what I think. Yes, it can be difficult to give negative feedback, especially if you feel a sense of duty towards someone or know the company/person you’re writing about in a personal sense, but I try and ensure that anything negative that I write isn’t written in a nasty way (whether it’s a negative comment on something free, or something paid for). I also try and make it clear that what I write is my opinion, and give others the opportunity to disagree/comment via the comments box that appears at the bottom of every blog post.

Fortunately I haven’t yet accepted a freebie that’s turned out to be completely awful – well, it would be silly of a company to offer such a thing, wouldn’t it? If this were to happen, though, I don’t think that a blog post slating the product/meal wouldn’t be the way to go…I’d be far more inclined to contact the company or individual directly to give feedback personally and privately.

3. A lot of the freebies that I get aren’t actually what I’m blogging about
This does make sense, I promise! Sometimes I’ll be asked to promote something on the blog and will, as a result, receive freebies after the event with no further blog-related obligations.

I’ve been given gifts to say thank you for my help with promoting events or products – gifts that weren’t discussed at the time and with no expectation of me writing a gushing review on here. Similarly, I’ve been given new or revised products to sample and give private feedback on as a result of interaction with companies via the blog. Ultimately, I don’t really think it makes any difference to my opinions or behaviour. If a company’s expecting that freebies will make me talk about them to people more often…then they’re right – but only if the product’s worth talking about.

4. Some freebies I get are for write ups that state facts rather than asking for opinions
The recent Naked Wines tasting evening in Bristol, for example. They contacted me, asking if I could promote the event on my blog, and offered me a pair of free tickets to the event in return. I did, and I accepted.

Would I have done so if they hadn’t offered the free tickets? Well, yes is the honest answer. I’m emailed on a regular basis about food and drink-related events that are happening in Bristol – some of these emails are because I’m on venues’ mailing lists, others are as a result of the companies themselves or PR agencies getting in touch directly. If I think that the event suits the blog and will appeal to its readers, then I’ll more than happily publicise it: after all, the aim of the blog is to keep people informed of what’s happening on the Bristol food and drink scene, and it’s nice, easy, regular content from my point of view! Free tickets or no free tickets, it’ll get mentioned on here if you tell me about it and it’s relevant.

As for the Naked Wines tickets…it worked out even better for them than possibly expected in the end. Not only did they get a post up on the blog, but the friend that I took with me signed up as a customer on the night!

5. I don’t accept every freebie that’s offered to me
Some of them just aren’t relevant, so why would I bother? A few months ago, for example, a national pizza delivery chain emailed me to tell me that they had a new pizza on the menu. They were offering me £50 worth of free pizza (that’s a lot of pizza!) if I ordered, came up with my own alternative and blogged about it, using their brand name and specific tags and links throughout.

So why didn’t I accept? It’s simple. I didn’t think it would be of any relevance to the audience that I think this site attracts.

6. If I’m going for dinner and writing a review, I try not to let the venue know in advance…but it’s hard not to if it’s free
There are times when it’s unavoidable. I don’t just write for Bristol Bites – I’ve now also got some (unpaid, I hasten to add) restaurant reviews for a magazine under my belt. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve had free meals booked in at places that are to be featured in the next issue of the magazine. However…the food page of the mag features a different theme each month, and the aim is to highlight recommended places to go for that month’s category. In other words: we need to choose somewhere that we know is good. I’m given the freedom to suggest places that fit the theme where I’ve had a good meal in the past, or that people have recommended. And if I do have a free meal, I won’t take advantage of the venue by ordering the most expensive items on the menu or as many extras as possible. Unfortunately, I have heard of instances where bloggers have done so. It’s a small world, and people do talk.

What I don’t agree with is publications where the reviews are written by the restaurants themselves, or where reviewers are told that they NEED to write a positive review. This happened to a food blogger friend of mine (outside of Bristol, I hasten to add). He was approached to write restaurant reviews for a local magazine, and was told that he wouldn’t be paid, but would have the cost of his meal and travel expenses reimbursed for each restaurant (chosen by the magazine) that he reviewed. Naturally, this all sounded good…until he was told that all of his reviews would need to be 100% positive, as the restaurants that they chose to review spend money on advertising in the magazine, and they can’t afford to lose this revenue. Needless to say, he declined their offer – but I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who wouldn’t think twice before agreeing.

It’s all a bit of a minefield, really. There’s no “code of conduct” for bloggers – blogging’s not a recognised and regulated media format, but in some arenas it appears to have become more than just a forum for people to share their opinions with whoever wants to read them. I’m sure (I may be wrong) that those doing a similar thing but for recognised publications must have to stick to a certain set of guidelines, whereas us food bloggers can basically do what we want.

I started Bristol Bites a year and a half ago because I’m passionate about food and drink, and was amazed when I moved over here at just how much is going on in this area in Bristol. As I found out more about the city in terms of eating and drinking, I wanted to share those discoveries with other people who might be interested. I’m not earning any money from it, and of course the occasional freebie is a bonus. The key is just to have a little common sense and not just see it as a blagging opportunity..

One Response to Food blogging & freebies: a moral minefield…

  1. What I find baffling is how so many food bloggers are at pains to point out they are objective, that they only accept freebies that fit their blog and interests, that they don't ask for them and that they do not and would not write a positive review because they were asked, or nudged, or even just felt a sense of duty… and yet are sure that all other food bloggers don't do the same!

    I have stumbled across only a small number of food blogs that seem to write gushingly about every thing they've ever received, and seem to accept every product and invite they are offered, regardless of how well it fits their personal interests. But they do seem to be the minority to me.

    Looking at your list above:

    I do my best to remain objective, certainly the fact that a meal or product or hotel room is free is simply not a motivator for me to like it more…

    I have never felt any obligation to write a positive review, as it probably obvious from several of my blog posts. And to be honest, decent PRs have always been 100% happy, even when a review has been almost exclusively negative. Luckily, as I filter the offers and only accept those I think there's a good chance I'll like (why waste one's life on the rest?) though of course, this doesn't always turn out to be the case.

    I don't think most bloggers accept most of the freebies they are offered, I certainly accept only a small percentage.

    Before accepting an invite or sample, I make clear that accepting it for review doesn't guarantee a blog post and it's not uncommon for me to go back to a PR or company and tell them I won't be blogging it. This isn't down to whether I like or dislike something, it's more about whether I have anything of interest to say about it. My rule is that if it bores me to write about it, it'll sure as hell bore anyone reading it. Of course, some of what interests me to write will bore others to read too, but that's ok, I'm ok with that! But I won't make a post along the lines of "I was sent this, it was OK, not amazing, not disgusting, but alright".

    I've never been asked to post a review that was uniformly (and potentially inaccurately) positive. As far as I'm concerned, that isn't a review, it's an advert, and should a blogger decide to go ahead with it, they should ensure it's clearly labelled as a sponsored advertorial or whatever the best label would be.

    Lastly, regardless of all of the above, it's any reader's right to take freebie restaurant, product and hotel reviews with a pinch of salt, to give them less weight than non-freebie ones. For that reason, I always make sure it's very clear in any post when I've been a guest of the supplier or PR.

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