Bloggers, Corporations, and Plausible Deniability in the Age of Google

This has been on my mind for quite some time, ever since I wrote that I was a “Free Range Mama.” It’s only weighed more on me since adding a Blog With Integrity button to my sidebar, which is a reaction many of us had to the controversy over the heightened presence of sponsorships/commercial interests competing for the attention of bloggers at Blogher ’09. There, the murky and emergent ethics of blogging for pay or in exchange for “gifts”, along with anxiety over a pecking order of blogger desirability, found expression in heated discussions of swag.

In my “Free Range Mama” post I said I’d made peace with not ever being a “WalMart Mom” or having certain corporate advertising, sponsorship or other commercial interests affiliated with my blog. But even after crossing off several companies that to my eyes have sketchy ethical practices or support political organizations I don’t agree with, there’s still a large gray zone that’s left. I mentioned that I patronize JC Penney stores, until recently I shopped (stopping when its CEO made stupid remarks about health insurance reform) at Whole Foods, and I like Target a bit too much relative to some probable unsavory labor practices that I haven’t Googled yet. And what’s complicating is that the grey zone quickly gets subjective.

My biases are that I’m a citizen/political blogger first, before I’m a consumer. It didn’t occur to me why until I left some long and awkwardly think-out-loud comments in Mochamomma’s post about women of color bloggers and their relationship to marketers. See, not long after Blogher ’09 ended, a major boycott of Glenn Beck’s show began after he made some questionable comments with regard to President Obama’s “hatred” of white people and what Beck called “white culture.”

I was repulsed and angered by Beck’s words. They’re thoughtless and incendiary. They do nothing to address true policy differences that a person acting in good faith may have with the White House or Congress. So when Color of Change launched its boycott of the advertisers on Beck’s show, I joined in whole-heartedly.

This is the “woman of color” political-citizen piece of it: if I accepted ads on my site that featured the same companies that advertised on Beck’s show, I’d have a hard time not feeling hypocritical. (One of those companies was Proctor and Gamble.) If I were invited to an event sponsored by Liberty Mutual State Farm Insurance, one of the sponsors of Beck’s show that recently dropped its ad buy, then I’d really really feel hypocritical. I’m a feminist woman of color, my politics are progressive. That means I’m probably a lot pickier about what brands I’ll associate myself with than if I were someone else. I don’t have the privilege of acting like what Glenn Beck says has no effect on me, when I know he stirs up racial animus for ratings. I don’t have the privilege of ignoring him.

It seems to me the more entangled and associated you get with brand names and corporations and their products, the more you own each other’s bad press. Like it or not, as Liberty Mutual State Farm discovered when hundreds of thousands of people spoke up about the Liberty Mutual State Farm ads on Beck’s show, someone else’s lack of ethics can become your albatross.

And for a blogger that affiliates herself closely with a brand, the same problem exists. Case in point: I’ve been following PhDinParenting’s excellent expose of Nestle and her questioning the attendance of many breastfeeding activists at the recently-concluded NestleFamily blogger event. Like many, I’d heard of the Nestle boycott since the 1970s, when it first started. I wasn’t aware that it ended in 1984 and then resumed again in 1988 because the corporation’s practice of pushing dried formula mix upon women with babies in the developing world hadn’t stopped. (Poor and uneducated women overseas using this formula might use unclean water because clean water isn’t readily available; diarrhea in an infant in the third world can be a death sentence instead of a mild, recoverable illness. They might also dilute the mix to make it last longer, thereby inadvertently providing fewer nutrients per feeding than is vital for a baby’s growth. All of this when breastfeeding is an easily available and healthy option.)

Many of the parents attending the NestleFamily event hadn’t heard of Nestle’s past practices. Since the Twitterstorm about it, I imagine the response has ranged from unhappy with Nestle corporate practices, to mildly troubled and seeking more information, to indifferent; a brief peek into the #nestlefamily hashtag on Twitter seems to yield tweets in those three categories. (Nestle’s Twitter presence here.)

[UPDATED on 10-7-09 TO ADD: Blacktating wrote a fabulous post in which she pointed out that Nestle's profits hinge on the lack of education and access to clean water most women of color in the third world are subject to AND the white/first world privilege that allows the rest of us to turn a blind eye to this kind of marketing. This inequality has everything to do with racism and colonialism. She also mentions the abuses of children in the Ivory Coast in the making of Nestle's chocolate:

Besides their unethical formula marketing, they have also been accused of using child slave labor in the Ivory Coast to make their chocolate. In 2000, the BBC produced a documentary on children who were stolen from their families and forced to work on cacao plantations where Nestle buys their cocoa. The children were often starved and beaten, and some claim those who tried to runaway were murdered.

Ugh, I think I'm choking on that candy bar.]

As one commenter new to blogging said in response to PhDinParenting’s post, could he be blamed for not knowing about the past corporate practices of Nestle? The world is wide, the web even wider, and a person can be of good faith and yet not completely informed at all times on everything. True enough, but what other commenters pointed out is that now that you have the information, what will your course of action be going forward?

Which brings me, at last, to the title of my post. What happens to plausible deniability (“I had no idea”) in the age of Google, when all kinds of information (of varying degrees of credibility) are theoretically two links away? Shouldn’t it be a best practice by bloggers either seeking a corporate relationship or being approached by a corporation to FIRST Google the company, and THEN decide on the degree of a relationship? Certainly companies are learning to monitor their brands this way online. Why wouldn’t consumers?

Is this something useful we can take away from the Twitterstorm, as CrunchyDomesticGoddess has asked?

I faced this conundrum when I was invited to a blogger event held by the Fresh and Easy grocery store chain. I ended up writing about Tesco, the UK corporate parent’s track record as well as some of the activism that has existed around “food deserts” and US Fresh and Easy stores. I’ll bet Fresh and Easy monitored my post; I have no idea if they’ll include me again in any future blogger activities they organize if they felt those mentions were negative. But I wrote in a way I felt was compatible with my political interests and my voice. And to flip the idea of “plausible deniability” on its head, I feel that truth is an absolute defense and anyone Googling Fresh and Easy for a blog post written by a mother who uses their products could and will just as easily see the activism posts questioning Fresh and Easy’s business practices as they will my post.

In that respect, the bad reputation (if any) of a corporation is the company’s fault. It’s certainly not my albatross to wear if I point it out/offer solutions. If I say nothing about it, I become implicated in their brand. At its worst, my silence can be read as tacit agreement. My post’s silence about it also doesn’t mean the issue goes away or that someone else won’t highlight it.

Companies are not without recourse. They could try to rehabilitate or ignore their bad corporate citizenship, or hope that bloggers won’t notice or won’t care and instead focus solely on the product. (There’ll always be plenty of the indifferent around, it seems.) Or, these corporations could try conducting themselves in ethical ways to begin with.

If I had to summarize my evolving personal “Blog With Integrity” mantra in a nutshell, it’s this: Blog like it’s the last post you’ll ever write about that brand/any brand. Meaning, don’t write warts and all and expect the gravy train to keep stopping at your door. Write knowing that anything you say that’s remotely “not positive” could result in the end of opportunities to write in a sponsored way about that company and its product. That’s just the risk you have to take. But so long as I’m not paid a salary to write about a company or a product, editorial freedom is absolutely mine to exercise.

On the other hand, if you do want the gravy train to keep stopping at your door, then write only positives. That’s the only way I can think of to ensure unending PR attention. Even mild negatives may be interpreted by a company representative as something much more negative than the writer intended.

But given my political investment in social justice, I’d hope that we are more than mere buying machines or people willing to shill for companies in exchange for some goodies. I’d hope we–as blogging women–could flex our mighty group buying power to influence companies who haven’t taken the better path yet to do so. I don’t buy Nestle products because I don’t approve of their practice of selling powdered formula to women with babies in the developing world. I think the corporation’s chosen profits over good corporate citizenship despite being monitored for their past bad behavior, given guidelines to stop, and having regulations placed upon them to make them modify their behavior. The fact that various groups advocating on behalf of infant nutrition and well-being are STILL boycotting Nestle after decades of complaints and suggestions about how to modify their behavior says to me that they really aren’t interested in changing that behavior.

If Nestle altered their bottom-line first values, paradoxically they’d get more of my business. I reward ethical companies with my dollars. I am DYING to buy ethical products. I adore ethical, sustainable cleaning products, for example. I think there’s a growing number of women/people like me who are likewise eager to find a brand they trust with products they like and buy the hell out of it. We still live in a capitalist society–I won’t be making my own cloth or sewing my own clothes any time soon, I’m not a person who whips out a lemon and vinegar and washes down my countertops with that. I am happy to buy things I can feel good about that other entities make. I even have the feeling I’d be slavishly loyal to the brands that can best fill those needs of sustainability, green manufacture/no-or-low carbon footprint, minimal/recycled packaging, nutritious/non-damaging, and environmentally sound.

So Nestle, if you changed, I would too. But until then, no dice.

Coda: Some have pointed out that Nestle’s bottled water division is also engaged in morally vexing practices that prevent local communities from having access to their own safe drinking water. I think this way of having multiple brands under one corporate owner is a post for another day, and the prime example that comes to mind is RJR Reynolds.

2 thoughts on “Bloggers, Corporations, and Plausible Deniability in the Age of Google

  1. Realtor on

    Thank you for another great post.
    I look forward to many more entries with high quality info.
    I’m a marketer myself and your information always seems to get my business brain going!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>