Thursday, June 3, 2010

Gluten Free Pay to Play

This morning I opened up an email from a national celiac website. It was their monthly newsletter, and it contained the usual mix of articles about food, events, health topics, and other items of interest to a celiac audience. As I scanned the list of articles, my eye was drawn to a prominent review of a new product—a hot dog bun. This is a product we have considered developing ourselves from time to time, so I started reading it with interest. By the time I got to the third sentence, I could see this was going to be a five-star review. They always are, so I hit the “delete” button for the entire email. I wondered if this was another “pay to play,” or in other words, a paid review. It may well have been.

In case you hadn’t noticed, most of the high-traffic informational celiac Web sites and some blogs are now posting banner ads. Celiac events such as vendor fairs, fund-raising walks, and membership meetings have loads of “sponsors” and “supported by” tags. The blogging world is rife with bloggers who eagerly solicit freebies from manufacturers and then tirelessly promote the products online. Gluten-free and celiac Internet forums are full of people who write post after post praising this or that product. Is it because they feel so strongly about the product or because a manufacturer has sent them freebies, coupons, and prizes to reward them for all the buzz they create on the site about the products? A new entrant into the gluten free manufacturing business recently took to the social media network to “advertize” for a product evangelist. This all hits me as kind of weird.

As a gluten-free manufacturer, I receive nearly daily solicitations from all of these sources. One well-known celiac information site has been sending me monthly solicitations with all kinds of juicy offers. In addition to the usual banner ads, I can BUY a product review for $250-$550, depending on how long I would like it to be. No kidding, a product review. Is their “reviewer” going to give my product a bum review? What do you think? Are there any unflattering reviews on their site? I’m sure you know the answer to that.

I don’t mean to sound cynical here, but there was a time when celiac groups and Web sites were a lot more altruistic, objective, and non-commercial. I think we all need to recognize that that time has passed. In some ways, we have become a victim of our own success in creating public awareness of the needs of the celiac and gluten-free community.

But we live in a market-driven society, and big money and marketing directors are moving into this business. The big industrial food companies are buying their way into the public awareness with all the marketing muscle we expect in an advertising-oriented society. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as we are aware of its presence. We all know an infomercial when we see one, but this is something new in the gluten free world. I can’t tell you the number of calls we’ve received from “producers” claiming they are doing a TV segment on celiac disease, and want to tell our story…for money, of course, lots of money. And, when you read a “product review” these days, you have to ask yourself whether it is an infomercial. Was the reviewer a recipient of lots of freebies? Are all the contests and give-aways that require postings and reviews anything more than a manipulation of customers for a manufacturer’s gain?

Big celiac groups are being courted and funded by manufacturers that want them to give their products top billing. Did you realize that manufacturers pay big money (sometimes thousands of dollars) to provide some part of the sumptuous meals that are included with your registration fee at major celiac events and conferences? Who can blame the celiac organization, for these events are often fundraisers for celiac research or education and the more sponsorship opportunities, the more money is raised. But you are not getting an unbiased taste of a new product—you are getting a taste of the product whose manufacturer has paid the most. Pay to play. Let the reader/forum follower/blog follower/buyer beware.

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