Fri 12 Jun 2009
Pim Techamuanvivit, producer and writer of the popular food blog Chez Pim, startled the blogging world last week by announcing that she was “partnering” with Rachel’s to promote or endorse a new line of cottage cheese and yogurt. Pim told Kim Severson (for whom she declined to name the amount of money involved), on The New York Times food blog: “It’s a great relationship between blogging and branding … This is a business now.”
Comments from Pim’s readers are overwhelmingly positive, of the “You go, girl!” and “Can’t wait to try the honey-plum-lavender!” type. Response on The New York Times blog is more measured, with some readers saying that Pim is (as she says herself) a brand so why shouldn’t she endorse a product “she believes in” the way athletes endorse shoes, to others who assert that she is a complete sell-out to capitalism and can never be trusted again.
If you read back through the archives of Chez Pim, you will realize that Pim’s appeal is to other foodies or wannabe foodies who are mainly (the responses seem to indicate) young and female. She is an entrepreneur whose product is herself, and her readers not only like her but are devoted to her.
One should not be alarmed that by endorsing Rachel’s yogurt and cottage cheese Pim is violating any code of journalist ethics because she isn’t a journalist; she’s a personality who writes about food and restaurants, that is to say, the food she eats and the restaurants to which she goes, from a stance that is completely uncritical and unskeptical. She does not review food products from a critical distance, and she does not review restaurants. As she notes, in a post on July 21, 2006, when she and her boyfriend trek to Etxebarri, a famous all-grill restaurant in the Basque village of Axpe, “As is our custom, instead of ordering from the menu, we asked the kitchen to do a tasting menu for us.” That may be their custom, but it is not the practice of a journalist or reviewer. (For objective reviews of the Rachel’s “Exotic” and “Essence” yogurts, see this page at nibble.com.)
Were it not for the fact that Pim is a roaring success — she has a book coming out too — she would be very difficult to take seriously. Pim writes in an annoyingly breathless and gaga style, including using words like “bestest,” and her posts are filled with misspellings and typographical slips. (Everybody needs an editor, Pim, even you and me.) She blithely skates across the surface of food and restaurant issues and concerns while providing her readers with recipes for chocolate chip cookies and dark chocolate hazelnut bites. On the other hand, as one comment on The New York Times blog points out, Pim never said that she was doing Consumer Reports.
Rachel’s, by the way, is a product line of White Wave Foods, a division of international diary megalith Dean Foods.
If Pim’s readers clearly don’t give a damn that she endorses a product, makes some moolah and increases her visibility, I don’t think that we shouldn’t either. As I said, she’s not a journalist or a critic; she’s a personality. Would we care if Perez Hilton endorsed Rachel’s cottage cheese or, say, a line of mascara? Of course not, but we wouldn’t want Matt Drudge doing it — well, maybe the mascara — because he is a journalist, or bears some resemblance to one. The Drudge Report does carry advertising, but that’s not the same thing as an endorsement. A Walmart banner ad at the top of TDR’s home page is a sign of an equation: “I give you money = You give me space.” It doesn’t mean that Matt Drudge is standing up and saying, “Personally I shop at Walmart because I love the prices and the pathetic old geezers who greet you at the door!”
The Chez Pim brouhaha in a demitasse serves a purpose, though, and that is bringing to the tea-table the issue that gives many involved in (to be specific) wine-blogging the heebie-jeebies, and that’s The Whole Ethics Thing. Indeed, the conjunction of those loaded “B” words — blogging, branding and business — tends to sow dragon’s teeth into a fertile field where the giants called Conflicts of Interest spring forth, or may be perceived to do so.
Obviously, wine-bloggers who engage in serious critical reviews of wine and commentary about the wine industry should never endorse a product. Giving a wine a good review, incidentally, is not the same as an endorsement of the wine, just as a rave review of a book is not an endorsement of the book. One may receive bottles of wine as samples but without the obligation to write about the wine and with no guarantee about the outcome if you do; those conditions need to be made clear to producers and importers who send wine to bloggers, either by practice or in a statement on the blog’s home page.
Recently, for example, a publicist sent me an email saying that he or she wanted to send me two limited edition wines on the condition that I would include, in whatever I wrote, the high score one of the wines had recently received in The Wine Enthusiast. I said that no, I would not accept wines that came with any conditions whatsoever, and that if I reviewed the wines it would only be on my terms. And of course they apologized and said that no, of course, they had not intended such a condition and so on. Bloggers, you must not allow your skepticism and objectivity to drop for one moment.
Even the notion of receiving samples of wine makes some bloggers nervous, but I think the uneasiness is misplaced. With the exceptions of The Wine Advocate, whose well-known publisher and chief writer Robert M. Parker Jr. has managed from the beginning to fund his wine-tasting, and Eric Asimov’s New York Times wine blog, The Pour, most publications, web-sites and blogs that review wine would not exist without samples, just as newspapers and other journals and blogs that review books (to extend the analogy) would not get the job done without the review copies that publishers sent out by the box-load. I promise that the book reviewers for the nation’s Sunday book sections spend not a single sleepless night worrying that the novel they reviewed that day came as a free copy from Doubleday. It’s part of the process, not a quid pro quo balancing act.
And bloggers, you’re not special, so don’t act so damned grateful, when you do get samples; the cost of sending wine to writers is written into the budget of every producer and importer. Acting as if you’ve had a gift bestowed upon you — yes, I’ve seen you do this — only contributes to the amateurism of the wine-blogging sphere.
Let’s face it, most blogs (of any kind) are neither businesses nor brands, the exceptions, in the wine area, possibly being the highly visible and always active Dr. Vino, Vinography, Good Wine Under $20 and The Pour. The rest of us labor on, sans real advertising or book deals, wishing we had the numbers and the clout to draw advertising inquiries. Of course lines have to be drawn here too. Wine blogs should not carry ads from wineries, producers, importers or distributors, that is, from entities that deal with specific wines. Alternatives would be advertising from retail stores, Internet wine sellers or wine events; restaurants, hotels and the hospitality business in general; or any enterprise that seems reasonable and would not present a conflict of interest, though the entire issue may be merely of academic interest until wine blogs find more of a national presence.
So, fellow wine-bloggers, don’t be jealous of Pim Techamuanvivit because her blog is immensely more popular than yours and she makes a hell of a lot more money by blogging than you do. You and she exist in parallel universes, and while she inhabits the glamorous food circles of New York and goes to parties all the time and hobnobs with celebrities and travels all over the place, thank your lucky stars that you don’t have to do that.
O.K., be a little jealous.
Top image from chezpim.com.
Second image from nibble.com.
My linkedin profile.