Food for Thinkers: Online Advertising, or Where Toaster Strudels and Chez Panisse Meet
Kristen Taylor is the founder of Galvanize.us, a mobile app you can use to hide real gifts for your friends, and Culinaesthete, a new magazine of stories and food launching in February 2011. She blogs at kthread.com and has been known to throw elbows on Saturdays at Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket.
For GOOD's Food for Thinkers week, Taylor looked at the incongruous side dishes of corporate copywriting that sit, critically unremarked but—the advertisers hope—not unnoticed, next to many a food blogger's lovingly homemade posts.
Have you looked at the ads on a dedicated food blog recently?
Does it seem a little odd that, for example, David Lebovitz, the talented and self-deprecating pastry chef formerly of landmark Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, would have ads for a free month of Toaster Strudels on his site?
He didn’t cherry-pick the ads, of course; like many top food bloggers, the site uses an ad network that selects the advertisers, often in coordinated campaign buys. Toaster Strudels are a Pillsbury brand, owned by General Mills, and that ownership is where this story begins.
In early 2009, Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes wrote a post on Food Blog Alliance that listed her considerations for choosing an ad network. As far as the networks themselves go, the main options are imperial Federated Media, underdog Blogads, the stylishly teal Martha’s Circle, predictable BlogHer, generic Google Adsense, and lifestyle tier groups like Glam Media that, they boast, "help publishers leverage the huge explosion in the social media space." Note for those who are keeping track: Natural Path Media, which was the organic player in this roster, was acquired summer 2010 by Six Apart, who then merged with VideoEgg to form Say Media in the fall.
After these networks come recipe aggregators like FoodBuzz, which have their own ‘featured publishers’ (they sign bloggers to exclusive contracts). The original food porn aggregator Tastespotting and copycat FoodGawker are part of a network launched in 2010 called Platefull, which is owned by General Mills and describes itself as “a carefully selected collection of General Mills-vetted sites, all with high editorial standards and proven content.” The top Platefull site list includes linkbait Epicurean.com and two food community sites aimed at different demographics, EatBetterAmerica and Tablespoon, which both happen to be staffed entirely by General Mills employees. Unsurprisingly, recipes featuring General Mills products appear more often than not.
In other words, with Platefull, we're talking about a Big Ag corporation that has launched its own advertising network and two community sites designed to look, at first blush, like independent food recipe aggregators.
But won't anyone think of the mommy bloggers? Turns out the "carefully selected collection of General Mills-vetted sites" includes some 700 of them in their own special network called MyBlogSpark, which wins the award for Log-In Button of the Year. (The year in question being 1998.)
An AdWeek article about MyBlogSpark calls the site "a formal network to feed [bloggers] free products and enable them to run giveaways for their audiences," and mentions that many MyBlogSpark members forget to include their affiliation with the network when posting breathy reviews for products they access first, and for free.
Some of the more prominent members of the food blog community are concerned by the disconnect between the processed products in the ads and their own editorial focus on, say, local food and scratch baking, but for those food bloggers who make all or part of their income from blog ads, what could replace these industrial, processed goods?
Enter Food Pharma.
With increasing online presence in the holiday season and now in the new year, Medifast ads are appearing on an incredible number of food sites. Instead of a free month of Toaster Strudels, these ads often feature two free weeks of Medifast food products, the great majority of which contain Supro soy.
We might borrow Michael Pollan’s terminology and call these "edible foodlike substances," rather than food, as the heavy processing of Medifast products certainly rivals that of those products with extended shelf life on interior supermarket aisles. They are no more appropriate of an accompaniment to the average food blog post than, for example, the ads for Jimmy Dean D-lights Turkey Sausage Muffins that BlogHer is currently running in heavy rotation.
But if we rule out the offerings of major food coporations, with their global reach and massive marketing spend, what advertisers could fill the space?
Here's an idea: Steep discount services, widely hailed as the future of commerce, have already begun to advertise restaurant deals on food sites using browser cookies to target the site visitor’s geolocation. But if advertisers can show me nearby restaurants, couldn't they also show me nearby green markets?
Before you dismiss the cyberutopianism inherent in that, remember that many cities and towns in the U.S. let private companies bid to manage their farmers’ markets and events. Gourmet stores and upscale grocers still pay for ads in local circulars and print newspapers. Services like Foursquare already allow enterprising market vendors to offer specials when someone arrives at the market and checks for market tips on their phone. There is a pot of advertising money there, waiting to be tapped.
All that remains is for someone to collate local market and specialty store listings and launch a network. Then food bloggers would face a genuine choice about what kind of food they would rather promote. Just imagine: For those on the farmers' market network, the closest thing to an advertorial (horrible word!) would be a blog entry where a blogger happened to use the same heirloom vegetables featured in a farm ad on their sidebar.
It’s possible that 2011 could be the year food blogs advertise, for the first time, food.
Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?