Aug 112009

free-stuffThe Federal Trade Commission has new guidelines that will require bloggers to disclose when they’re being compensated by an advertiser to discuss a product. If you read them,  you’ll see that most of the language pertains to advertising, so for now, you’ll have to read between the lines.  The guidelines don’t define  a “payment,” for example, and don’t specify what incentives other than cash must be disclosed to readers. See this Cnet story for more.

This is old territory for me, a former magazine editor who made and enforced  rules about reviewing.  Ethics rules have existed for years but are hardly uniform. At my magazines,  I thought I knew which reviewers received and returned which products, but I probably never had the whole picture. I hired a full-time editor whose job was to sift through press releases and write up products. He often hid from me the expensive gifts companies sent him during the holidays. At another magazine, I inherited a severely underpaid staff accepting tons of freebies as compensation, then never running the stories. I reorganized the department, paid them what they were worth, and got rid of that system.

One critical difference is that all the reviewers and writers were professional freelance writers and employees paid for their work. But most food bloggers aren’t paid. Perhaps some feel that freebies are justified, that they’ve earned them somehow. In July at the BlogHer conference in Chicago, Liberty Mutual surveyed 175 bloggers on responsible blogging and found:

  • 98 %  believe it is acceptable to receive a free product.
  • 87% believe it is okay to write company-sponsored posts.
  • Most mentioned transparency, disclosure and honesty as key caveats to receiving free products and writing sponsored posts.

According to Business Week, many advertisers have turned to the blogosphere as an inexpensive way to get publicity, offering cash and products in exchange for glowing reviews.”Bloggers are cost-efficient,” says Sean Corcoran, an analyst at Forrester Research. He titled a recent report “Add Sponsored Conversations to Your Toolbox: Why You Should Pay Bloggers to Talk About Your Brand.” That’s right. Some companies pay bloggers to write about products in their own blogs, and according to the survey, 87% of bloggers think that’s fine.

I decided to do a little research of my own, and contacted a few top food bloggers to ask questions. I was a little shocked when I spoke privately with a blogger whose “star is still ascending.” She said she gets so much free stuff that, were she were to write about it all, she would never need any other content. Ford offered her a free Mustang convertible for the weekend if she would just take a photo of it and put it in her blog. She declined — only because she was too busy — but another blogger took Ford up on it. (Hint: If the other blogger thought about having to disclose this by writing “Ford gave me this free car for the weekend in exchange for a photo” maybe she would have passed.) Marketing people have offered the blogger I spoke to free restaurant meals, free hotel stays, and hundreds of dollars worth of free food and kitchen equipment.

She says she only writes about things she likes. The reality is that, like restaurants, most products and foods fall into the gray area between poor and excellent. I think it’s her responsibility to talk about the gray area, and to occasionally slam a product when deserved. Maybe she’s afraid that if she does so, the door will close on the freebies. If so, her priorities are skewed. What should matter most is her relationship with her readers. She has to earn their respect, then keep it.

I also researched whether guidelines on product reviewing exist. The Food Blog Code of Ethics talks mostly about reviewing restaurants. It says only this on the subject of products: “If we receive an item for free…, we will mention so in our review.” Two blogging groups,  the Word of Mouth Marketing Association and the Social Media Business Council, have adopted self-regulatory guidelines not for bloggers but on how marketers should work with bloggers. That’s a good start, but who says they will care.  Here are my seven recommendations specific to food bloggers:

1. If marketing people offer you products, have a policy. Some bloggers refused to accept anything, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. Take only what is appropriate and relevant for your blog. (Ex. a Mustang is not food related.) Don’t promise in advance that you will write about the product or experience. Do not succumb to pressure. Do not accept products where strings are attached.

Here’s what one top food blogger said. “I always say that I will not guarantee that I will mention the product on my site and do also not want to be contacted afterwards if I will mention it on my site. In that respect, I only try to deal with companies that “get it”, who don’t have pr flaks that just want to hassle me endlessly. Most quality companies either have good pr teams or I deal with the owners themselves.”

Assume all products (not consumed) should be returned, unless the marketer says to keep it. Have a policy about what to keep. For example, at the New York Times, reporters are not allowed to accept anything worth more than $25. Would you really feel right about free monthly coffee for a year, for example? I wouldn’t.

2. Ditto about free trips. Don’t go if it is not relevant to your blog, but do go if it’s something you need to learn. Again, don’t promise anything. Here’s an email a top food blogger sent me. “I have accepted trips, but not to review a place, but for educational or social reasons. For example, Kingsford Charcoal sent me to “grilling university” in Arizona for a weekend.  I didn’t know how to grill, but wanted to learn.  After I got back home I bought a gas grill, a kettle grill, and started grilling and experimenting. Wait a minute, they gave me a kettle grill (I asked for one), but that was 3 years ago.  If this were today, I wouldn’t have asked for the grill.  I would still accept the trip if I thought I could learn.”

3. If you do write about products and trips, be honest with your readers. You have only your reputation. Disclose when a company sends you a product for review. It doesn’t hurt, and it makes you appear ethical and upstanding. Otherwise you look suspicious. Ex. A food blogger Twittered about a particular resort. I wondered why she mentioned it by name. Did a company send her there for free?

4. If you don’t write about products, don’t take them. This seems obvious, although I heard that a well-known food blogger accepts products all the time and never blogs about them. What is that about? Her mailing address isn’t on her blog, so she is telling marketers where to send the bling each time? Yes, some marketers are eternally hopeful and will keep sending product when it’s clear there’s no outcome,  and they get what they deserve. But it seems greedy to keep taking it. Do not take products you don’t write about or want just to give them to friends as gifts, or even sell them.

5. Don’t always love everything. It makes you look like a shill, and after a while readers won’t need to read the post to know what you wrote, because it’s always a rave review. Plus, it looks like you can be bought. Read restaurant reviews for examples. Most of the time, they are positive, but with pros and cons. Every once in a while, a reviewer slams a place. They won’t slam a mom and pop shop, but if an expensive restaurant opens with tons of hype, reviewers will let them have it if the experience doesn’t match up with the cost. Be balanced.

6. Be clear about product sections on your blog. The Amazon store is self-explanatory. I like that. But other listings are more coy. If you’re going to list products in categories like “Shop” or “Recommends, ” your readers won’t know whether it’s code for “Someone gave this to me for free and now I’m writing about it.” Make clear whether the company sent you these products, or whether you discovered them on your own. Readers have a right to know.

7. If a company pays you to write about their products, disclose it, every time. I don’t like the idea, but at least it will be honest. For example, one food blogger wrote about a product and company, saying they were a “client and sponsor.” Cool. She gets my respect.

Reviewers represent their readers, not just themselves, and certainly not the companies they review. They are guides to tell readers whether it’s worth their money and time. As a blogger, you are a guide for your readers too. Protect your readers and respect them. Without them, no marketer would be interested in you.

Now, what are your thoughts? If you’re a blogger, do you take issue with these points? If you’re a blog reader, do you care about ethics?

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  67 Responses to “7 Guidelines for Food Bloggers on Freebies”

  1. Thanks for this post! Just the other day I saw a product review on a very reputable blogger’s site. The review was positive and mentioned she was given a free product in exchange for her review, but left out some key things I thought I wanted to know more about before purchasing this wonderful-seeming item. I went on to find nothing but negative reviews elsewhere (Amazon, Target, etc) about this product. All the things she failed to mention (that honestly, were key to the product) were major, major faults of the product.

    Needless to say, I didn’t buy the product and I will never trust her reviews again. If more blog visitors are discovering this, it won’t be long to bloggers in general aren’t trusted. I hope bloggers read your post and think hard about it.

  2. This is important work. As blogs become media sources, instead of personal writing they way they used to be, we need some clarity.

    I do recommend foods, restaurants, and books on my alternate site. But I’m careful to say that they were sent to me, when they are. I feel okay about this because I’m trying to promote small businesses where I can, the families who have started gluten-free companies out of love and urgency. And to write about the big food companies that are paying attention to us, like the Chex cereals. I recommend plenty of foods and books and restaurants which I was never offered as a freebie. I want the recommendations to come from my life.

    I don’t write negative reviews. That’s not the tone of the site. But since I have a loyal audience, the omission speaks pretty loudly, I think.

    (I was offered the free car too. That made no sense to me at all. Sheesh, I wouldn’t mind being offered a big trip somewhere lovely, even though I’d probably turn it down.)

    And Danny and I write a blog about pork, paid for by the Pork Board. It says clearly on the site ( that the site is “powered by The Other White Meat.” I wouldn’t mind if it was even more clear. They give us free license to write whatever we want and don’t interfere at all. So it is our site, in a way. We’re proud of it. And we’re paid for it, nominally, which we stated clearly when we announced it on Gluten-Free Girl.

    I still receive hate mail about this one, too. But we feel we’ve been as clear as we can.

    You can’t please everyone. But if each of us asks ourselves if we have been as clear and ethical as we can, I think that’s the best we can do.

    • Thanks for posting, Shauna. Good point about small businesses. I hope it’s not tricky to walk the line between wanting them to succeed and wanting your readers to support them.

      I don’t know what it would be like to have Purina paying attention to me as a blogger. I guess that, when I was a journalist, that never came up. Would love to know more.

      I disagree about one thing. You don’t have to be “negative” to write a review that’s not glowing. For some reason many food bloggers don’t go there. I’m not saying to eliminate good reviews, just offer some balance. Often pros and cons reviews are more interesting to read than glowing.

      Re the Pork board site, I just found it the other day and had no idea it was sponsored. Based on the name, it appears to be just a new blog from you, and I wondered why you started it, actually. You’re right on to wonder if it should be more clear.

      • Thank you for this discussion. I’ve been waiting for these guidelines to become mainstream for quite some time.

        I have to say that I agree with Shauna, as a fellow gluten-free food blogger, regarding the lack of negative reviews. I think the gluten-free world is different. Most of the companies are pioneers in this new field of commerce and food. I also feel like most of our readers are constantly learning about gluten-free foods, just as we ourselves are. So, time is very valuable, and an omission is good enough rather than wasting people’s time reading my negative reviews or small peeves about products or places. Plus, we all need to keep focused with a positive spin on our sometimes inconvenient diet. Add to all of this that it really is a small world community feeling – even among the food producers.

      • Yes, I agree with you about the negativity. There’s enough of that on the internet!

        I posted this piece in June, reviewing The G-Free Diet and Babycakes, both of which I had reservations about. However, for reasons that are clear in the review, I did recommend them both in the end. Measured conversations are more helpful, in the end.

        As I wrote above, we don’t really have any control over the design of the site. But I’ll put in my pitch again for more clarity, after this conversation.

        • I don’t do a lot of reviews but if I set out to review something, I’m going to review it warts and all. If it’s a negative review, it’s a negative review.

          I can’t help feeling that the policy of NOT reviewing a dud product is a cop-out. It doesn’t waste a reader’s time to read a bad review. It wastes a reader’s time if they don’t read any reviews and go out and try the product themselves and hate it.

          Most reviews are not wholly negative or wholly glowing. Most products have things that could be better and things that are already quite good, and reviews tend to reflect that. But if a product really is a dog, then please call it how you see it and let us know!

    • Wow. I’m a reader of porkknifeandspoon and I had no idea that it was paid for by the Pork Board. I’m curious, why doesn’t it say that it is powered by the National Pork Board instead of “the other white meat”? It definitely changes my perception of the blog.

      • Ellie,

        That’s how the Pork Board advertises themselves. “The Other White Meat” is their moniker. We had no control over that. But if you look at the site, you’ll see it’s pretty prominent.

        As I wrote, the content is all ours. But we are paid to write it.

        • Great discussion!

          Shauna, I’m getting the sense that the Pork Board asked you (for whatever reasons) not to say that you are paid by them to write that blog. Otherwise why couldn’t you simply say “we are employed by the Pork Board to write this blog”? The statement that powers the blog to me means that they own the website, not that they pay you to blog on it.

          I’m all for the new FCC regulations. Next we need to get politicians and their mouthpieces to be a lot more transparent!

          • Kate, I was perfectly comfortable saying it. That’s why, when we announced it on a blog post on Gluten-Free Girl, we put it this way:

            “We’re pretty proud of it, and we’re having a hoot writing it. Three times a week, we write anything we want about pork. Who knew this could be a job? And a job it is. To be completely honest about what we’re doing, we’re being paid to write this blog, by the National Pork Board.”

            I’m not sure much more clear we could have been!

            Also, owning the website and paying us to write it seems fairly similar to me. What else does owning a website mean?

          • Shauna, I have to agree with the other commenters here- I just visited your site and it’s absolutely not clear that you’re paid by the Pork Board to keep up that blog. I’ve got to agree with Kate when she says:

            “The statement that powers the blog to me means that they own the website, not that they pay you to blog on it.”

            To me, that gets at the root of this problem- lack of transparency. And of course, that’s why Dianne’s list is so great- because apparently, it’s not that clear-cut in the food blogger world, so someone had to spell it out.

            I am finding that I trust fewer and fewer blogs these days because I have no idea who is being paid to say what… and your statement about not giving negative reviews just reinforces that for me. Does that mean you’re not going to tell us which gluten-free products are bad because you want to keep getting free stuff in the mail? That’s not too appealing to me, as a consumer!

          • Thanks for your response, Shauna. I guess what I find puzzling is that you made the announcement on your other blog and not on the pork blog. The readership is not necessarily identical. Someone looking for pork recipes and coming across your pork blog wouldn’t automatically visit your gluten-free blog too, and certainly wouldn’t see your disclosure that you made back whenever it was unless they did quite a bit of digging to find it. If you’re being paid to blog about pork, the disclosure should really be on the main page of your pork blog.

            Jennifer, I’m with you in that I’m reading fewer blogs these days because I no longer trust bloggers’ motives. I used to feel like certain bloggers were almost like personal friends, and I know that when I talk to friends I don’t get sales pitches disguised as conversation. If I want sales pitches, I’ll look at TV commercials or magazine ads. Even though they can be annoying in some ways, at least they are honest about what they’re up to.

        • Shauna, even if it is vague because the Pork Board is in control of the site design, it is still the blogger’s responsibility to clearly disclose something like this. You are correct in worrying that it isn’t clear enough.

          • Jennifer:

            You can read my comments above about why I choose not to do negative reviews on my gluten-free blog. Another reason I should add is that I’ve learned that taste is very subjective- especially with the different tastes and textures of gf foods. I still either blog only about what I will personally rave about , or I’ll let a company do a giveaway for my readers. I actually started doing giveaways just for this reason…to negotiate some fun and free stuff for my readers, since being gf can be so expensive, and because I started thinking “who am I to judge what is good or bad for them”? I spoke to a journalist about giveaways when I started to do them, and she said that even in a magazine article a giveaway is pretty clear advertising. As long as I don’t personally rave, but just let the company leave it’s message, then I feel good about these. My opinion and taste can’t be bought.

    • Shauna, I was really happy to read earlier in the year on your blog that you and Danny had been given a paid gig. You are two talented individuals who deserved to be recompensed for your work.

      But what happens when you blog a pork recipe on GFG now (I skip over anything meaty as I don’t eat it)? Do you link back to the initial post about the job or make a disclaimer that you are employed elsewhere by the pig people?

      • We actually don’t blog any pork recipes anymore on GFG. Since we write about pork so often on the other site, we have plenty of other things to write about on my blog.

        • Thanks for clarifying that…Twitter though is another thing :)

          Actually twitter is a real issue for ethical food bloggers. There is no space to write a disclaimer in a tweet. Not sure what the answer is.

          • Hi all,

            Here’s an update on Shauna’s new pork blog: As a result of these posts, Shauna pushed for more transparency about who owns the site. If you go to Pork Knife and Spoon, (, you’ll see that the About This Blog section on the Home page now says:

            “ is the official blog of the National Pork Board and aims to educate people on the power of pork – including its ease of preparation, versatility and taste.”

            I think that’s pretty clear. I’m happy that she made the push, not just for her own sake, but because she told me in an email that other food bloggers want a gig like this, and now she has taken a stand on the issue of transparency.

  3. The point about having a policy is a good one. I put one up on my site a few months ago. I think it helps both readers and PR folks. I’m sad to hear so many bloggers think company-sponsored posts are ok. I would only do that on the company’s web site or blog, never on my own. I wonder how rampant that is in the food blogger world? I’ve only had a few offers like that and shut them down quickly.

  4. Thanks very much for sharing this information. I somehow seem to have got on someones radar recently, and had a really wonderful trip to a day spa and cooking school, I’ve been sent some nice stuff, and asked to talk about it and I’ve been invited to a dinner. Thats not exactly a ton of stuff, but I really hate the idea that I’d break some kind of ethics code.

    My feeling was that I’d only talk about it if I wanted to, I’d only accept a product if I was interested, and that I’d always be totally honest about where it had come from.

    I feel good about my choices, my next hurdle is that if I give up my job and I’m scraping around for income, whether its worth accepting advertising.

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  6. Great analysis. It’s an important issue but as a whole, I have to say that most blogs I read are pretty transparent.

    Where you said: “(Hint: If the other blogger thought about having to disclose this by writing “Ford gave me this free car for the weekend in exchange for a photo” maybe she would have passed.)” I’m not sure that’s true. I think many bloggers would take the freebie and let their readers know why they were posting a car. For example, one of my favourite travel blogs recently wrote about Gap jeans but she did it in a fun way so I enjoyed the post and, crucially, she divulged the deal (she got a Flip, she and a group of her friends got free jeans and one of her readers will get a pair as well).

    This issue came up in Britain recently with food bloggers at restaurants. Pretty much all of the bloggers involved were already disclosing who paid for meals so I don’t think it was unethical. It IS a problem if it gets boring or irrelevant for the reader because the same place keeps getting written about or it’s out of anyone’s price range.

    I’ve not been targeted for freebies on my food and travel blog much yet but I’ll have to give some though as it’s probably only a matter of time.

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  8. Thank you for these guidelines! Although I am nowhere near being an ‘ascending blog star’, I have received a few offers of free products. I appreciate any guidelines that will help me set parameters for myself. It’s so easy to justify freebies as harmless (hey, I love trolling the grocery aisles for samples!) but I do want people who read my blog to trust that what I write about represents an honest assessment and not a paid advertisement.

    As a blog reader, I’ve found that the majority of bloggers I read have disclosed such relationships, for which I’m appreciative.

  9. Great, great information/advice. I’ve always been surprised by how many bloggers are drawn in to the freebie stuff, most of which is a real stretch to have any relevance at all to a food/recipe blog.

    I’ve accepted a few things, and I’ve written about a couple… but only those that I feel strongly deserve a mention to my readers. Cookbook offers are great- they’re something that I use & discuss often on my blog. Regardless of the offer, I always make it very clear to the marketer that there is no guarantee that the product will be written about. Having a firm policy in place (in writing) on my blog is something that I’m interested in putting together.

    Thanks for the advice!

  10. Hi Dianne,

    As always-great information and food for thought. I’m still wondering where free food at the restaurant level comes in, as it isn’t really mentioned in your list of do’s and dont’s. It’s not a straightforward product, but the concept serves the same purpose. “Come eat here for free, and then write about us.” Or-even implicitly-“Come eat here for free, as we know you are a food blogger and we like to support them…” It’s the same message.

    I’m still surprised to see the responses from some of your readers above, that reveals they do take things for free-trips? wow! I’m shocked, really. Amy’s blog is the most clear-Bravo. Does that mean she doesn’t make any money off her site? Just curious how this all works-as we know, ads are tempting, but such a pain too.

    As I mentioned to you at one point-101 Cookbooks has tons of ads and how she apparently makes her income. You can’t fault Heidi for this at all, and her site is great, but when I recently opened a featured recipe, the first thing that came up was a video-and it had nothing to do with the recipe. It would be great to hear what she has to say on all this.

    Do these questions all go back to the real question of are food bloggers journalists? Are they held to the same standards? seems like you can make your own rules in the blogging world, and perhaps is the relative few, like yourself and those who are apparently self monitoring and operating under full disclosure–who are following suggested rules or even really care. Does the consumer care? Just curious.

    • Restaurant Ethics are covered by the AFJ guidelines for journalists and the Food Blog Code of Ethics for bloggers.

      Making money from the ads on your site is a whole different subject. Often you cannot control what the ad is about. Maybe I’ll ask Heidi about that.

      While I believe that a journalist can be a blogger, I don’t think that all bloggers are journalists. I would like to hold them to the same standards, but it’s not like traditional publishing is a paragon of virtue. As Erika points out above, there are lots of problems with print publications and freebies as well.

    • Hi Nani,

      I make a portion of my income through my site. I also work on a number of projects outside of the site. 101 Cookbooks has always been (first and foremost) a creative outlet for me.

      I have two designated ad locations on my site – one at the top of the right-hand column, and one near the fold in the center column. Sometimes advertisers run static banners, sometimes they run interactive or video spots.

      I’m not interested in selling ads (I’m interested in sharing content) – so I partner with an ad network to fill those spots. I try to make sure there is clear divide between ads and content on my site.

      Re: Dianne’s question about the type of ads that come through. In any given day, dozens (sometimes hundreds) of different advertisers display on my site in the locations I mentioned. They are scheduled and allocated through an ad server I have no access to. If an ad comes through that I find offensive, I send an email and have that ad unit removed. There are certain types of ads I will not accept on my site – but on occasion those campaigns get through, and I do my best to get them removed quickly.

      In this regard it is important to have open communication with your ad network. There are sometimes ads on my site that are flat-out not a fit for my readership – but they fall into a grey-zone of sorts. I’ve tried to set my sights on establishing a better system over the course of the next year or two, rather than get hung up and frustrated on the minutiae in the moment.

      Moving forward, it is quite important to me have progressive/ green brands/products as advertisers and sponsors on my site. And smaller companies and producers. I’ve had an open dialogue about this with my current ad network, and expressed my feelings about it. For example, I keep a running wish list of advertisers I think would be a fit for my readership. I then communicate this to my network. I’ve also considered going entirely ad-free again, and perhaps take on a single sponsor for the site.

      Anyways, it’s complicated and fascinating at the same time. And I’m always trying to figure out the best way to navigate the whole thing. -h

  11. This is such a sticky wicket for some people. I get many free cookbooks from publishers, but when I review them, I always mention that “I received a copy of XY Cookbook from Z Publisher and here’s what I thought.” I received some free cooking equipment that I gave away on my blog, saying that it was “Compliments of ABC Cooking Store.” Hopefully that covers me!

    Shauna’s right, you can’t please everyone. But you can indeed be a reviewer who most people can trust, and for that you need to listen to your heart, so to speak.

    Perhaps it’s a good idea to create a “policy” page on a blog where readers can go to view your overall stance on such things?

  12. I keep a clear and simple faq on my blog about product and cookbook reviews. For the most part I usually review products and books I purchased myself.

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  14. I’m fascinated by the idea food bloggers are receiving offers for cars, trips, etc. I don’t have a problem with bloggers receiving free products but believe in full disclosure. I think it is also important to remember most food bloggers (and there are thousands of them) are compensated little or none at all. One of the “fun” benefits for these types of bloggers are receiving products to giveaway on their sites.

  15. I also think it’s unrealistic to think that food bloggers will not accept free stuff. I don’t know about you, but my food blogging pays me next to nothing. MAYBE Starbucks money, on a good day. If I were only able to talk about products and restaurants I pay for myself, I wouldn’t have much to talk about.

    In traditional media, too, freebies and comped meals are the norm, particularly in the beauty, travel and food arenas. Just about every product you read about in Vogue or Self or Gourmet was sent to their offices for free, and most of them go home with editors or editorial assistants when they’ve served their editorial purpose. Those magazines don’t disclose that the 100 lipsticks they tried, and the 10 they ended up writing about, were sent as free samples. But they were.

    In travel it’s even worse. I was an editorial assistant at Conde Nast Traveler in the late 80s, when it first started publishing, and it was a HUGE deal that CNT was the first travel publication not to accept free trips. I believe it is still one of the few that doesn’t.

    My point is only that I think bloggers are being held to standards that even traditional publications aren’t – and since most bloggers make squat from their blogging, that hardly seems fair.

    My personal policy is: I accept free products when the products fit within what I normally write about (food and cooking). I state overtly when ingredients or kitchen equipment I’m writing about or including in a recipe came to me free. I accept comped meals at restaurants when they are offered, but not with any guarantee of coverage, and usually those come as a result of a longer-term relationship (i.e. the restaurant owner has contributed a recipe I’ve written up with his/her permission). And unless someone is outright rude to me or a product or food hurts me or makes me sick, I don’t do negative reviews – I’ll choose not to write about mediocre experiences or products.

  16. Thank you for posting this. Although we’re not one of the “big” food blogs out there, we do get our share of emails from various companies to receive their products and write about them. We rarely do accept them. In the beginning it was certainly flattering to be approached by companies and get “freebies”, then when we start to think about having to write about them, then our stomach wound up in knots. The focus of our website was not for product reviews and we wanted to keep it as OUR website, not another company’s at which we’re at the mercy of their freebies. Plus, we don’t get paid to blog. It’s our hobby and we have lives and things to do, aside from feeling indebted for receiving things and having to write about them.

    We’ve accepted and written about a few products that we actually liked and enjoyed, with full disclosure as to having received them from either owner/s or marketing people. We even had a giveaway and discount to readers for a product. We also posted a sort of neutral review about a product that we weren’t particularly ecstatic about as homecooks who don’t like shortcuts, but pointed out who they might be good for. After that, and several experiences with a company who kept hounding us about when our review would be posted, we had to sit down and think about what we want to do about it. We eventually put up product/marketing policies on our contact page to let potential companies know that we’re not that kind of website. We love freebies, but we love our “freedom” even more — freedom to do what we want with our website, our time; freedom to say what we want to say when we want to say it.

  17. I write reviews for restaurants in my hometown. Only had a few instances where I was comped for a meal, but I don’t think it was because they knew who I was or that they would be reviewed. I try to make sure restaurants don’t know who I am because I don’t want to deal with the situation. Still, if for some reason, my meal is free or discounted, I always make it clear in the post.

    I used to work in the MSM and used to see some of the abuse talked about in the blog (ie. taking expensive “samples” to make up for lack of pay). I never did it myself, but if someone offered me a t-shirt from an event I was covering, I didn’t turn it down either. I think the NY Times $25 rule is a pretty good one, but if it influences your story, it should always be disclosed.

    If I were a PR flack, I have to admit, I would take advantage of bloggers. Most aren’t trained journalists and haven’t taken the ethics classes to even realize what they’re doing is wrong. If I could get some good reviews of my product out there, it’s something I would definitely look at.

  18. Food for thought

    My background is in both journalism and marketing so I can see both sides.

    From the start, my policy is to not accept non-food related products or services and I only accept items I am likely to blog about, however I make NO promise to blog about whatever the freebie is. And I make NO promise to only write favorable posts. Whenever I do write about a freebie (usually a cooking class or book), I do mention I received the freebie. I’m upfront with whomever is offering me the book, gift certificate, etc. about this. I don’t have this posted anywhere on the blog however and am considering doing so.

    I don’t think bloggers should be obligated to write about the freebies, but I do think they always need to disclose if they do. The question is — what if you don’t like it — I think that depends on the scope and purpose of your blog. I do agree that blogs don’t always need to be cheerleaders, that we can point out the good and the bad and I have done so when I have mixed or somewhat mixed reactions to things. On the other hand, life is busy, my time to blog is short and sometimes I just take a pass on writing about a some of my negative experiences about freebies. I would certainly make a point of writing about a negative experience that would have consequences for others (as opposed to me just not liking something).

    Have I ever regretted accepting a freebie — yes, once. I was hoping for a story idea and every one was so nice and all, but I just couldn’t make the story fit my blog. However, one day I might do something where it will fit and I’m sure I’ll work them in then (and disclose their gift.)

    FYI — I choose not to have advertising on my blog because I want to control the content and messages.

  19. I don’t write about food yet, but I’ve gotten interested in the subject as I read “Will Write for Food.”

    I have a question about freebies. Do the recipients need to report these items as income at fair market value on their tax returns at the end of the year? This is off the subject, but it’s something that I’m curious to know.

    Thanks for the great guidelines. They make perfect sense.

    • Thanks for reading my book.

      Great question, Janice. I think the answer is no. Can I get a confirmation?

  20. I write a design blog and some of that cadre of bloggers are struggling with the same thing. Some have been taken on trips to visit factories where decorative items are made, some have been sent books and other articles, and very few have disclosed. I’ve written two posts about it, here and here. Very interesting comments. Bottom line for me is that if you’re writing about a freebie, disclose it to be on the safe side.

  21. What a great topic – it’s so easy to be sucked into the world of freebies!!

    As an event planner, I often get invited to various resorts and destinations, especially in a down economy. I never accept unless I truly think there is a strong possibility that I can have my group there. When I do accept, the only thing that I expect them to provide for me is a tour of the property/area and a hotel stay. I pay my way for everything else.

    Further, I think it’s important for me to protect my reputation/professional image and not be known as “that girl” who accepts and expects free comps for everything!!

  22. I’m scratching my head. So if a New York Times reviewer writes an article/review of a book, they don’t have to mention the book was comped. Or when their wine writer writes up a wine, he doesn’t mention it was comped. But bloggers are supposed to?

    (And the Times “$25 rule” would not apply to books like Alinea or French Laundry, which cost more than that. Or to bottles of wine, which exceed that price. So they can’t, or shouldn’t, accept those? I’ve not seen any disclosure about free wine or books.)

    And if bloggers are supposed to operate on the same principles as journalists, that would mean that you’d have to visit a restaurant three times before writing a “review” (although perhaps that will prompt someone to clarify the difference between ‘review’ and ‘article’.)

    As for press trips and such, I’ve been on a few and each and every journalist was there because the trip was paid for by the company or board of tourism. Most magazines can’t afford to send people around anymore, as they’re barely hanging on. I can’t speak for all press trips since I’ve only been on 3, but there was never any expectation to write something positive or glowing; it was similar to receiving a comped bottle of wine or cookbook. Like the person who took the grilling class mentioned in the post, I simply wanted to learn more about something, or a place, and shared it with my readers.

    The primary goal of my blog, and the ones I read faithfully, is to provide a good experience for my readers. One of the great things about a blog is that unlike the traditional media, we can write about things that we’re committed to, whether that’s small farms or bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Both are for-profit enterprises, but I’m happy to throw my support behind them because it’s very hard work and I believe in what they’re doing. So there.

    Getting a free spatula, bottle of booze, or a $5 bar of chocolate isn’t worth alienating people for. (Although the $9 chocolate bars are pretty tempting…) I respect and appreciate my readers too much to steer them astray. So when I write about something or mention a product, it’s because I like it and it’s something that I truly recommend.

    • Hi David,

      I was hoping you would weigh in. Good points about the books and the wines. But there’s a slight difference. Publications have review sections or columns (code for opinion) for wine, books or product, written by professional freelance writers or staff journalists and writers. The writers report to editors who have established standards and policies. Bloggers sit at their computers all alone, the majority with no standards or policies. Sorry. It’s the Wild West right now, with marketers taking advantage of their inexperience.

      And yes, travel writing is on the hairy edge, where writers are invited on trips they otherwise can’t afford, or they expect to be comped when they travel. I’ve always been suspicious of travel writing for that reason.

      Re the difference between an article and a review: An article is based on news. It might be a few paragraphs about a restaurant opening, or it might list menu items without stating an opinion. A review, on the other hand, focuses entirely on what the writer thinks about the place, the food and the service.

      Re providing a good experience for your readers, I just don’t get why that wouldn’t include a thoughtfully reasoned opinion of a product that includes some cons — sometimes. Certainly restaurant reviewers provide a good experience for their readers, but it’s not about promotion.

      I don’t see anything wrong with writing about a business you believe in. That’s your opinion. The issue is how you “promote” the company and what that means. If you do it with the reader in mind first, I’m okay with it. If you do it because KitchenAid just sent you a $500 food processor or they’re paying you to Tweet or blog, that’s different.

      • You’re absolutely right about accepting anything in exchange for review; it’s basically the same as taking cash. The “wild west” is a good point, and I guess it just comes down to which blog it is. Is Tyler Colman (aka Dr. Vino) any more or less-trustworthy because he has a blog? (He adheres to the same standards as print media.)

        I do mention cons of restaurants and places I’m writing about, but because I’ve worked in the food industry, I know few people open their doors and say, “Let’s see what we can fleece the public for today.”

        But readers do hone in on negativity: I wrote about a ‘downscale’ place that serves roast chicken, with the admonition that the place wasn’t at all fancy. (People coming to Paris are usually expecting something more upscale or don’t want to travel to outlying neighborhoods.) I love the place, but a commenter pointed out that I was “a snob.”

        When I’ve done travel pieces, no matter if it was a press trip or at my own expense, I’m not there to write a review. I’m doing an article, and try not to interject my opinion in there too much. Often people will write and ask if I recommend that place for a trip in my comments or via e-mail and I always answer them honestly. Ditto with restaurants and pastry shops.

  23. Thanks for posting this. The folks who take free stuff and then write glowing reviews without a disclosure make it hard for the rest of us who are trying to do more traditional reported stories. I remember when I was covering Congress for CQ, I couldn’t accept so much as a grilled cheese sandwich from a source. Of course, I get invited to press events for my blog,, where there’s free food and drink that I’m not paying for. But I never promise positive coverage and try to call them as I see them.
    This is a great discussion; it’s made me think I should post my policy on my blog.

  24. This is all fascinating. You clearly hit a nerve, Dianne, and rightly so.

    I think I’m with David in the sense that there’s a double standard for bloggers and print journalists, and though I do understand that it’s much messier for readers for there not to be a uniform code of blogger ethics, I’m tempted to offer a polite, “So what?” The blogosphere is NOT print journalism, and its rules and mores are absolutely distinct.

    Ultimately, it’s the reader’s job to parse the information and choose whom they’re going to follow (& trust). If a blogger is always spewing positivity (I love this! And this! And this!), all a reader needs to do is click away to a more balanced site.

    I’m a firm believer that there’s a niche for everyone. There are good blogs and bad blogs, ethical bloggers and unethical. Is it a bad thing that there’s room for us all? Isn’t that the beauty of the blogosphere? Isn’t that why it’s so democratic?

    Let the reader decide.

  25. […] food writer Dianne Jacob has written an interesting post about the ethics of food bloggers receiving free product for review. A great little article that’s sparked a ton of conversation. Scroll down to check out the […]

  26. Great post. I’ve had discussions about this topic many times and not everyone sees things the same way. For example, if I get a review copy of a cookbook and I don’t really like it, I don’t review it. I figure the great cookbooks need exposure and who’s to say that someone won’t like a book I think is so-so.

    After much foot-dragging, I developed and posted a pitch policy that’s tailored to my blog and personal value system. It’s not a one-size fits all. If anyone cares to see my take on things, here’s a link.

  27. […] Ethics. Dianne Jacob on Will Write for Food discusses the ethics of food blogging. […]

  28. I’m more for a fitness blogger than a food blogger, but we do occassionally review healthy foods (like today, actually), but we always tell the truth about a product. We give pros and cons. If we really dislike something, we say so. And if we really love something, we shout it as loudly as we can (there’s a lot of fitness crapola out there).

    Great post on a topic that needs more discussion.

  29. I am a food blogger and reporter – given my journalism background it’s very important for me to stay ethical. These tips are good as is, your personal experience info about magazine editing.

  30. […] link is being shared on Twitter right now. @vegateam, an influential author, said @EatingBender […]

  31. I resist trying PPC until the site is perfect (copy is polished, design exactly how I want it, oh, and that new feature is added…). Long story short, I’ ve only dabbled in PPC a few times, even though I know it can bring great traffic. I just worry about spending too much money before everything is how I want it

  32. The FTC has weighed in about the ethical intersect of bloggers and
    free stuff. Read about it at

    • Thanks Laura. The FCC also defines “pay” as receiving a free product and writing about it, not just writing for pay on a blog. Seems a little hypocritical, since newspapers and magazines don’t say specifically when they have received a free product, such as wine or a book, for review. See this link also:

      • Okay, I should have read through all these comments before throwing in my two cents (more like two dollars LOL) on your newer post. I especially enjoyed reading David’s thoughts here.

        What’s interesting is that I’m going away from all of this with one main thought – that thank goodness we’re still ‘allowed’ to write about products we bought ourselves on our blogs – or companies we like! David said:

        One of the great things about a blog is that unlike the traditional media, we can write about things that we’re committed to, whether that’s small farms or bean-to-bar chocolate makers. Both are for-profit enterprises, but I’m happy to throw my support behind them because it’s very hard work and I believe in what they’re doing. So there.

        I totally agree. For me, this extends to products as well. I constantly mention my favorite seed suppliers on my garden blog (from whom I have been buying seeds for years and who have never sent me any free product) and often mention how much I love a certain baking pan or other piece of kitchen equipment (that I purchased myself) on my food and farm blog. I do this because 1) people often ask me for recommendations on these topics and 2) I’m so happy with them and think some of my readers would be, too.

        I guess part of me doesn’t see a huge difference between praising a product on your blog that you love and bought yourself or that you love and were given for free (geez, now I’m wondering if you have to disclose that someone gave you something for Christmas). But then I would never write something positive about (or even simply mention and link to) a product I didn’t actually like.

        Thanks, Dianne, for starting such interesting and informative discussions!

  33. Eeep….
    Does this mean you have to change the title of your book,
    Will Write For Food (and give a credit for all free meals)
    ? ? ?
    I have yet to receive a free macaron except on Macaron Day…
    I am obviously doing something wrong.

  34. […] of chatter in the blogosphere of late about freebies, and even rules and regulations on accepting swag from the […]

  35. Thanks for taking this opportunity to talk about “7 Guidelines for Food Bloggers on Freebies”, I benefit from learning about this topic. If possible, as you gain data, please update this blog with new information. Thanks, Hier

  36. I wish there was a manual for new food bloggers, do’s and don’ts. What you should do, what you shouldn’t do. I am finding tidbits of information here and there but you could make one fatal mistake and you could be looked down upon in a community you are trying very hard to fit in to. Dianne I am finding your blog and the comments on your posts very helpful and I truly thank you for sharing.

  37. Hello from Germany! May i quote a post a translated part of your blog with a link to you? I’ve tried to contact you for the topic 7 Guidelines for Food Bloggers on Freebies, but i got no answer, please reply when you have a moment, thanks, Gedicht

  38. Dianne,
    So glad you wrote this! I think this should be required reading by everyone who starts a blog. There is so much to learn and it is incredibly easy to get caught up in the excitement. Great work!

  39. I just want to say thanks for this interesting thread about 7 Guidelines for Food Bloggers on Freebies! Regards, Alexa Beratung

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