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The cozy relationships brands have forged with bloggers have been controversial from the start.

Are marketing and PR initiatives that target bloggers smart strategy, or are they little more than a flawed "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine" approach to social media?

The concerns over the latter have been so great that government agencies have scrutinized how brands work with bloggers, and how those bloggers promote those brands to their readers.

Scrutinized or not, however, brands and bloggers are no less friendly today. But that doesn't mean that thesefriendships are without their difficulties.

Case in point: Omnicom-owned PR firm Ketchum recently invited food and mommy bloggers to attend a dinner at an Italian restaurant. The multi-course meal, they were told, was prepared by a celebrity chef. But that wasn't the case. The New York Times explains:

...rather than being prepared by the chef, the lasagna [the bloggers] were served was Three Meat and Four Cheese Lasagna by Marie Callender’s, a frozen line from ConAgra Foods.

Hidden cameras at the dinners, which were orchestrated by the Ketchum public relations unit of the Omnicom Group, captured reactions to the lasagna and to the dessert, Razzleberry Pie, also from Marie Callender’s.

Ketchum planned to post videos of the dinner to YouTube and other sites, expecting that the bloggers would be amused and pleased that their gourmet food was fresh from a microwave.

Not surprisingly, however, many of the bloggers weren't amused or pleased. One described the dinner as a "SHAM" and called the entire event a "bait-and-switch".

Part of the problem, of course, with Ketchum's Marie Callender's campaign is that Ketchum invited individuals who, it's probably fair to assume, often feel some level of 'entitlement'.

After all, many of these bloggers have become used to being treated like royalty. From access to exclusive events to free product, the idea, whether anyone will admit to it, is essentially that bloggers can be bought with free goodies.

But it doesn't always work out. Bloggers are a tough bunch, and the more they receive, the more they'll expect. In the case of Ketchum, it's not shocking that treating a bunch of bloggers to a four-star meal that turns out to be microwave food didn't meet expectations.

At the same time, it's safe to say that had Ketchum's dinner been as-described, there were would be far fewer complaints, if any at all, and chances are you and I wouldn't know of the exclusive meal.

Which begs the question: what in the world are brands and PR firms thinking? A "delicious four-course meal" at "an intimate Italian restaurant"? A "special evening in a special location" for a select group of individuals who write about food and motherhood?

Brands, their agencies and their PR firms need to stop deluding themselves. The goal is to connect with real consumers in meaningful ways using social media, but Ketchum's blogger blunder suggests that many are trying to go about this in the most roundabout and bizarre of ways.

Patricio Robles

Published 8 September, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2355 more posts from this author

Comments (14)

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PaulB67

It's amazing to me how ham-handed a large PR agency like Ketchum can be in trying to promote brand clients. Isn't there anyone in the agency that know how to evaluate a project for its backfire quotient?

over 4 years ago

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Shannyn @frugalbeautiful.com

As a consumer and as a blogger, I'd be a bit peeved if I was given one thing and received another, and that's not about entitlement. What would you do if your partner promised you a great vacation for your anniversary at a fancy hotel with a ocean view and you showed up to find out you're at a motel at least a mile from the ocean? Sure, you'll love and appreciate what your partner gives you- but why would they promise something they couldn't/never planned on delivering? I think this is similar, sure it was a free event- but I think bloggers STILL would have come excited without all the false hype and lies.

Now, I think the company would have been able to pull this off had they just said, "We are offering you a nice dinner to get your honest thoughts on our product," by hyping it up as a different experience and product entirely (regardless that iot was free) they didn't just disappoint, they LIED. I've received budget products to compare to the luxury items- but never with the intention to pull the wool over my eyes or hype up a product. Since I knew what I was receiving I didn't have false expectations.

I really don't think this is an issue of entitlement, it's an issue of corporate honesty. I'd like to think most bloggers will give a fair review if they know that they're not invited to participate on the premise they're intentionally duped!

over 4 years ago

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Sian

Did all the bloggers react badly? I think the stunt is actually quite clever. A while back We Are Social did something similar with Ketchup - they used it as a 'secret ingredient' in a variety of recipes without revealing until the end that this £2 bottle of red sauce was in everything fancy that they'd eaten. I don't think Ketchum we trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes, just trying something different to highlight their brand. If anything, I think this highlights a little bit of food blogger snobbery. The expected a fancy meal and that's not what they got - I wonder if they enjoyed their dinner up until then and perhaps didn't want a video of them waxing lyrical about it to undermine their 'expert opinion'.

over 4 years ago

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Trevor

Ketchum did what it was hired to do. They were hired to promote that the Marie Callender dinners were a microwave dinner alternative to fresh cooking. There is a stigma attached to microwave dinners that they are tasteless bowls of food, created for bachelors with the culinary skills to burn water. If the foodie bloggers were offended at being "tricked" that tells me that they don't have the credentials to be a food critic at all. If you can't tell the difference between fresh ingredients and frozen, well then you aren't much of a foodie are you. Febreeze has a commercial on TV right now, where people are brought into disgusting dirty rooms, blindfolded I might add, where the air freshener has been used. The public viewing the commercial, is not 100% certain that the commercial is staged or that the people being blindfolded are in fact unaware of what they are being taken into. They sniff and smell and are pleased the aroma, comparing it to outdoor freshness. Then the blindfolds are removed. Potential buyers of the product watching the commercial think, if that stuff works in a smelly disgusting kitchen then surely Febreeze will work in my teenage sons closet. Ketchum did the exact same thing with Marie Callender's lasagna and pie. They gathered some people into a restaurant with the goal of disspelling any myths about microwave dinners. Apparently the product passed the test. For all of the offended bloggers out there did you notice the food critic from the New York Times sitting at the table next to you or a chef from the food network sitting beside you. A food critic with a seasoned pallet would not have been fooled. To all of the offended bloggers, here is some food for thought. If you couldn't tell the difference, have you not then been "feeding" your followers a big plate of we aren't what we said we were.

over 4 years ago

Craig Brewster

Craig Brewster, Founder at your mum

So Ketchum were trying to say something like "The frozen food is so good, food experts think it's been cooked fresh by a top chef." In itself not a bad idea but choosing bloggers as the so called experts was flawed from the outset.

Bloggers largely survive on reputation alone and, if they are perceived to have been tricked, they're expertise is called into question and their reputation is potentially damaged. If they're reputation is damaged, they have less kudos, if they have less kudos other brands will stop calling them.

So even if the food was genuinely great, the bloggers have too much to lose, which is why I imagine some were upset.

So, Ketchum are a PR agency who approached a social media campaign with little thought of the value of reputation. Hmm, interesting ...

over 4 years ago

Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson, Founder at The Guku

All I know for sure from this article is that Marie Callender’s microwave lassagne was good enough to fool some foodie bloggers into thinking it was cooked by a celebrity chef. Sounds like good PR to me!

over 4 years ago

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Oscar Del Santo

I think there is a fine line between presenting information to bloggers and telling them about your product and expecting bloggers to support your product just because you treat us to dinner. The majority of us are much more discerning and honest than the average PR firm expects us to be.

over 4 years ago

Andrew Nicholson

Andrew Nicholson, Founder at The Guku

That's a fair point Oscar. Most reputable bloggers can't and won't be brought. There are numerous stories of PR firms publically getting their fingers burnt when the product they were trying to promote didn't live up to expectations.

There are however a small minority of bloggers who will happily sell their souls to get a freeby out of the promoting company. Same goes for journalists I guess.

over 4 years ago

David Farrer

David Farrer, Director at Fourteen Ten Ltd

Captured dining on hidden cameras and conned out of a meal. You couldn't make it up!

It's bad enough eating in this kind of public event with so many eyeballs on you but to have your every forkful and gulp captured. #awful

As a blogger on the whole I do find it really helps to be given 'free samples' on some occasions it is blatant bribing but in most cases it is helpful.

Trying to write about something you haven't at least sampled first is often very difficult and why should we write about something we haven't been invited to experience first?

over 4 years ago

Guy Harvey

Guy Harvey, Marketing Consultant - Social Media and Media Relations at Human Factors International

I think this is called using people. I wonder if Sian at We Are Social understands that concept!

over 4 years ago

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Sian

Oooh, being snide AND making the assumption that I work for We Are Social, Guy? I don't, and never have. I'm a blogger. I don't work in PR. I was simply citing another example of this kind of PR stunt. One where food bloggers actually responded positively.

over 4 years ago

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Rebecca Nixon, Brand Executive at The IT Job Board

Why didn't they just ask the bloggers to come in and do a blind taste-test on fancy food vs these frozen dinners?

The issue here seems to be that they lied. Not sure defending them and comparing them to other stunts is fair on the bloggers when they are very different campaigns.

over 4 years ago

Guy Harvey

Guy Harvey, Marketing Consultant - Social Media and Media Relations at Human Factors International

Sian, I wasn't making an assumption. I misread your post. I thought you said you worked at We Are Social. My apologies.

PR is a two way street. Media gets a story, the publicist gets exposure. In this case the publicist got its exposure and the media (the bloggers) got nothing in return. PR is about building bridges, this story is about burning bridges.

over 4 years ago

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Houston

An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a friend who has been conducting a
little research on this. And he in fact bought me lunch simply because
I discovered it for him... lol. So allow me to reword this.
... Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to discuss this matter here on your internet site.

over 3 years ago

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