The Seedy World of Sponsored Reviews

There’s a maddening trend slowly choking the food scene as I know it. It’s one of deceit and false admiration, and it’s infiltrated every form of media. Traditional print, social media and online blogs have become playgrounds for amoral, shallow “food lovers” to peddle their “reviews”, which are almost always positive, and typically written in exchange for a handout. They furiously thumb through their thesaurus, searching for alternatives to good, delicious, and tasty, replacing them with flowery nonsense like miraculous and enchanting. Social media feeds, a necessary evil these days, have  been compromised by lackluster, or downright misleading content posted by lazy individuals looking to benefit from the latest food craze, which is usually old hat by the time they parrot their buzzwords. Photo sharing applications which were once ripe with authentic food lovers posting unique, heartfelt and at times scatterbrained shots, has evolved into calculated, inorganic vehicles for hardly veiled advertisement.

Review Deal

Of course it’s not all bad. I love Instagram and my curiosity is often piqued by a well curated Tumblr, or Pinterest board. It’s still possible to find inspiration from a select few that choose to share their creative efforts for all to see. I also find a good number of new places to eat from users based in cities I’m less familiar with. Unfortunately, for many, it’s smoke and mirrors, it’s style over substance. Tell me, what is the motivating factor of putting your food on the ground just so you can get your shoes in the shot? Or spending 5 minutes to figure out the right light/angle while your food dies on the table? Was it worth the waste to build that Jordan Balfort sized pile of flour in the background of your sinfully simple Lemon Bar recipe? Of course it is if it garners one more view or like, a currency that’s become the heroine for the myriad insipid “foodies” out there.

Advertising has played a huge part in the way the public perceive quality, but unquestionably the main culprit has to be the content creator. We may all disagree about what we think is good and still get along if our motives are pure and true. The simple fact is every one of us has preferences and opinions. But those who sell their souls for free food, the ones who couldn’t write themselves out of a will, they’re the reason I’m starting to hate restaurant reviews and food blogs. It’s gotten so dense that when I peruse a major blog, it’s nearly impossible to find an honest opinion that hasn’t been tainted by the siren song that is a free meal. There are instances of those who have offered to live blog a charity dinner in exchange for a free seat. What good does that do anyone except the “freeater”? There are those who exploit their children in order to gain popularity, even getting paid to appear in person with their spawn at sponsored events and restaurants. Of course there’s the whole group of individuals who only posts photos from a restaurant because it was a prerequisite for a free meal, praising a dish in the caption even if said dish is trash. What’s the point? What good does that do anyone? I don’t need to see photos of bad food and you don’t need to post them. All it tells me is that you’re angling for a freepeat visit. A visit you probably received because the restaurant must need the attention. I can’t figure out any other purpose to share this kind of content. Within the last month, I’ve had a hand full of chef friends give me firsthand accounts of “bloggers” soliciting them personally in order to trade a free meal for 1 instagram photo. It’s sad to see some establishments take the bait for extra exposure. I personally feel it’s false admiration both parties are guilty of. And neither will ever disclose any transaction/barter has occured.

If you get a free meal and don’t say it was a free meal, you can’t be trusted. Tons of popular personalities are guilty of this. It’s always a tell-tale sign when the usual suspects all happen to eat at the same place, around the same time, posting photos nearly simultaneously. They are likely at a sponsored, free food “media” extravaganza. Every single person should make that fact known on every outlet every instance, but they don’t. They are misleading you, the potential patron. Let me expound just a bit more because it’s a matter that is hardly ever touched on.

Failing to disclose you are bought and paid for is a violation of the Federal Trade Commissions guidelines on sponsorship and endorsement. Not only are you required to be upfront about the circumstances surrounding the exchange, you are required to notate clearly and conspicuously as part of your post or article. This would prevent the naive and ignorant from wasting any more time on your site. This isn’t exclusive to blogs, it includes your social feeds such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and yes especially YELP.

People-Hate-Us-On-Yelp-500x508

I’m not saying all these people have terrible taste. I mean, we all seem to go to the same spots at some point. However, when you go for a #sponsored meal, the restaurant obviously knows why you’re there. The fact of the matter is you ARE going to get very, very good service and normally, very good food. Or at least the best product the restaurant in question is capable of. We have some advice which I’m sure you wont take if you happen to be guilty of this.

Here it is, ready? Just stop. Stop going. Stop writing about Dunkin Donuts new featured Dunkaccino, or The O-Town Mac Down or the Bay Area Margarita Bash or even all new places “Grand Opening” parties looking to be the next buzzworthy restaurant. Just go on a random day, and pay.

Posts about events featuring foods that can’t even be purchased by the general public serves no purpose. So, if you want to be a restaurant critic, then do so. Go anonymously, without warning and uncompensated by the establishment you’re reviewing. Give us an idea of what it’s like to visit without the benefit of all the free stuff. Let a restaurant earn their popularity. The last thing I need to read before each post is “We were recently invited,” “It was my pleasure to attend” or “I was the guest.”

I know what that means.

Really, there’s nothing wrong attending a re-occurring event to provide opinionated coverage in order to give prospective visitors an idea about what to expect and what to avoid. The Walt Disney World Epcot Food and Wine Festival, held each fall, comes to mind.  That’s not to say that Eat a Duck has never been the guest of a chef, restaurant or food related event, but we always disclose our intentions to pay beforehand, letting the coordinator, PR manager, or chef know that our attendance does not mean a write up will follow if the experience fails to impress.

If this indictment reflects your style, you’re probably fuming and fastidiously removing Eat a Duck from all your social feeds. That’s ok, we don’t rely on ad revenue or provide click bait to pay the bills. We don’t make friends with restaurants and chefs for the compensation. We do it because we respect them for providing us delicious sustenance. So you won’t see any Living Social deals for PDQ, or live Tweet sessions from the latest Shake Shack opening.

I can’t end this tirade without mentioning restaurant reviews in the newspaper. Here on our humble peninsula, there is no Jonathan Gold. We don’t have a fair, intelligent, uncompromising food critic with prose so slick it puts you flat on your back. There is no one of that caliber anymore in Tampa, Orlando, Miami, and certainly not in Lakeland. No, we have critics afraid to offend restaurants, I suspect because of fear of losing current, future or potential advertising dollars.  Not every restaurant merits a 3+ star rating on a 5 star scale. If you’re going to make certain you’re the first to report at every known edible outpost, there are going to be some egregious misses and it’s your responsibility to report this in detail. You should be more responsible than to say your fried Tilapia was so fresh it tasted like it was just reeled in. Just FYI, Tilapia is farm raised 5 to 1 over line caught and they’re almost exclusively shipped in frozen from Asia, South America or Africa. If only we had access to fresh seafood in Florida.

It’s your responsibility to be completely transparent. Don’t hold back information that could help your readers make wise decisions with their dining dollars.  Not every restaurant is good, yet the “bad” review is nearly a thing of the past in this area. Except on Yelp of course. The problem there is the retaliatory nature of reviewing on the site is not a true critique, as writers mainly focus on service or some other irrelevant quality instead of talking about something important, like, I don’t know, the food. Sometimes the Yelpless don’t even make it that far before doling out a single star.

The purpose of critique is not to be overly funny, mean, to give false commendation or ruin businesses. The point of talking about food, restaurants, and chefs is to educate, to learn and to promote what we consider to be our unique opinion, so hopefully someone benefits from the realistic portrayal and has a great meal.

We think we do an decent job at it, and we know you aren’t going to use what James or I say as the gospel. Both of us have full-time jobs and use our hard-earned money to enjoy this favorite pastime of ours to the fullest. We aren’t going to go to every high-end restaurant like our friend Aiste at Luxeat. We definitely wont be the first to scoop an opening, because we like to give places a gestation period. We know that costs us a bit with viewership looking for the latest tags and trends. If that’s the price we need to pay to be fair and honest, so be it.

We promise to stand behind our recipes, restaurant recommendations or anything else we give our opinion on, even if that means taking down a post when restaurants dip below our standards. We are Eat a Duck. We will continue to write about all the good food that crosses our paths. We don’t like Pumpkin.

4 thoughts on “The Seedy World of Sponsored Reviews

    • That’s a good question Jamie. The answer is no, at least not publicly. The whole reason we started this blog was to create a place where our readers could come and only find great places to eat. It’s a waste of time to write about bad places, besides, there are a million other outlets for that. If a restaurant doesn’t impress, we simply don’t write about it. When a manager or chef asks us our opinion, we always give constructive criticism, but we never write a bad review to get attention at the expense of the proprietor.

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