The BlogHer & Nestle / Stouffers / Butterfinger Sponsorship Controversy

#NestleFamily

In September 2009, Nestle, one of the most widely boycotted and protested brands in the world, sponsored a trip to its headquarters for mom and dad bloggers.

They created a hastag #NestleFamily and posted images and names of the bloggers on a microsite, calling them “Nestle Family Bloggers”. Their hashtagged tweets also appeared on the microsite.

Before these bloggers went, Annie of PhDinParenting asked them to reconsider. She believed that no engagement with Nestle was likely to prove productive at a fully sponsored brand event at corporate head quarters.

In my opinion, this is especially true given the nature of the event and the fact that most of the bloggers there have stated that they were unaware of the concerns about Nestle until being contacted by Annie.

During the event, activists, boycotters, protesters, and others challenged Nestle’s use of the social media space on Twitter, using the same hashtag (#NestleFamily).

For those unfamiliar with Twitter, it is a “microblogging” site where you send updates of 140 characters. You can protect your tweets or allow them to be visible to the public. You can view the entire stream of all public tweets, the tweets of only the people you “follow”, “lists” you have created, and/or everyone with a publicly available profile using a hashtag. The use of a hashtag is free, is not pre-registered with twitter, and is not restricted to a list of followers–anyone can create or use a hashtag.

Hashtags are used to organize the conversation around a topic (#shoplocal), make a joke (#fail), or as a tool for twitter parties, both for regularly scheduled get-togethers (#ecowed, #gno) or one-time events like #NestleFamily.

BlogHer ’10 and Stouffers and Butterfinger

BlogHer, the largest conference specifically for female bloggers recently announced that Stouffers will be a sponsor. Butterfinger will be added to the list, soon.

A number of people who used the #NestleFamily hashtag to criticize Nestle or challenge the attendees or who directly sent public messages to the #NestleFamily attendees, are attending or were planning to attend BlogHer ’10. At least one person, Annie of PhD in Parenting, is speaking on the panel, “Radical Blogging Moms: Don’t Even Think About Not Taking These Moms Seriously“.

An organization I co-founded with my Mamanista co-editor, Bloganthropy, is also a sponsor of BlogHer ’10.

The Differences Between #NestleFamily and BlogHer ’10

Those who oppose what we see as Nestle’s unethical and even illegal and immoral practices are at a crossroads. Two people have already decided that they must return or tear up their BlogHer ticket in order to consistently observe their personal policy of boycotting Nestle. Two people have stated that they are going and have given their reasons for their choices. Others, at least three that I know of, are still deciding. Still others were already not attending BlogHer, are not members of the BlogHer community, or are not even bloggers.

Amy at MomSpark has asked very legitimate questions about how BlogHer and how anti-Nestle people who attend BlogHer will be viewed (or, as she put it, “judged”).

A few of her commenters, however, seem to take a particular glee in pointing out what they see as “hypocrisy” or a “double standard”.

Regardless of what is the strongest, most clear, most consistent, most useful, or most ethical position to take, I believe that these two events are very, very different.

On the one hand, you have an event designed to promote Nestle products to an invited group of bloggers. The entire experience is paid by Nestle. The images, names, and words of those bloggers are listed under the heading of “Nestle Bloggers”.

As Liz from Mom-101, who considers herself a third party observer, pointed out:

My understanding is that you all signed some pretty comprehensive contracts giving rights to use your likeness, your twitter streams, videos of you, and so forth. This means you are now public advocates of the brand. Nestle is referring to you as “The Nestle Family Bloggers.” That’s an endorsement. And I believe you gave your permission for it.

On the other hand, you have an event designed to promote the female blogging community and all are welcome to purchase tickets. The experience is paid for by attendees (some of whom secure private sponsors) and a number of official event sponsors. The conference itself “sold out” by the first week in March and at that time, the complete list of sponsors was not available. No blogger will be identified as a blogger “for” or “with” or “in favor of” a particular brand unless they choose to be.

There are other differences, which some people may feel are more or less on point. There is the issue of financial and legal extrication from the situation as some BlogHer attendees have booked plane tickets or even signed contracts with sponsors. In my case, this is not a big issue. I don’t know if the price of following one’s conscience is relevant to whether or not attending is ethical or not…but it certainly is another difference between the two.

I’ve spoken with several people (some of whom aren’t bloggers) about the situation and most seem to agree the events are apples and oranges.

Are Nestle-protesters Using a Double Standard?

I point the differences out in response to the “double standard” accusation. To identify a double standard, the situations would have to be comparable.

In fact, during the #NestleFamily event discussion, well before we knew this would be an issue with BlogHer, I drew the distinction between a sponsor for a conference and attending a brand event where your name and image are listed as a blogger for the brand.

On Annie’s post at PhDinParenting, Greg at Telling Dad asked:

[...]Do we conduct due diligence before accepting advertising? Sponsorships? Products to review? How many regulations are we going to pass upon ourselves to blog? [...]

And I responded (again, in part):

[...]In this case, it isn’t that Nestle is a sponsor of a blogger conference, it is a NestleFamily event[...]

Now, whether they are “better” or “worse” (i.e. present more or less of an argument for boycotting the event) is another question.

Disagree with my logic all you like but don’t claim that saying the two events are very different is post-facto rationalization on my part.

Conflating People and Arguments

The other “double standard” argument is that the anti-Nestle people are asking to be treated with more understanding and/or respect than we gave to those who attended the Nestle Family meeting…many of whom, after all, had just learned of the concerns about Nestle shortly before attending and some of whom have clearly stated that after looking at the concerns, they still support Nestle.

To this I respond that people and arguments are being conflated. Among the “anti-Nestle” tweeters, there were long-term and vocal boycotters, those who have deep concerns about the ethics of Nestle’s marketing and/or sourcing of cocoa, lactivists, anti-corporate activists, fair trade activists, and others. Some of these people only spoke out against Nestle, others spoke to Nestle’s attempt to move into the parenting social media space, others engaged only Nestle Family attendees who spoke on point to the protest, others actively sought out attendees to call them out on what they believed to be an unethical decision, and among all these was also the random assortment of trolls and flamers who like to jump into the middle of any controversy and begin to hurl insults.

I believe that I engaged each person as an individual and spoke with them about their statements and beliefs.

After doing this with several of the attendees and other people who defended the event and/or those who attended, I found a few new tweeters and bloggers I enjoy. I also found a few people who were so hateful, nasty, and racist in their defense of Nestle that I have taken several measures to avoid socializing or working with those people in the future.

I am only asking the Nestle Family attendees and their supporters to offer me the same courtesy I extended to them: engage me as an individual and discuss my ideas with me–not attributing the actions of others to me.

That doesn’t sound like a double standard, does it?

In fact, I have, in a more closely related example, been in “their shoes” to the extent that I have championed a brand that many of the same anti-Nestle activists believe violates the WHO code. My objectivity was also called into question because I am an unpaid member of their “Mom Mavens” group–even though I have taken no official action as a member of that group nor received any compensation in any form whatsoever (travel expenses, samples, nada). However, I do not feel “bullied” or “harassed” at all. I have a disagreement of opinion with some other members of my community. I am willing to discuss that disagreement of opinion and have them challenge the views I express on my blog and on twitter.

Is it Hypocritical to Attend?

Here’s where it gets sticky.

My understanding of the word hypocritical is to say one thing and to do another. As before, we have to look at individual statements and see if their words are congruent with their actions.

If someone stated that he or she does not believe it is possible to ethically attend any event sponsored by Nestle, then the choice is clear.

However, if that is not the statement that person made, then things become more ambiguous.

Several supporters and attendees of the Nestle Family event have asserted that the anti-Nestle activists saw the issue as “black and white” and now are asking everyone to see shades of gray.

It has always been gray to me and I’ve never argued otherwise.

In fact, in comments on several blogs at the time, well before I even knew I was going to BlogHer or even thought about its sponsors, I said (in part):

I have no issue with the bloggers who accepted the invitation either not knowing about Nestle, knowing about it but not believing the evidence because they have evidence to the contrary, or knowing about it and believing it but hoping their attendance would draw attention to this important issue and allow them to personally deliver their objections to Nestle.

Of course it is a spectrum and a balance. Do you think that if Nestle had a product that would save my child’s life I would refuse to accept it? Would I drive an hour or more out of my way every time I go grocery shopping, expending huge amounts of gasoline, to shop at a store that does not carry Nestle? Do I refuse to accept public services because Nestle pays taxes in the United States? Somewhere between being willing to die to protest Nestle and cheering on Nestle as a brand, lies a vast middle of positions to take.

Does that mean I shouldn’t take any action to challenge Nestle simply because I am unwilling to take perfect action or because perfect action would require me to violate even more deeply held principles?

It is only hypocritical to attend BlogHer ’10 if a person said that a boycott against Nestle should be absolute and no one should attend an event sponsored in whole or in part by Nestle. Otherwise, that label does not apply to . Note that several important voices in our community will not be present at BlogHer ’10 because they believe that this is the only ethical stance they can take.

Even if it is Not Hypocritical, is it Ethical? (…and even stickier…)

As I said before, there are key differences between the events but whether or not these differences mean that it is ethical to attend one event and not the other (or whether it would be possible to attend both events or neither of the events) requires a deeper analysis.

Each of these contrasts can be examined from different perspectives.

For example, Catherine of Her Bad Mother has been cogently arguing that the stronger (which I take to mean clearer but could have a variety of different interpretations) position is for anyone who has publicly called for boycott to boycott any events sponsored in whole or in part by Nestle. She spoke also to the point that Nestle Family attendees received little value in return while BlogHer participants are receiving quite a bit of value from the sponsors:

I would actually argue that attending a branded Nestle event that was all about Nestle is more defensible than attending a conference sponsored by Nestle if one has boycotted Nestle. In the former case, one donates one’s time – receives little benefit, really, unless you count bunny photo opps and a plane ride as meaningful benefits, but expends one’s own effort (it’s why some bloggers insist that we should be paid for such junkets – they’re WORK) – and has the opportunity to discuss and/or confront Nestle directly. It is, in some respects, the perfect opportunity to engage constructively with a company. With something like a conference, there’s no opportunity for engagement with a sponsor, and it’s all benefit to the participant (a weekend with friends, opportunity for self-promotion, learning experience in panels, etc.) [...]

Now, I don’t think that the Nestle Family attendees felt they were receiving little of value. If so, why did they attend? Obviously they saw some value in it to themselves, their brands, or their communities.

Even accepting this idea that a participant at BlogHer is on the receiving end of greater value from sponsors and that all sponsors make the whole conference possible (even though BlogHer was going forward even before these two sponsorships), there is still another way of looking at this same fact. Over at The Feminist Breeder,Gina explains:

Nestle is contributing a few dollars to helping outspoken, intelligent, and influential women come together to amplify their message, be change agents, and ultimately undermine everything Nestle stands for. The Joke is On Nestle – not on me.

Which is to say that the ethical implications of attending or not attending, whether or not it contradicts any one individual’s prior statement, is complicated.

Will attendance at BlogHer be seen as an acceptance of Nestle’s move into the social media parenting space? Or is going and speaking about radical blogging subverting Nestle’s agenda? In the spectrum, is it more important to lend your voice to the important and empowering work done at BlogHer than to make your objections to Nestle more consistent?

There are a lot of valid points in both columns. Not going/speaking sends a message to BlogHer and allows you to maintain a clear personal stance on benefiting from Nestle’s marketing campaigns. Going/speaking allows you to participate in a community of female bloggers and to inspire others. Would not going be more inspiring? Or would the message be lost among all the other attendees eager to get in the door?

Perhaps there are people who will see any justification for attendance as a rationalization. That’s one of those things that is impossible to prove. Obviously if I decide to attend, I won’t see my reasons as a rationalization even if they are. And if you believe that I can’t ethically or legitimately attend, you will see any explanation I offer as a rationalization.

Ultimately, I and others will make there own decision. And if you disagree with my decision, you can feel free to tell me. If you lose respect for me because of my decision, that is your prerogative. In the end, I’m the one who has to live with myself.

Why Am I Writing All of This?

Mama Saga has a ridiculously small number of readers. About 1/30 of the number Mamanista gets.

This is my personal blog to work through my thoughts and share with friends.

I am not foolish enough to think that Nestle cares what I think or whether or not I buy their cookie dough (really the only product I would buy if I were to buy Nestle brands).

Perhaps naively, though, I think BlogHer does care what a group of its members, attendees, contributors, speakers, editors, and party hosts thinks.

Would any individual’s statement to BlogHer be stronger if she gives up her ticket? Or can we make that statement to BlogHer and use our attendance to continue to influence the growth of BlogHer?

Of course, in writing this, I run the risk that “the lady doth protest too much”. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

In the end, I will make my own decision and you are free to have your opinion on it.

This is a start of a discussion, not my final word on the topic.

Proposals to Mitigate the Effect

For those who choose to attend, there are several proposals and suggestions to mitigate the effect of accepting Nestle’s partial sponsorship.

If I attend, I will donate the portion that Nestle Brands are subsidizing my ticket. This is a gesture and a statement. Annie has also proposed this idea and taken it a step forward–she will make it a group fundraiser. It does not change the ethical equation but it at least shows that a group of bloggers are willing to accept a higher priced ticket (or fewer available spots) if it means that the sponsors adhere to some code of ethical conduct.

If it would be accepted, I would try to raise the money to substitute for their entire sponsorship. However, I suspect that BlogHer still will not remove the sponsors, even if they wished to, because they likely have a contract with them. Even they have an escape clause, it could still mean a battle with the legal department of a mammoth corporation.

There are other possibilities and many bloggers are currently considering options that will stay within BlogHer’s rules and be respectful of other attendees.

I would also like to suggest that anyone who thinks these issues are important, more important than, say, the product reviews I do on Mamanista, attend the Radical Blogging Moms panel. I don’t consider myself a radical. I pretty darn conservative when it comes down to it. But I do like ideas. And if thinking that debate isn’t about being “mean” or “rude” is radical, well…let’s get radical. Maybe we can get more than the usual 20 people I hear some panels get. Maybe we can pack that room. And maybe we can have a real conversation about our values.

BlogHer: Please Draft an Ethical Sponsorship Policy

BlogHer has an advertising network (BlogHerAds) that allows people to opt out of categories of ads. At the request of Annie, BlogHer developed additional opt-out categories for BlogHerAds, including non-WHO compliant ads. I checked off that box for Mama Saga.

As many have pointed out, there is no “opting out” of a portion of the conference. BlogHer is made possible by its sponsors.

No sponsor will please everyone but it does not follow, then, that all sponsors are healthy choices for BlogHer. Another argument I have heard floated is that several in the blogging community are Nestle fans. Not having Nestle brands as BlogHer conference sponsors would not exclude those individual bloggers from being sponsored by Nestle. No one would be silencing their voices.

Various organizations and charities have “ethical sponsorship policies”. These policies speak to the mission of the group.

Since BlogHer is a community of female bloggers its policies might exclude sponsorship from companies that degrade women, for example.

Should official BlogHer sponsors be “family-friendly”? Or will BlogHer accept more “adult”-oriented sponsors? Or perhaps those sponsors would only be welcome for appropriately-themed panels?

Ultimately, that policy would be up to BlogHer to determine and interpret. However, simply having a thoughtful policy would be a very forward-thinking statement.

This policy does not have to be exclusionary but it can give a vision of what BlogHer is about. And then it is up to the individual to take it or leave it.

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6 comments

  1. Thanks for this post Candace.

    I think it is also further complicated by the fact that Nestle sponsorship and advertising is so pervasive that choosing to avoid anything that has been sponsored by Nestle in any way can have a significant impact on one’s lifestyle.

    While I do not want to confer any direct benefit to Nestle and while I would never accept any money from Nestle, the number of third parties I am involved with, who do take or accept money from Nestle, is significant. This ranges from government services (Nestle pays taxes and also advertises on public transportation) to media that accept Nestle ads (blogs, magazines, newspapers, television, movies) to events or venues I wish to attend (just about every semi-public attraction in Berlin that is of interest to children – e.g. zoo, parks, botanical gardens, etc., conferences, sporting events, entertainment).

    Avoiding anything that has received Nestle dollars would, unfortunately, not be possible without living completely off-grid.

  2. I love your last section about blogher forming an ethical sponsorship policy. I hope that this will bring some changes at Blogher that will benefit the whole community.

  3. Mike Brady says:

    Thanks for this roundup and thoughts.

    After Nestle’s PR disaster on Twitter last year, they took on a PR company to try to improve their image in cyberspace. It would not surprise me at all if their advice was to sponsor BlogHer both to try and sell themselves to bloggers and keep away those who will boycott the event because of Nestle involvement.

    But these things have a habit of turning sour for Nestlé. The question is how best to achieve that, having been put in this difficult situation. I have some thoughts on my post here:
    http://info.babymilkaction.org/news/campaignblog310510

    Baby Milk Action is currently asking people to email Nestle over its latest baby milk marketing scam. It is promoting its baby milk around the world with the claim it ‘protects’ babies, even though it knows that babies fed on it are more likely to become sick than breastfed babies and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die. The boycott has stopped similar practices in the past, so it will be very fitting if Nestle’s sponsorship of BlogHer helps to turn the spotlight on this practice to force Nestle to stop it. You can find out more in a spoof film clip I recorded about the marketing strategy and send a message to Nestlé at:
    http://info.babymilkaction.org/news/campaignblog260510

  4. Megan says:

    This a very interesting post, I enjoyed reading this one.Thank you

  5. Pamela says:

    I enjoyed reading your post. thanks for the share and keep on posting.

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