Food for Thought: Freebie Meals and How to Write about Them

A recent thread in the BC Chowhound board caught my interest because it intersected my hobby, food blogging, and my job as a marketing professional.
The hot topic was: Is it O.K. to accept free meals at restaurants and how do you go about writing/blogging about that meal?
It’s an important issue considering how many active bloggers there are in the city and how often marketing firms (PR companies, Ad Agencies, etc) try to capitalize on this.
As a marketing professional, I’m sensitive to this topic.  I deal with the concept frequently to ensure that my company doesn’t get our clients into crap with the Competition Bureau of Canada.
As a consumer, I want to be able to make an informed choice and don’t want to be duped by a review that may have been paid for in some way.
So is it O.K. for food bloggers to accept freebies?

Yes, it’s perfectly acceptable to partake in a free meal provided by a restaurant or a media company but you need to disclose that it was complimentary.
WHY?
It would be misleading to readers of your blog not to do so and as a result would contravene the Competition Bureau of Canada’s guideline on Internet advertising.
When you take a free meal or product in exchange for an online review, you are entering into a sponsorship with that company. 
A lot of people assume sponsorship or sponsored content is when people are specifically paid to write something but this in not true.  Sponsorship includes accepting free products and services.
This type of online promotion where companies give away something for free in exchange for online content (blog post, Tweet, Instagram post, YouTube video etc) is relatively new and is called Native Advertising. 
Since it’s advertising, it falls under the supervision of the Competition Bureau of Canada and its mandate to weed out individuals and companies trying to mislead consumers.
When the Bureau finds a person or company has mislead consumer via online content, these are the consequences:
If a court finds that a civil provision has been breached, individuals are liable to penalties of up to $750,000 and, for each subsequent order, $1,000,000. Corporations are liable to penalties of up to $10,000,000 and, for each subsequent order, $15,000,000.
In situations where a person has made materially false or misleading representations about a product to the public, the court may also make an order for restitution, requiring the person to compensate consumers who bought such products, and an interim injunction to freeze assets in certain cases.”
Scary stuff! Granted, usually the Bureau only investigates only when a complaint is lodged with them.  More often than not it’s a competitor that complains and not a consumer.
I can’t imagine a consumer or even a rival eatery would bother if they see a blogger posting a sponsored review without disclosure.  I do find it funny that if it were to happen, in theory a blogger may be forced to reimburse a consumer for a lousy meal.
So in short, if a blogger accepts a free meal/product and then creates online content based on the freebie, the blogger is creating a Native Ad.
Since it’s advertising, it needs to be transparent and not misleading.   All that needs to be done to achieve transparency is a simple disclosure or hash tag.
Something like “My meal was complimentary” in a readable font or #sponsored (for Twitter & Instagram) is all that’s needed to be written to ensure full disclosure.
It’s pretty simple but there are bloggers who don’t disclose freebie meals.
As for me, I haven’t accepted any free meals for my blog posts, so no disclosure issues. 
It’s my professional opinion that the majority of the time, blog reviews generated from free dinners does not provide the sales the restaurants are looking for. 
As a result, I can’t ethically acceptable a free meal when I reasonably know it’s not going to work for the restaurant.  If you want to know why, you can contact me.
Since I’m a food lover I do enjoy reading other bloggers.  Here are some blogs who are doing it right when it comes to disclosure.

 

If you are just Vancouver foodie, let me know who else does a good job disclosing about freebies in the comment section.  NO LISTING, HATING OR SHAMING those that don’t disclosure – they simply may not know and I really don’t want that type of negativity on my blog.
If you’re a blogger and want to learn more about accepting Freebies and Online Advertising, here are some helpful resources:
Thanks for reading a long post with no pictures! Hoping to get a restaurant review out soon.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. LotusRapper says:

    Excellent (and professional) write-up, MC ! You may be the first local food blogger to have written such a comprehensive piece on this topic. I really enjoyed your insight and clarity.

    As a consumer and commenter on food blogs, I always like to know if a meal (or portion thereof) that has been written about, was comped or not. Not that such knowledge would sway my impression significantly, but it does factor into my perception of the blogger's meal/experience and of my potential meal/experience at the same establishment, whether I've been to that establishment or not. Like you say, simple, clear and consistent disclosure is all that is needed to level the playing field, ensure full understanding by all parties, and maintain credibility. If I were to ever start my own food blog, I'm sure I'd consult you for advise and insight. 🙂

    Keep up the great work !!!

    Like

  2. Jobeth R says:

    A very famous food blogger never include any kind of disclosure statement in her blog, although i'm pretty sure most of her posts are freebies. She would just say she was invited to a menu tasting by so and so restaurant.

    I wonder if that will be sufficient to use as a disclosure statement.

    Like

  3. Moyen Chow says:

    Probably not since people may miss that sentence. Also the blogger puts the onus on the reader to “read in between the lines” to understand that the meal is free instead of taking ownership and declaring.

    In the end, if you read multiple food blogs, it becomes quite obvious who disclosures and doesn't. I prefer those that disclose clearly and I don't read those that don't. I feel those that disclose are writing for and respect their readers.

    Like

  4. Jobeth R says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I used to follow that lady food blogger I mentioned above but lately I feel like I'm reading a restaurant advertisement. So I stopped reading her posts.

    Like

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