Why Can't We Be Friends? The Pepsi Wars.

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The skirmish over at ScienceBlogs between PepsiCo and the science bloggers actually made me feel sorry for Pepsi.

Pass The Bong and the Aspartame

You have to admit, PepsiCo has had a tough month. First, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom banned Pepsi from vending machines, a move that elicited potshots from conservative DC paper The Washington Times, with the headline: "Pass The Pot Brownies, But Drop That Soda". Expounding on that clever cliche, WT wrote: "In the City by the Bay, it may soon be easier to get a pot-laced brownie than a can of Pepsi".

Oh yeah, nailed it! Hippies in the "City By The Bay" ("Frisco" to some) -- don dirty tie-dyed t-shirts to stand on corners flashing "peace" fingers, swaying to the music, flowers in their hair and THC soothing their psychedelics' addled nerves, else the badly parented long-haired youth are driving around in orange Volkswagon buses, pot smoke billowing out the windows - yup, The Washington Times really knows "The City By The Bay".1

The battle used to be between Pepsi and Coke. Coke would lose its big university or city contract to Pepsi, then Pepsi to Coke, back and forth. But this time, all soda was ousted, and no sooner was soda ejected from San Francisco city vending machines, then PepsiCo was yelled off ScienceBlogs.

SciBling Hospitality?

It must have been a confusing time for PepsiCo. ScienceBlog editors at first warmly courted PepsiCo, who titled their blog invitingly: "Food Frontiers". But they couldn't even pen a "Hello, World! Corn syrup is so good for you", before "SciBlings" (ScienceBlog bloggers) rose up en masse from their virginal science blog space and confronted the evil sugar-water mixer about their "stealth" advertising.

I wasn't there. But it's mid-July, pretty slow in science news, so I thought I'd Twitter all the anger and consternation, not to mention the mass exodus of SciBlingers. This I think, will entertain all the marketing gurus, dogs, porn stars, and some cool peeps who follow AcronymRequired. Unfortunately, before anyone could figure out whether to call it PepsiCoGate, Pepsigate, or Pepsicopalyse, Pepsi's Food Frontiers bloggers had skedaddled as if confronted by a battalion of helmeted storm troopers spraying plastic bullets and tear gas at their sit-in.

Safely back at PepsiCo.com, the Food Frontiers bloggers publicly reminisced about the "very candid feedback" and their "intent to embrace that conversation".

The regrouping bloggers from PepsiCo talked microbial stability, acidity, phosphorous content, obesity, and salt, vis-a-vis PepsiCo. And as promised, Pepsi engaged "that conversation", by answering the demands of SciBlingers who chased them out of their Special Science Space back into the World Wide Web. PepsiCo "embraced" the assault from SciBlingons when one Science Blog writer asked (none to politely):

"Does the material leave your own computer when you write a post, ever? I.e, pass in front of other people's eyes? Is there a standard workflow for producing a blog post that involves any kind of oversight or inspection?...The truth is that if you'all blogging researchers can only write approved copy, then the whole blog thing really is probably a bad idea".

To this, Pepsi responded promptly and sweetly: "Thanks Greg Laden" in a post they titled unambiguously: "The Posting Process on Food Frontiers".

But will such sugary pabulum engage ScienceBloggers? No. Only two people responded to the thoughtful PepsiCo post, and neither of them reciprocated by "embracing" the drink maker in the same way Pepsi wanted to embrace them.

I would have suggested that Food Frontiers could have been a little more in Sciblingers' faces - such as: "WTF is YOUR process -- why do so many ideas conflicting with your world view meet with such profane outbursts and bunkerbuster-style attacks? What are you, the Department of OK Blogs?" Now that, would be "engaging the conversation", sciblingy-like. Plus, summer is boring online and that would have really added some tinder to the whole thing. Instead we got this light, huggy-bubbly, PepsiCo marketing stuff.

Maybe the PepsiCo Food Frontiers bloggers were jittery, wan and weak from a diet of caffeine, phosphorous, sugar, water, and natural flavors. Or, possibly they were devouring cans of spinach voraciously and weight-training vigorously, but saving their vim and vigor for this week's attack on a more familiar foe -- CocaCola.

In the newish YouTube spot which may revive the Pepsi-Coke wars, the two opposing soft drink truck drivers meet in a diner and swap colas, "Why Can't We Be Friends?" by the band War, a 1970's song. As one driver drinks a soda, the other betrays him (can't tell you why). Then they get mad and crash through a window together. The Associated Press wrote:

"Analysts say people love the funny, spirited rivalry of the decades-old cola wars and the move will benefit both soda makers. That's good news for the $100 billion industry, which is seeing weak soft drink sales as shoppers switch to healthier juices and teas."

That's more like it, the funny, spirited, decades-old rivalry, like grandpa and his brother, just pining for the good 'ole days? See how it works Sciblingers? Friendly public rivalry.

Butlered off the Isle?

Of course, I don't really feel sorry for Pepsi. They have a nice new sepia toned 1970's ad and a brilliant business, patenting and selling corrosive sugar and water drinks. But soda's not so healthy for humans or the environment (as we've written in "Childhood Obesity, The American Way", or "Pop's Out Drug's are In", or "Coke: Teaching the World to Sing", or "Why So Fat? It's System Wide", or "Common Sense Foods in Schools""). And PepsiCo doesn't need us, they can always fall into the arms of Coke, or the loving the Cato Institute, or FOX, and many others.

Apparently there was more going on at ScienceBlogs than PepsiCo, there always is. I've read and mostly enjoyed ScienceBlogs since the inception. There weren't too many bloggers way back then and I've watched SB evolve with particular interest. So I get it. But Sciblingons! Sheesh! "Spirited rivalry" and gentle brawls people! Do you really need to beat them up, throw them off the island, bash their heads in, then drown them? What good are they too you then?

Just my opinion. I believe that ScienceBlogs has done wonders for getting others online writing about science. A ton of SB bloggers blog seriously about science, every day, good stuff. But some bloggers get increasingly spiteful as they vie for the attention that blogging compels, then use that attention to generate a certain brand of PR for SB. The level of conversation often spirals downward (there must be some entropy model that describes it). And that downward spiral seems infectious -- I've noticed Nature has been forging new ground lately in diluting their brand with some profane blogs also.

Pepsi's not the first one to feel SciBlingon wrath, though sleepy-hot July always gives these incidents an extra charge. Remember the Nature/Butler/PLoS fracas of July, 2008? It was similarly acrimonious with a familiar corporate/underdog theme.

These bloggers know their power, they say. But this is how SB looks from the outside, to me, an independent sometimes-blogger. Everyday science bloggy, bloggy, bloggedy, great - oh, too boring? Yawn? Then Boom, Smash, Bang, big tizzy over at ScienceBlogs over something, lots of media coverage. Repeat. For someone not in the thick of it, the episodic commotions tempt a plea for perspective.

I hope ScienceBlogs settles -- certainly finding eager writers shouldn't be a hurdle, and there are 60 left. I look forward to future writing from the diaspora. But I would also venture that it's complicated, messy business, this advertising stuff, this ethical boundaries stuff. It's pretty easy to inadvertently be seen as hypocritical trying to carve arbitrary ethical boundaries that suit your own very personal interests. As a minor, minor example, isn't most blogging just personal branding/advertising? But your brand is pure as the driven snow, whereas Pepsi's is marred by soda pop? Anyway, I'm not sure getting Pepsi off of ScienceBlogs, although certainly a "cause", was one worthy of the show or the arena.

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1 Actually, in another "City By The Bay", they plan to grow pot by the acre, an unfortunately timed news story which you'd think would crush my defense. But then the city will tax it, hopefully so they can pay for a much needed police force. Complicated. Another story.

2 Comments

You should have joined us way back when!

I recently got a chance to interview several of the bloggers involved in the controversy about the tendency of bloggers to attack their own advertisers:

http://thenextweb.com/media/2010/08/25/should-bloggers-have-control-over-ads-that-appear-next-to-their-content/

I thought this was something you and your readers would find interesting.

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