Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Don't Trust Food Blog Reviews (and Reviews in general)

Oh hey, look, a sensationalist title. (Edit 21/11/2014: If you read it and went, "oh yeah, of course, I agree" and can't be bothered to read the rest of this post, shame on you for not realising the obvious issue in my use of the title (ie. you are reading a food blog) and I beg of you, save yourself some embarrassment and jump to "media literacy" issues below).

Let's take a step back from that title - I don't mean all media and all bloggers - I just needed your attention*.

If you're reading this post, I'm guessing you spend some time on the internet. Perhaps you read blogs, follow some folks on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. No? Well, at least you Google right?

Some websites/blogs/magazines are now "reviewing" almost exclusively about free meals. I have a problem with that. In Buzzfeed/Huffingpost/2014 internet style, let me make a listicle. (Yes, a rant is coming. Reader beware.)

1. Don't be surprised if these "reviews" are not helpful. Invited tastings are not like real-world, I-walked-through-the-door-like-a-regular-person meals. It sets the wrong expectations for readers (most of whom will be regular customers), and differences in expectation are the main cause of disappointment. Ever read a good "review" or just a nice promo puff piece, gone to the restaurant, and found it was crap? Well, yeah, because the writer ate differently from you. They were invited. DUH.

2. It's a false economy with minimum, short-term gains. The only people who benefit from this arrangement of invitational meals are the restaurant (and their PR team) and the blogger who ate the meal. Let me point out that these are extremely short-term benefits too. To the restaurant, once another invitation comes along, the "nice" post** is buried, and some savvy readers (with media literacy and some sense, who need not read the rest of this post) will know it's a freebie and disregard/discount it anyway. To the blogger, it's just one meal. For this selfish, short-term gain, users of the internet get nothing by more drivel to sift through. Food bloggers who don't write exclusively about free stuff show that they have at least a higher probability of knowledge, passion and eagerness to learn about the subject. They're more likely to attract high quality readers and therefore high quality customers to your client's business. (But maybe I'm now stepping into the high quality business argument, of which there are not many either... Okay, maybe this argument is moot.)

3. It's a vicious cycle and encourages the I-started-a-blog-to-get-free-shit phenomenon to grow. I know plenty of PRs who hate blaggers and other freeloaders, and think they're just out to get free shit - well, yes they are BECAUSE YOU'RE GIVING IT TO THEM. SO STOP GIVING OUT FREE SHIT! Starve the free-shit-bloggers out. Man, starve the free-shit "journalists" out*** especially those who stick their hands out and demand it. Save costs in the long run and save time dealing with idiots who don't know chicken from shrimp, broccoli from bak choi, and stop giving them the (perceived) power to "destroy" you on Openrice. Save that time and money and use it to advertise and create meaningful partnerships with reputable content producers instead. Give real, ethically-bound media outlets the chance to do their work properly. Proper media needs proper funding. The reason why "journalists" are having to take free stuff and hence not producing quality content is because their publications won't pay them to. And publications don't have money because advertising is decreasing. Advertising is decreasing because businesses think publications aren't creating quality content. Hello vicious cycle.

4. FREEBIES CANNOT LEAD TO A REVIEW. The end. I don't know how to make it clearer. Dear reader, stop thinking "reviews" where the writer was "invited" is the same kind of review Susan Jung, Pete Wells or Pat Nourse writes. And I don't mean that anonymity is the answer either - plenty of idiots think anonymity by default gives them higher moral ground. Anonymity, when used badly, just gives you something to hide behind. Anonymous writers can still be invited to reviews, if they stay only anonymous to their readers and not those who invite them, and anonymous writers can still know annoyingly little about food and quality of writing. And for goodness sakes, people, at least DECLARE that you were invited to something. ETHICS ETHICS ETHICS. WHY DO PEOPLE NOT GIVE A SHIT ANYMORE?

Let me clarify - not all bloggers are freeloaders, and not all "mainstream media" are not freeloaders. Plenty of big websites and even print publications in Hong Kong "review" free meals. Nowadays, some publications try and hide it by not labelling the piece a "review", but look, if you're taking about whether individual dishes were good, whether service was on point, whether the beverages were enjoyable, it's a review, okay.

I hate to say this, but Hong Kong's media landscape looks like shit because no-one in it gives a damn about quality, and that includes you, dear reader. Media literacy has never been so important. You, as a reader, need to stop reading drivel, so that drivel stops being written. And yes, content producers, please stop producing drivel. It goes both ways. If you think some websites/blogs/magazines are shit, then don't read the shit websites/blogs/magazines. This false economy of free meals and favours being traded for crap writing is a waste of resources - food, time, energy. There is no real value.


* And apparently in the food blogging world, attention is all people care about. Popularity, calculated as a combination of how many free invitations to restaurants you get and how many hits/readers/followers your social media outlets have. And to some people, it's important.

** It's a PR team's job to help control the conversation around the client, and of course, you'd want the conversation to be positive, so yes, I see that freeloaders who will wax lyrical about your client for the cost of a free meal is great - but is that a sustainable method?

*** I'm not going to act virtuous and say I've never received a freebie. We all (bloggers and journalists alike) take plenty in this town, but I don't and will never "review" one. If you really want to know, I only attend if I think I'll write a story/trend piece or the like about it. I have a pretty clear policy for those who contact me through my blog about what I do and don't do with an invite, and I would not shed a tear if the industry just stopped giving out free stuff to us for the sake of just giving out free stuff.

(Total side note - I found out recently that a trait of Capricorns is "dictatorial", so, um, yeah...)


  1. In the spirit of your list-based rant, here's my list based reply ;-)

    1. I'm not sure how well some readers understand restaurant reviews. A restaurant review is quite unlike a film review, for example. If I see a free press screening it isn't fundamentally a different experience to paying to see the same film. A freebie launch meal, however, is a fundamentally different experience.

    2. But so much reviewing, good and bad, is about restaurants in the launch phase of their life-cycle. In a way, it's hard to single out the bad, freebie oriented writers, when even the good writers are playing the same game.

    3. Which is all made worse by the ephemerality of the restaurant scene in Hong Kong, with the relentless cycle of new openings, gentrifications and crass implementations of misguided concepts (Peruvian Tacos anyone).

    4. All that said, blogging just to get free stuff is a vile pus-ridden monster that threatens to devour everything good about the internet.

    5. Blogging has never really been about blogging, but that's another conversation for another time.

  2. Anonymous4:46 am

    We call them "Digital Beggars". Social Media people who @ brands and say how much they love/would love/need a free /meal/holiday/clothes/shoes etc. Its a well versed art and many blogers have done well out of it. Also number of followers will not mean they will all eat/buy/wear your brand. Its about quality of followers not quantity.