PepsiCo Food Frontiers blog did not have to be a #SbFAIL

Given the events of yesterday about corporate sponsorship in the objective landscape of science journalism, I found it ironic that my research collaboration meeting at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill brought me to their beautiful FedEx Global Education Center where I enjoyed an iced pomegranate tea.
However, I was feeling badly about midday from a combination of the high temperatures and, more significantly, high ozone levels that gave me some respiratory problems from my longstanding asthma issues that preceded LungMutiny2010.
The dream
So, I took a nap and had a dream. I dreamt that I received an e-mail from ScienceBlogs management asking for blogger feedback on an idea to launch a corporate-sponsored blog that was written by food scientists and physicians who worked for a large, multinational food company. I dreamt that on a discussion forum an exceedingly explosive debate ensued between bloggers and SB management about the wisdom of doing so. Virtually unanimous agreement emerged that putting paid corporate information on the center page where we all create objective content was unacceptable and misleading to readers who trust us.
Well-known journalists, writers, and/or book authors who blog at SB warned management about critical issues regarding conflicts of interest in media and that basic tenets of journalistic ethics extend even to privately-held, online organizations – if they intend to be perceived as credible by the rest of the world. To ignore such principles would make SB and Seed the laughing stock of academic and corporate journalism.
Bloggers who helped launch SB argued that the hard-earned reputation they built at the network should not be open for pay-to-play by anyone, most of all a corporation that was already writing the blog at their own site.
Others argued about how a blog written by corporate representatives might differ or not from previous sponsored blogs where unaffiliated bloggers provided content. Some were just outright opposed because the company has a history of working too closely with a military government guilty of ethnic cleansing and other offenses. Others felt that every corporation has skeletons in their closet and that it is difficult to draw the line as to what money SB should or shouldn’t take. Some felt that we all use products from this company and that we are as complicit in their wrongdoings as our demand for petroleum is of BP’s debacle. SB management shared with bloggers the precarious nature of their financial situation and the need to take steps for continued viability. Some bloggers threatened to leave the network if the plans moved forward. Others were going to leave anyway because of a pre-existing condition of community erosion, late payments, and loss of transparency and communication.
The reality
But like the dream, the contentious and rancorous discussion didn’t happen before SB moved ahead and launched the corporate blog. Instead, these discussions played out in public and were followed by a confidential-to-bloggers, tin-eared missive from the boy-leader so heavily laden with corporate-speak that its leak was obviously anticipated. All of the discussion points and questions raised by Adam Bly in that letter could have been addressed in private conversations with the ScienceBlogs community in advance of the PepsiCo blog launch – a catastrophic folly that many of us first learned from Twitter, then from an official communication from ScienceBlogs two-and-a-half hours after the blog launched.
The condescending tone of his letter was an insult to the bloggers and demonstrated his lack of understanding of what he had done wrong.
Instead, it was left to departing and on-hiatus bloggers, as well as the rest of the world, to point out to ScienceBlogs management how fatally misguided this venture was.

Continue reading

PepsiCo blog, Food Frontiers, is an affront to those who built the reputation of ScienceBlogs

Yesterday, the ScienceBlogs arm of Seed Media Group announced that they would be hosting a blog written by members of PepsiCo’s research and development leadership team. From the Food Frontiers blog:

PepsiCo’s R&D Leadership Team discusses the science behind the food industry’s role in addressing global public health challenges. This is an extension of PepsiCo’s own Food Frontiers blog. All editorial content on the blog is overseen by ScienceBlogs editors.

The opening post was written by ScienceBlogs “editor” Evan Lerner:

As part of this partnership, we’ll hear from a wide range of experts on how the company is developing products rooted in rigorous, science-based nutrition standards to offer consumers more wholesome and enjoyable foods and beverages. The focus will be on innovations in science, nutrition and health policy. In addition to learning more about the transformation of PepsiCo’s product portfolio, we’ll be seeing some of the innovative ways it is planning to reduce its use of energy, water and packaging. . .
. . .We have some exciting things planned for this project, including a video series that will begin with a look at the role the food industry plays in health issues, and how industry research into chemistry, physiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, medicine, and nutrition can improve health outcomes around the world.

For the moment, I will set aside my objections to the presence on this network of a company that contributes to the explosion of obesity and diabetes among adults and children – a major strain on health care costs without even considering the increased risk of cancers. I’ll also withhold judgment for now on the content of the blog that may be offered by its writers, some of whom are physicians and scientists for PepsiCo. In fact, I’m particularly interested in what will be posted by Dr. George Mensah, a cardiovascular physician who had been at the CDC for nine years before joining PepsiCo. And I’ll hold back details of the little bit of vomit I felt at the back of my throat when seeing that Food Frontiers is posted within the “Medicine & Health” channel of ScienceBlogs.
I wish to focus my objections specifically on the breach of ethics and community represented by ScienceBlogs hosting this blog and accepting an undisclosed amount of sponsorship funds to do so.
When I joined ScienceBlogs four years ago last month, I was contractually promised complete editorial control over my content, including the right to ridicule anything ScienceBlogs does, and have never once been asked to adjust any of my writing. Never. Not once. Nor has a single blogger I know ever been asked to alter content. I specifically point this out because the Food Frontiers blog lists Evan Lerner as ScienceBlogs editor – he does not edit my content or anyone else’s. When ScienceBlogs was originally launched, the position occupied by Mr. Lerner was called “community manager.”
In return, ScienceBlogs puts advertising on the right sidebar for which they receive all payments. The advertising has now metastasized to above the masthead and several places throughout the frontpage such that, if you don’t use ad-blocking plug-ins for your browser, are making this site look like a GoDaddy page. In fact, “The Promise of PepsiCo” ad routinely rotates above the masthead.
But I understand the need for advertising to keep a business afloat. And in return, ScienceBlogs pays us a small amount at a rate proportional to our respective blog traffic. For me, saving my earnings for two full years will probably allow me to buy a new MacBook Pro. The advertising also pays for the technical support of the blog, though sorely declining, and integration of content into the network and the ScienceBlogs frontpage and channels.
This has been an acceptable relationship and even allowed me to obtain certification from the Health On The Net Foundation for objective health information content after I clearly identified advertising content and the financial relationship.
But ScienceBlogs has now stepped over the line with the PepsiCo blog.
ScienceBlogs has become a respected outlet for science communication in the new media format. Their press release (PDF) from April notes that traffic to the network has increased by more than 50% each year since launched in January, 2006. There are many reasons for its success but I submit that it is due to the scientific content of many of the blogs and the engagement of concerned bloggers with their respective communities.
However, accepting paid content within the main blogging space of the network is a breach of ethics and a clear conflict of interest for a media organization. Even the most vapid print magazine will cordon off as “advertisement” corporate-sponsored content made to look like magazine text. But as of this morning, Food Frontiers contains no identifying text to denote that it is comprised of paid, corporate content.
But what makes me most angry – and hurts personally – is that ScienceBlogs would not have been able to offer such an attractive package to PepsiCo if not for the reputation and pageviews built by the bloggers who have written here over the last four-and-a-half years.
In the past, management would run any new business model past the bloggers in advance – not that they were required to do so but out of courtesy and understanding of the mutual dependence implicit in the relationship. In this case, we were all blindsided late yesterday by an e-mail from ScienceBlogs that Food Frontiers had been launched. No advance discussion. No consideration of how the relationship might affect how our readers view us.
Business may be business, but ScienceBlogs is making a mockery of itself and undermining the objectivity and reputation that we have all worked so hard to establish and maintain. The exodus of several high-profile bloggers and world-class science writers over the last 18 months speaks to the fact that ScienceBlogs is no longer the only such game in the blogosphere. And I am certain that this unfolding episode will make for great journalism ethics discussions in J-school classrooms around the world next semester.
For what it’s worth, PepsiCo’s Daniel Pellegrom stated at Food Frontiers that they will moderate comments and accept any that are “not defamatory or profane.” And bloggers are already exercising their personal editorial control to attack this decision to host Food Frontiers, with at least one blog leaving and others threatening to do so. However, I will have to dig in to find out why GrrlScientist’s post entitled, “Sucking Corporate Dick” has now changed to “Pepsi Ethics.”
As usual, Orac at Respectful Insolence has a very complete discussion of advertising and hosted content at ScienceBlogs and a history of the blogging network and the community of bloggers.
As you might guess, this episode has stimulated for me a deep examination of conscience and consideration of why I blog – and why I remain at ScienceBlogs. Although I write with a pseudonym, my identity is clearly available here and elsewhere and I also have to consider my professional reputation together with the one I have built here with you as an objective source of information about drugs and dietary supplements. There are tradeoffs in any relationship and each blogger here will decide what is right for them.
But what is clear at this point is that completely independent of whatever content shows up at PepsiCo’s Food Frontiers blog, ScienceBlogs has hammered many nails into the coffin of its reputation. The decision to host that blog is the current pinnacle of disrespect shown to the bloggers who have built the ScienceBlogs readership over the last four-and-a-half years.

The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center takes legal action against Evolv water

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for dontmesswithtexas.jpgIn September we posted “M.D. Anderson name misused in Evolv nutraceutical water advertising,” detailing the not-exactly-truthful claim by a multilevel marketing company that their bottled water product was “tested” by one of North America’s premier teaching and research hospitals.
A flurry of search engine hits to this post raised my attention to the fact that the The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has now initiated legal action against the makers of Evolv. Cameron Langford at Courthouse News Service reports:

Two companies are pushing bottled tap water with false claims that it’s endorsed by the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the University of Texas says in Federal Court. The UT says HealtH20 Products and Evolvehealth sell the bogus water it as “Evolv,” claiming it is infused with an “Archaea Active formula.” [. . .]
[. . .] “Specifically, defendants are misleading consumers and cancer patients into believing that UT’s MD Anderson conducted extensive testing of the main formula in the Evolv product, known as ‘Archaea Active,” the UT says.
“Defendants’ misuse of the MD Anderson marks creates, at a minimum, a likelihood that cancer patients and consumers will falsely believe that defendants’ products is sponsored or endorsed by UT’s MD Anderson, when in fact, MD Anderson does not endorse or recommend the use of the defendants’ product.”

Natural products researchers, including yours truly, are used to supplement companies misrepresenting our published papers in their advertising literature. There’s not much we can do as individuals when our work is cited on a webpage.
However, there’s a much more serious issue going on in this case: according to the official complaint filed against the companies by the Board of Regents of The University of Texas System (PDF here from Courthouse News) M.D. Anderson and The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center are registered US trademarks.

Continue reading

Latisse®: Tell me more about my eyes

Lookie what came in to my e-mail box overnight after yesterday’s post about the hypotrichosis treatment, Latisse® brand of bimatoprost.
Latisse E-card 515px.jpg
Hmm…I have a few ideas who might have sent this (no profanity, so it wasn’t Comrade PhysioProf). And very interesting that this comes just a week before FDA holds an opening hearing entitled, “Promotion of FDA-Regulated Medical Products Using the Internet and Social Media Tools. For your information, here’s the PDF schedule courtesy of colleague John Mack – Pharma Marketing Blog and @pharmaguy. John is currently running a survey in his masthead to solicit reader input as to what topics might interest them most – John is scheduled to speak early on the first day.
Just an aside: does the fact the hearing is being held at the National Transportation Safety Board Conference Center in DC mean it’s going to be a trainwreck? (sorry, couldn’t resist)

Continue reading

Lashing out at Latisse®

I am running out of eyelash puns having written at least six posts since the summer of 2007 on a class of anti-glaucoma drugs that have been harnessed for their cosmetic side effect: promotion of eyelash growth. Bimatoprost (Lumigan®) and latanoprost (Xalatan®) are members of the prostamide class of drugs that can manage some forms of glaucoma by reducing intraocular pressure. When administered as eye drops, the drugs mimic the effect of endogenous prostaglandin PGF2α, acting as a local hypotensive to promote outflow of aqueous humor from the eye through the trabecular meshwork.
Invoking the tagline of one of my pharmacology profs, “today’s side effects are tomorrow’s therapy.” From the prescribing information for Lumigan® brand of bimatoprost (PDF):

Lumigan® may gradually change eyelashes and vellus hair in the treated eye; these changes include increased length, thickness, and number of lashes. Eyelash changes are usually reversible upon discontinuation of treatment.

Latisse250px.jpgThis effect was picked up first by cosmeceutical companies that began marketing chemical relatives of the prescription drugs as eyelash rejuvenators, only to have action brought against them by the US FDA. FDA does not recognize “cosmeceuticals” as a product class but stepped in because cosmetics companies were selling unapproved drugs.
About the same time, Allergan, manufacturer of the Lumigan brand of bimatoprost, sought approval for a product called Latisse, comprised of the same compound but applied to the eyelash line with a sterile brush rather than into the eyes as ophthalmic drops. FDA regulates this latter product because it was approved to treat hypotrichosis, the lack or paucity of eyelashes. Nevertheless, it is clearly being sold as a cosmetic judging from their website’s “Eye Candy” tab and video advertisement with Brooke Shields.
I can’t watch the time-lapse segment of the advert without thinking of a Saturday Night Live parody where the lashes would continue growing incessantly.
Today, several medium-circulation national newspapers picked up on a 27 October blogpost by Julie Deardorff (Julie’s Health Club) of the Chicago Tribune where she pointed out that Allergan has had some difficulty with FDA regarding their incomplete disclosure of potential side effects in commercial advertising materials.

Continue reading

M.D. Anderson name misused in Evolv nutraceutical water advertising

Update: Visitors arriving by search engine may care to read our followup post on 20 November following M.D. Anderson’s filing of legal action in this case.
Thumbnail image for dontmesswithtexas.jpgThe premier US cancer hospital and research center in Houston released a statement today distancing themselves from a Dallas company claiming an endorsement of their water product by The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center:

Recently, you may have heard or read about a company that sells Evolv, a “nutraceutical beverage,” which is being promoted in part based upon testing done at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, but also is being mistakenly viewed as endorsed by M. D. Anderson. M. D. Anderson conducted limited chemical analysis of the product to evaluate its anti-inflammatory activity for a fee at the request of the manufacturer. No efficacy or toxicity data were generated at M. D. Anderson nor was the product tested on humans. Moreover, M. D. Anderson does not have any involvement with the company, the product is not produced by M. D. Anderson, and M. D. Anderson does not endorse the product or recommend its use.

The current text on Evolv’s website an Evolv fan site is that:

Evolv’s nutraceutical beverage with Archaea Active is tested by M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas.

The statement as listed is not exactly wrong; it’s just not complete. Nothing there about what the product was tested for, but the implication is that it gained some healing power by passing through the hallowed halls of M.D. Anderson. I also have no clue as to whether it was tested for archaea (formerly archaebacteria) or if it has the capacity to amplify DNA.
Of course, my blogging about this is going to give the company publicity (a very, very small amount). Evolv is not just water but it is sold by a multi-level marketing company. I already knew to put one hand on my wallet when I dialed up their website. The header has the quote from Mary Kay Ash, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something,” which rotates with others from her and Zig Ziglar who, no doubt, did not authorize their association with the company.
But water? The next multi-level marketing craze?
I don’t think this holds water.
Now if we could only get M.D. Anderson to address this other misuse of their name.
Note added 10 September 2009: This comment from EvolvHealth’s Chief Marketing Officer, Mr Jonathan Gilliam, brought to my attention that I had the incorrect website for the company (as corrected above). The actual website should be Currently, their product page lists the M.D. Anderson claim as follows:

Our active ingredient has been tested by the MD Anderson Cancer Center of the University of Texas. Evolv will be released in Fall 2009

Moving advert from Cancer Research UK

Although I’m American, much of my training and early independent career was influenced by British cancer researchers. At the time, their laboratories were supported by ICRF, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. In 2002, ICRF merged with the Cancer Research Campaign to create Cancer Research UK (CRUK).
I have several friends who work for Cancer Research UK, not the least of whom are blogger/author Ed Yong (Not Exactly Rocket Science) and writer/musician Dr Kat Arney, author of the aptly-named blog, You Do Too Much. Together with fellow professional science communicator Henry Scowcroft, they administer the Cancer Research UK blog, Science Update.
I note of all this to provide you with context for one of the most moving and persuasive cancer research ads I’ve seen in recent years. We’ve made great progress but we have a long ways to go.

It’s all moving but the words “brain tumour” from 9-year-old Eden Hubbard really got me.
In fact, you can learn the stories about all 36 cancer patients featured in the advert and the making of the piece on this page of the website devoted to this campaign,
Well done, mates. Well done.

Just say “NO” to ScienceBlogs adverts

For those of you who read only Terra Sig and not others at ScienceBlogs (post-morning coffee delusions of grandeur), you may not be aware that a number of questionable advertisements have been appearing on the frontpage run by the purveyors of our pontifications.
Many of this adverts have been of content diammetrically opposed to what each of us stand for professionally and personally.
20090717-eCruxNitric-300x250-4.jpgSo, it was to my dismay this morning that I awoke to this ad for a bodybuilding supplement that exploits the endogenous vasodilator, nitric oxide. Commenter Daedalus will be convulsing in a corner somewhere when he reads nitric oxide being referred to as “NO2” and the beautiful IUPAC term, “N.O.”
The product appears to be called “Force Factor” and somehow, I don’t know how, increases levels of nitric oxide in the body. However, the product is certainly one of those “negative option” credit card scams: you get a “free trial” of the product but have to give a credit card for the $4.95 shipping and handling. What you might not be aware of in the fine print is that this obligates you to a monthly shipment and charge of $69.99 (plus $4.99 shipping and handling, of course, an increase of four cents over the last shipment), UNLESS you contact the company to cancel your order.

Continue reading

Sexy autism education PSA videos from Rethinking Autism: What would Prof Nisbet (and you) say about this framing? is the brainchild of Dana Commandatore, a friend of one of my high school classmates. Dana is a former NYC advertising guru and the mother of Michaelangelo, a child with autism. His story inspired her to write the children’s book, Michaelangelo the Diver.
Dana has now taken her creativity and contacts in her new home of Los Angeles to produce a series of controversial public service announcements to combat misinformation about the causes and treatment of autism and the acceptance and celebration of neurodiversity. Here is the spirit in which they are presented:

All too often in the world of autism, celebrity and sex appeal are used to promote pseudo-science that exploits autistic people, their family members and the public. We decided to put those very same factors to work in service of the truth.
Just because a person with autism may not speak, it does not mean they have an inferior intellect.
Every reputable study has failed to find a link between vaccines and autism.
Aversives, seclusion and restraint are unacceptable ways to treat a person with autism.
No special diet has been proven to cure autism.
School districts need to support inclusive education.
Learn about the dangers of unnecessary chelation treatments.
We should be more concerned about an autistic individual’s quality of life instead of preventing them from being born.
Listen to self-advocates and learn about neurodiversity. Include the organized community of autistic adults when it comes to making legislation regarding their quality of life.
Positive behavioral supports aimed at stopping harmful behaviors while respecting natural differences are a great way to help autistic people achieve quality of life.

Continue reading