Could this be the death blow to an already-struggling industry? Either that, or a chance to embrace transparency.
Breakfast cereal already has a soggy reputation these days, but now it’s just gotten even worse. An investigation by the Associated Press found that cereal giant Kellogg paid members of its so-called independent Breakfast Council an average of $13,000 per year to promote cereal in a rather surreptitious way — and made them promise not to promote any competing products or products that are “competitive or negative to cereal.” The council included dietitians, a university professor, and pediatrician.
Part of the job description was “nutrition influencer outreach,” which included sending out tweets that had been written as part of Kellogg’s tool kit for council members. Two of the dietitians included the words “adviser” and “client” in their tweets, but no further clarification or allusion to sponsorship was provided.
According to The Consumerist, “one former member of the Breakfast Council now says that she would have marked all tweets that were based on information provided by Kellogg as ‘sponsored’.” Unfortunately it’s too late.
Kellogg also provided responses that council members could use whenever they encountered criticism, such as this one:
“I appreciate and share you(r) interest in the health of our children. It’s for this very reason that I work with Kellogg.”
The Breakfast Council members taught a nutrition class for dietitians that was meant to explain “the science behind breakfast,” but was funded by Kellogg — hardly a setting for independent opinions.
Their most significant accomplishment, however, was the publication of a paper about breakfast in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietitics. While Kellogg’s funding was disclosed in the paper itself, the company submitted the paper to the U.S. government as a source in its attempt to influence the new dietary guidelines.
The practice of companies hiring experts is not uncommon, nor is the fact that connections often fail to be disclosed, much to the detriment of outside viewers who may not know all the facts. The Star describes a similarly suspicious relationship between paid expert and food company:
“Jessica Levinson, a dietitian who has appeared in TV news segments for Coke and PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay, told the AP that producers were told if her healthy eating tips were sponsored. Yet the disclosures weren’t always shared with viewers.
In a segment on NBC Baltimore on ‘dos and don’ts’ for holiday parties in 2009, Levinson presented bags of Fritos with dip — as an example of a ‘do.’
‘Are those regular Fritos?’ asked the reporter, indicating her surprise.”
When this happens, it is a sad state of affairs for everyone involved. A company, while it may have enjoyed a temporary boost in sales, loses credibility — and that’s not something Kellogg can afford to lose at this point. It makes the experts look bad, whose opinions will never be taken seriously because we all know they can be bought. Finally, it hurts the general public, and in this case, mostly kids, whose bodies depend on good nutrition to grow and develop; to mislead parents on what is good for children is utterly wrong.