Reflections on Sotto-Terra-Gate
Perhaps by now you’ve heard about the “Sotto Terra” incident, the media stunt that Ketchum PR orchestrated for ConAgra Foods. A bunch of bloggers were invited to dinner at a pop-up Italian restaurant in the West Village, where they were unknowingly served Marie Callender’s frozen lasagna and razzleberry pie. After the meal came the big reveal, and it was all captured on hidden camera. There’s a story about it in the New York Times today.
A lot of people are saying the stunt was unethical. I don’t agree that it was. I’m not denying that it was murky territory, but I will also say that if you’re going to go there at all, you might as well take it all the way. What would have made the stunt interesting (and, yes, straight-up unethical) is if the bloggers were informed of the true provenance of the entree and dessert only after they wrote up the meal on their blogs. As it was, the experiment was a lose-lose: the participants were humiliated, and there wasn’t even the payoff of finding out what they really thought.
Honestly, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for any side in this debacle. ConAgra was stunningly naive to buy what Ketchum was selling, Ketchum was idiotic for trying to sell it (and in New York, of all cities!), and as for the bloggers, they need to stop taking these low-rent freebies. (Let’s be clear: I’m opposed to freebies-for-coverage deals of any kind, but people will indulge, so allow me to at least hope that they’ll be discriminating about it.) Everything they needed to know about the event was right on the invitation, the part where they were exhorted to “sample George [Duran]‘s one-of-a-kind sangria.” Sangria at an Italian restaurant? Prepared by the host of TLC’s Ultimate Cake Off? (I had to look that up.) How could anyone with functioning nostrils not smell a ratto alla milanese?
By the way, the reason I’m so against accepting freebies in exchange for blog coverage isn’t really, or at least primarily, an ethical one. I don’t know if I have an innate sense of what’s right, but I definitely have an overwhelming terror of what’s cheap. It looks cheap, bloggers. It’s petty and it’s embarrassing.