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Blogging moms wooed by firms : Food giants provide lavish goodies. Parents provide the buzz. Is it ethical?

On most days, Andrea Deckard can be found in her home office, digging through stacks of coupons and grocery receipts for money saving tips and recipes that she can share with readers of her Mommy Snacks blog.

That is, when the stay-at-home mom isn’t being wined and dined by giant food companies.

Earlier this year, Frito-Lay flew her to Los Angeles to meet celebrities such as model Brooke Burke and the Spice Girls’ Mel B, while pitching her on its latest snack ad campaign.

More recently, Nestle paid to put her and 16 other so-called “mommy bloggers” -- and one daddy blogger -- up at the posh Langham Huntington hotel in Pasadena, treated them to a private show at the Magic Castle in Hollywood and sent packages of frozen Omaha Steaks to their families to tide them over while the women were away learning all about the company’s latest product lines.

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In return, Deckard and her virtual sisterhood filed Twitter posts raving about Nestle’s canned pumpkin, Wonka candy and Juicy Juice drinks.

“People have accused us of being corporate shills,” said Deckard, a Monroe, Ohio, mother of three whose junkets have also included a free trip to Frito-Lay’s Texas headquarters. Deckard, noting that she is up front with her readers about such trips, said they are educational for her and her fans, and “just fun.”

Besides, she added, “it’s not like I sold my soul for a chocolate bar.”

Others aren’t so sure. As food companies big and small scramble to woo parents-turned-bloggers, nutrition activists worry that the food industry is funding an advertising campaign for its products without consumers realizing it.

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“This is very shrewd marketing,” said Barbara Moore, chief executive of Shape Up America, an obesity-fighting nonprofit group. “The expectation that the industry players have is that people they are wining and dining will write about their products positively.”

Free-flowing wine and buffet tables laden with crudites are now common features of a company-sponsored function for bloggers. Some companies are even offering free kitchen appliances, vacations, groceries and enough fruity snacks to feed a neighborhood’s worth of kids.

The growing trend is fueling legal and social debate over how bloggers disclose what goodies they get. New guidelines unveiled last month by the Federal Trade Commission say bloggers must divulge financial or product compensation they get in exchange for writing about a company’s products. The regulations are set to go into effect Dec. 1.

But critics worry that the guidelines are too vague and will hold bloggers to a different, or more stringent, standard than traditional media outlets. They say the FTC isn’t being clear about what material needs to be disclosed and doesn’t specify how these disclosures must be made.

“They’re treating blogging like it’s pornography,” said Elisa Camahort Page, co-founder of the online community group BlogHer. “They think you’ll know unethical blogging when you see it.”

Whatever one may think of mommy bloggers, there has never been a better time to be a parent with Internet access. An estimated 42 million women in the U.S. take part in social media services each week, and 55% of them are regularly reading, writing or responding to blogs, according to a 2009 survey by BlogHer.

In some ways, this marketing push has been happening for years: Companies hawking a variety of goods, from diamonds to digital cameras, have been eager to get parent bloggers to write posts that tout their products.

But recently, these bloggers say, food companies have upped the ante, bombarding them with free trips to corporate kitchens and mountains of edible swag.

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Starbucks, eager to get working parents drinking its Via instant coffee, sent limousines to shuttle bloggers in New York City for a private lunch with executives. They left with bags stuffed with coffee and offers of bottomless future refills.

Fast-food purveyor Taco Bell flew a group of bloggers from Maryland, Michigan and Missouri to California for a retreat this spring, paid for their lodging and let them spend the day creating new taco and burrito concoctions.

Kraft Foods curried favor with mommy bloggers by bringing some to Los Angeles for the Grilled Cheese Invitational, in an effort to get online parents hungry for cheese.

The rationale is pure economics. The food industry -- from restaurants to supermarkets and manufacturers -- has seen sales slide during the recession and is looking for new ways to reach customers. And the people online they want are parents.

It’s a strategy that recalls post-World War II ad campaigns, in which women touted the benefits of certain laundry soaps and the household brands that would make them a domestic goddess.

“They handle the family budget,” said Amanda Vega, an industry consultant who specializes in social media and public relations. “People read them and believe them, because they’re easy to identify with.”

They also rarely are critical. Christine Young, owner of the From Dates to Diapers blog, has a closet full of free baby products she never liked. She hasn’t mentioned them in her blog.

They’re still there, sitting on the shelves, waiting to be donated.

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“My business is not to bash companies,” said Young, 32, who lives in the Sacramento area. “My business is to create buzz for the products and services we enjoy.”

That philosophy has created a rift in the parental blogosphere, between those who take freebies and those who don’t. And companies have learned that backlash over corporate pampering can quickly turn explosive.

The recent Nestle trip was designed to let the bloggers “get a better feel for Nestle” in exchange for consumer input, said organizer Becky Chao, director of the company’s Moms With Kids Insights program.

Nestle set up a Twitter tag and created a website with pictures of the invited mom and dad bloggers to encourage them to talk to their readers.

And the company intentionally made its recent event a lavish one “to make the bloggers feel comfortable while they were here, away from their families,” Chao said.

But critics of the company countered that the event was a public relations ploy in reaction to an ongoing boycott of Nestle for marketing baby milk formula as a substitute for breast feeding in developing countries.

In fact, before the trip, critics reached out to the bloggers invited to California and urged them to not go.

No one canceled.

As the event got underway, the online conversation quickly turned into an online battlefield. The company’s Twitter channel was so inundated with anti-Nestle messages, and nasty accusations aimed at the attendees, that it was essentially shut down. The company, caught off guard, let the parents field questions aimed at executives until finally stepping into the fray.

Afterward, thousands of people joined Facebook groups dedicated to boycotting the company, according to critics of the company.

“I do think they should have done a bit of due diligence in researching the company before choosing to be associated with them and to accept a free trip from them,” said Annie Urban, author of the PhD in Parenting blog and the person credited with kicking off the Nestle brouhaha.

“It is one thing to cluelessly pick up a Nestle chocolate bar in the store, but it is another thing altogether to accept an all-expenses-paid trip and agree to have your face and name on a Nestle Family Bloggers page.”

As for those who just say no, they fret about their credibility being tainted. Tales of unreported luxury suites and cross-country trips made Liz Gumbinner cringe so much that she helped launch Blog With Integrity. The goal is to rally support for demarcating the line between personal observations and paid posts.

“It’s easy to paint everyone as product whores,” said Gumbinner, 41, who lives in Brooklyn and has run her Mom101 blog since 2006. “They’re not. I think sometimes they’re just naive.”

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com


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