The role of sponsored content in journalism has raised countless issues regarding ethics and bias, but an article published earlier this week by The Guardian has some people wondering just how deep the conundrum goes.
The article in question, "Nestlé admits slavery in Thailand while fighting child labour lawsuit in Ivory Coast, " turns out to have been funded in part by one of the food behemoth's direct competitors, Mondelēz International. For those who might not be aware, Mondelēz is the parent company of brands like Cadbury, Oreo, Toblerone, and Ritz, just to name a few.
Unless you were to catch a glimpse of the notice above the author's name—which reads, "Supported by: Mondelēz International"—you might not have a single clue that the article was in fact "supported" by the multinational food conglomerate. Of course, the article's banner advertisements—which are all for Mondelēz International and its sustainability program, called "the call for well-being"—are sure to raise a few flags.
The critical story discusses Nestlé's use of forced labor in its supply chains in Thailand, all while the Swiss conglomerate has been unsuccessfully attempting to get the US Supreme Court to throw out a lawsuit that sought to hold it liable for the use of child slaves in the Ivory Coast.
While it may look as though Mondelēz was actually behind the content of the article, Mondelēz says that is not the case. We reached out to them and a company spokesperson told us, "We've had a media partnership with The Guardian since November 2015. As part of that, we have a dedicated partner zone on the site to raise awareness around our broad sustainability efforts. In addition, our partnership supports The Guardian's Sustainable Business' Supply Chain section, which is fully independent editorially." They went on to say that, "As with any publication, there's a strict separation between the advertising and the editorial content, so we do not have a say in the editorial content that is featured in that particular section."
We also reached out to Nestlé, but they refused to comment on the matter.
As AdAge points out, "the matter underscores how sponsored content programs can put marketers in uncomfortable situations." Still, we can't help thinking that the people at Mondelēz must have had a chuckle when they learned that their dollars helped pay for a seemingly negative story about one of their biggest competitors.
Competition can be nasty in the corporate food business, and sometimes a blow can be delivered in a surprising way.