Putting Lipstick On A Pig: ConAgra And Our PR Folly

For those of you not on Twitter, and are not privy to the latest and greatest news and events, there’s been a bit of a hub-bub of late regarding a PR event that failed miserably. The short version, as explained by the New York Times, sums the details pretty well:

In August, food bloggers and mom bloggers in New York were invited to dine at an underground restaurant in a West Village brownstone run, apparently, by George Duran, the chef who hosts the “Ultimate Cake Off” on TLC.

Sotto Terra, the invitation said, was “an intimate Italian restaurant” where attendees would enjoy a “delicious four-course meal,” Mr. Duran’s “one-of-a-kind sangria,” and learn about food trends from a food industry analyst, Phil Lempert. The invitation continued that upon confirming — for one of five evenings beginning Aug. 23 — bloggers would receive an extra pair of tickets as a prize for readers and that the dinner would include “an unexpected surprise.”

The surprise: rather than being prepared by the chef, the lasagna they were served was Three Meat and Four Cheese Lasagna by Marie Callender’s, a frozen line from ConAgra Foods. Hidden cameras at the dinners, which were orchestrated by the Ketchum public relations unit of the Omnicom Group, captured reactions to the lasagna and to the dessert, Razzleberry Pie, also from Marie Callender’s.

Once the ruse had been made known, the response had been everything from bewilderment to embarrassment to outright anger.

I’m of two minds in regard to this. For one: ShittyCheaply made, processed food presented nicely, is, in the end, still shitty cheaply made, processed food. Ketchum PR and ConAgra foods know this, but hoped to dupe enough people with bells and whistles to impress and influence so as to pimp their shitty cheaply made lasagna and “razzleberry” pie. The folks realized that sending out invitations to food and Mom bloggers to sample the new “Marie Callender’s” frozen boxed meals, few people would show up. So they had to find another solution.

Luckily for the folks at Ketchum, the Food Blogger and Mom Blogger system has been built to allow the unscrupulous to take advantage of the unwary. Years of taking free product samples and dining at the expense of PR companies have created an industry unto itself, one where e-mails are sent out inviting bloggers to exclusive events and making them feel part of the larger food world, one where they get to hang out with celebrity chefs and sup at “underground” Italian restaurants in the heart of New York City. Somewhere, out there, PR folks have created a magical, and exclusive, food world. They then sell it to folks who oh-want-so-much-to believe that it exists, with the end goal of the PR clients getting good publicity out of it.

Let’s be frank here – those who accepted the invitation bought full-on into this false idea, and were played like a fiddle by Ketchum. But here’s where it get’s interesting – Again, from the New York Times article:

“Once we sensed it was not meeting attendees’ expectations, that’s where we stopped, we listened and we adjusted,” said Ms. Moritz, of ConAgra.

“It was never our intention to put any bloggers or their guests in an uncomfortable position and for that we are sorry,” she said, adding that the brand subsequently offered to reimburse attendees for such expenses as cab fare and baby-sitting.

Still, “most attendees had a fun evening” and in a survey, 62.5 percent of participants indicated having a favorable impression of Marie Callender’s, Ms. Moritz said .

(emphasis mine)

So, at least 37.5% of the participants can be lauded for having a pretty decent bullshit detector. To the rest?


I hope you enjoyed feeling like part of the “in crowd foodie lifestyle”. My question? Did you expect it would taste like a $4 piece of shitty cheaply made lasagna?