Food bloggers are popular, but many people don't know they’re paid to write reviewsFollowers say that bloggers on Instagram who don’t disclose payments for their content are fundamentally deceptive.
Nikita Pradhan has always loved food. She craves sugary delights and works often on her own recipes. She even followed a host of food bloggers on Instagram, until she couldn’t take their posts of mouth-watering delights while on a diet.
So when a friend asked her to visit a restaurant in Baluwatar after seeing a good review and an attractive set of pictures on a Nepali food blogger’s Instagram, Pradhan couldn’t say no. But when they visited the restaurant, they were disappointed. The food was bland and the place expensive. Although they had doubts regarding the glowing review, Pradhan and her friend let it pass, thinking that the blogger might’ve had a different taste.
Months later, when Pradhan learned that many Nepali food bloggers are paid to review restaurants, things finally made sense. She recalled a series of bad experiences at places she’d visited after bloggers had praised the food. Pradhan felt cheated.
“It’s absolutely fake and dishonest,” said Pradhan. “They are fooling their audience.”
Pradhan was understandably outraged. She, like many others, had expected that food bloggers on Instagram were sampling the food and posting unbiased reviews. Without a clear disclaimer identifying their posts as sponsored content, many followers believe that food bloggers on Instagram are misleading their audiences by presenting their reviews as impartial and unprejudiced.
Siddharth Ghimire (@nepal.food) was one of the first Nepalis to start posting food reviews on Instagram. He started in 2015 and within six months, he’d already acquired 50,000 followers. With more bloggers emerging, Ghimire thought it was time he went “professional”. He would rate food and write reviews, based purely on his taste.
Ghimire acquired a massive base, currently at over 146,000 followers, and it wasn’t long before offers for paid sponsorships started coming his way. That’s when he realised he couldn’t be a critic on Instagram.
“If the food is bad, I try not to write about it at all,” said Ghimire, who calls himself a food consultant and influencer. “I give them another chance, if it’s good, then I write a review accordingly.”
Ghimire admits that its difficult to write critical reviews of places that they’ve been invited to, even more so for places they’re paid to write about.
Other bloggers too agreed that they try not to write bad reviews, especially when the post has been sponsored.
“If I like 4 out of 5 desserts, then I won’t review the ones I didn’t like,” said Akriti Neupane, who curates @desserts_nepal. Neupane admits that it’s unfair for followers, but said that it should be obvious they are bound to write good reviews if the content is sponsored.
The only problem is that followers can’t tell when the content is sponsored, since food bloggers never say clearly that they’ve been paid.
Mahesh Adhikari has experienced many disappointing moments at restaurants that came highly recommended by bloggers. Once, he even received stale food that smelled terrible at a restaurant that was praised on Instagram. Adhikari had heard that the restaurant must have paid for the review, but like Pradhan, he wasn’t certain. But when pictures of KFC’s chicken started getting posted with captions about their offers, he no longer had any doubts.
“They can post good reviews, but there’s no harm in being honest,” said Adhikari.
It is not just followers who feel cheated; even restaurants think the practice of paying for supposedly objective reviews are not fair.
Suraj Joshi, CEO of Alpas in Lazimpat, was surprised when the bloggers he’d invited to his restaurant for a food tasting started quoting him rates for reviews.
“For us, it’s okay because it is an investment, in terms of marketing,” said Joshi. “But paid content can’t be called a review; it’s a promotion. Reviews are only authentic when one visits anonymously and writes honestly about their experience.”
A former marketing executive for a restaurant in Durbarmarg described a similar experience. When the restaurant invited the blogger Mr Foodie Nepal for a review, he replied with a tariff that ranged from Rs 8,000 to Rs 25,000. Another blogger, Foodnommics (@foodnommics), too said that they charged Rs 3,000 for three posts and a story on Instagram.
“I was stunned,” said the former marketing executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity as she didn’t want the restaurant to suffer negative publicity. “Paid reviews are promotions and advertisements. These people are earning heaps of money, which I believe aren’t even taxed.”
Most restaurants and hotels the Post spoke to seem to believe that reviews are not honest when they are paid for.
“We don’t pay anyone for reviews as once they’re paid, the review might not be fair,” said Mohini Shrestha, marketing and communication manager at the Hyatt Regency.
Alpas’ Joshi said that bloggers are only approached due to their large fan following, but otherwise, they’re unprofessional and don’t have any knowledge about the culinary arts, he said.
For small businesses, paying for online reviews is an affordable way to bring in customers and many of them are afraid of ruining their relationship with bloggers. But even they believe that bloggers should make it clear to their followers that they’re getting paid.
“It’s my right to let people know that I’m advertising,” said Bivechan Khanal, co-owner of Blenders Nepal. “And it’s the right of the customers to know that the review on their feed is paid content.”
All of the restaurants the Post reached out to agreed that food bloggers should be transparent about payments, and that they plan to speak to bloggers about adding disclaimers to future posts.
A number of bloggers, like Shubham Parajuli (@love.eat.repeatt), Manandhar, and Ghimire, also believe that they should be transparent about their sponsored content, only that the time isn’t right.
Manandhar said that she would put forward this issue in an informal food blogging community that they have, but had no concrete plans to letting her followers know when the content is paid for. Only Parajuli, out of the six bloggers the Post reached out to, had plans to put a hashtag on future posts alerting his followers to sponsored content.
For Ghimire, the culture of food blogging is still developing in Nepal. He only plans to reveal his revenue and advertisement campaigns after reaching a self-imposed milestone.
But followers like Pradhan are still processing how they were fooled for all these years, thinking that the reviews were genuine.
“If there’s no transparency, we don’t need food bloggers,” said Pradhan. “It’s better to see recommendations based on Facebook and Google reviews—at least they’re honest.”