Adventures in Churnalism

Churnalism is defined as the art of rehashing a press release and disguising it as a news story. It serves as a relatively cheap (compared with conventional advertising) way of getting your product/brand/shop/whatever publicity and is usually mediated by a PR agency.

My own adventure led me to “selling” some breast milk, being interviewed on the radio and having my breasts, appearance and HIV status discussed on blogs, forums and online comment sections throughout the English speaking world.

It all began when I saw a job advert on Mumsnet. Normally I wouldn’t even look there but it was a particularly active thread: “Mum wanted to donate milk for ice cream” or some such. It was from an ice cream parlour who were last active nearly a year ago when they had a pop up shop in Selfridges. The tossy Flash-only website annoyed me so I replied, speculating that it wasn’t real but that I was game if it were. As requested I submitted a photo.

To my surprise I received an email from one of the owners assuring me that it wasn’t a hoax, and when could he meet me?

I met him in a Starbucks on Moorgate and was reassured that he wasn’t a pervert and indeed, after I discussed breast milk fetishes and Top Gear slash fiction, began to think that I sounded far, far more seedy than he. I agreed to have a blood test to rule out the few infections that are transmitted through breast milk (HIV, hepatitis, syphilis (active) and HTLV I and II), give some milk over and do a couple of press interviews. In return I would get some cash.

So I agreed, basically.

I handed the milk over on Monday, and did a photo shoot and a couple of interviews for the PR agency on Tuesday. At the end of the session, the PR waved a sheet of paper under my nose.

This was the press release. I only really had a chance to glance at it. A quote from me about “using my assets for a bit of extra cash” was included. I observed that I hadn’t said such a thing and wouldn’t but by that point I knew I wasn’t really going to be able to change anything. I shrugged, said that I wasn’t going to tell him how to do his job, finished my icecream and left.
The next day texts started to arrive from colleagues who were reading that morning’s Metro. I checked the online version. Not a word from my actual interview was there but the tacky made up quote was.

Throughout the day more stories popped up. My photo from the shoot started to appear, and that quote, with my name attached, started moving up the list in Google News.
Comments started to pop up, and this is where the churnalism really bites. I was revolting, I had AIDS and was going to infect everyone, people would like to drink from the source… my breasts and the milk they produce was appraised and discussed. Amongst the “yuk” comments and suggestions that semen should be used next, my mother in law valiantly defended my honour, getting the Huffington Post to revise the story to state, clearly, that I had been thoroughly screened.

I was scolded for not donating milk (as the mother of a toddler, I couldn’t start now anyway and could not donate milk due to being out of the country when she was young enough) and was told to keep my fluids to myself.

It was suggested that semen or urine were comparable fluids.

I was interviewed on the radio several times. I decided in advance to just have one point and make it over and over again: that we drink cow milk without a second thought. This I did. I admittedly did not listen to the callers afterwards, deciding that it would be nearly as bad as the online comments.

Zoe Williams, an avowed hater of breastfeeding, tried the icecream and declared it horrible. Hardly surprising.

So, overall, now that the fuss has died down, what do I make of it? The ice cream parlour itself has a burlesque ethos, in the traditional sense: that of slightly satirical, tongue in cheek humour with a sexy edge. I think in that context breast milk ice cream fits in perfectly.

The only thing I would change is that damn fake quote. To see that going twice round the world before breakfast and having no control over it is fascinating, and alarming if I let myself think that way. Perhaps one or two people will have heard me on the radio and will give breastfeeding a try.

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