I find that as marketers and advertisers become increasingly more savvy, it becomes increasingly more difficult to parse the difference between the authentic rave and the shill.
On a recent trip to Baltimore, mom and auntie and I stopped at a Maryland tourism center conveniently set up in one of the roadside rest stops along the turnpike. The brochures, of course, were legion. And you have to expect that in that environment, 97% of the material is going to be marketing and maybe 3% is going to be made up of legitimately helpful advice and maps.
I picked up a couple of the guides relating to food (you're surprised, right?) and found that one was great, and the other was utter
In comparing these two food guides, I was able to come up a few helpful questions that I believe will be useful for me (and, hopefully for you) on the future forays into unknown lands.
How to tell if the guidebook in your hands offers genuinely good dining advice or just a bunch of advertorial content.
1. Who wrote it?
The Dish guide (seen above), was written by the editors of Baltimore magazine. They're putting their names on it. The Maryland Dining Guide (also above) was written by "Media Two" in conjunction with the Maryland Restaurant Association and the State of Maryland.
While magazine editors might actually give you the real dish in the Dish be assured the Maryland Restaurant Association isn't going to risk ticking off any of its members. You know darn well that Dining Guide will feature glowing praise for every Applebee's in the state.
2. What's the advertising to information ratio?
Is the guidebook in your hands chockablock with ads? Are there more ads per square inch than restaurant listings? If your guidebook seems more like an adbook, you can probably assume they're far more interested in cashing in than in helping you out.
3. How many coupons does the guide feature?
This is not to say that coupons are necessarily the mark of the beast for a given restaurant. They're simply a strong warning sign. If the food's great and it's reasonably priced, people will go there. Great local places generally don't need big ads and coupons to bring the mouths in the door.
4. Are there images and reviews of restaurants and cafes, or just listings?
If the guidebook's intent is to list every eatery in town, they're not offering guidance. They're offering a phone book.
5. If there are reviews, do they use the words, "scrumptious," "delectable" or "succulent" a lot?
A word like "scrumptious" is rarely used by a professional reviewer because it's an empty word. It means delicious. But what does "delicious" really mean? It's vague.
The phrase, "The pancakes at Joe's are scrumptious" has nothing on "Cookie Joe serves up flapjacks the way his Grandpappy Joe did: thick, airy and stacked up high on the plate." The second phrase tells you more about those pancakes than a simple, soulless synonym for "delicious" would.
Along the same lines, a shill is never going to have a bad word to say about a restaurant. It's a sign of quality if the reviews give some credit to the bad along with the good.
In sum, determining what's advertorial content is tricky. It's meant to be tricky. They want your money.
If you're really interested in eating well on the road, you might consider skipping the tourism center altogether and hitting the regional forum messageboards at chowhound.