The moral hazard of product reviews

I have occasionally done reviews on Geek in Sydney. Sometimes they are of things I have bought, sometimes I get review units lent to me and that has raised a painful ethical issue.

Several times a month I get pitched by marketing companies offering to pay me to either create or just publish an article that includes natural links to their client’s website. Often the sites involved are gambling sites, but sometimes they are closer to actually being pertinent to GiS. I’ve always said ‘no’ simply because getting a couple of hundred dollars is not worth the queasy feel I’d get from allowing GiS to be used to promote search results, especially of a gambling site.

I have taken direct advertising and have always labelled it as such.

Then there is the nether-world of reviews when a retail company provides a review unit. See the problem is that the process creates a relationship which in turn can lead to a blurring of what is going on. The two parties involved simply don’t have the same motivation – as was forcefully driven home to me last week.

For a website like GiS the review is a chance to play with some fun kit, an opportunity to generate an article, and a chance to give readers information they might find useful. That process is only credible if the reviews are honest – otherwise I might just as well accept money for links to websites.

But, you see the retailer providing the unit isn’t wildly interested in an honest review; they want two things. First they want a positive review that will drive some sales through being quoted on their site and, second, they want natural links back to their site to drive search engine rankings. Because of an on-going relationship, it’s hard not to agree to a generic link when asked for nicely. That makes me wince a bit, but it never felt like it was going too far – so my ethical position on natural links was already on shaky ground.

Recently, however a review that was less than glowing led to a request from the marketing department of the retailer who lent out the review unit:

Sorry, Evan, the purpose of the article is to drive traffic and sales for [retail company]. Can your comment be more positive?

You see that’s a pretty blatant statement of how the company sees the review purpose. My response was basically that if they wanted positive comment the correct avenue was paid advertising; a review had to be honest or it was pointless. This has however made me realise how dodgy this whole area is.

Even when not put as bluntly as I’ve quoted there’s implicit pressure for a positive review if you want to stay in the relationship and get more review units. I imagine, that won’t make much difference if you are a big media organisation getting review units direct from the manufacturer: Even in the face of a negative review it’s hard to see how someone like Samsung could not continue to give review units to someone like PC World.

But if you are a blog getting units from a retailer that creates a different power relationship. It is always going to be in the back of your mind that a poor review will lead to you not getting any more fun stuff to review. And, in turn, that can hit your choice of adjective, or your willingness to add in something positive to balance the negative, or the slant on your headline. The changes can be subtle, unconscious even, but they can also be hard to avoid. The moral hazard is clear and present; and it’s hard to see how a small blog can steer past it, other than doing what I’m doing – not accepting any more items for review.

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