Monday, July 24, 2006

[Ethics] More about product reviews and the ethical dilemma

I was going to just comment on the previous post about this issue, but my comment was getting too long...

I've been struggling about this issue for some months now. Books are one thing, but what about products? Recently, I got an email from some PR company about a new soy-based product, asking if I wanted some review samples. I wasn't sure what to do with this, especially since I didn't know if it would be a product I'd like. (I tend to be against manufactured food, but the way the marketroid person described it made it rather intriguing.)

Then the question came to me: what if it was a product I was sure I'd like? Would it be different? What if some chocolate company asked me to review some amazing new dark chocolate bar made from wild cacao grown on some undiscovered island? etc.

In the end I declined the offer for the review samples of the soy product, as I have done so far (a la Sam) for anything else, from books to 'mention our site' stuff. I'm really not sure what I would do in the future though. Of course the irony is that I do have Adsense ads and Amazon links on my blog, and they do help to pay for the hosting plus more. (Disclosure: my last Adsense check was enough to cover the cost of a new digital camera.) The difference I see there though is that the Amazon links are to products I have bought myself, unsolicited, and the Adsense ads are there based on the words I have on my pages, again unsolicited. (I'm not organized enough to skew my words for 'better paying' Adsense ads or whatever. I write whatever I feel like writing.)

The one thing I don't appreciate is that feeling that companies are trying to use us, since blogging is so hot right now or whatever. I hate that feeling of being manipulated. On the other hand, free swag is always fun. I already spend a considerable amount of time and money on this hobby so something for free is so tempting. The dilemma... argh.

By coincidence a debate on exactly this kind of situation is going on at the moment on Megnut; she accepted some grass-fed beef review samples. The comments are split in their opinions.

Anyway I think this issue is going to be of increasing concern, and I love to hear everyone's take on it.

Posted by maki of Just Hungry.


Ziz said...

Personally I don't see what the big deal is about reviewing products. Either you want to do it or you don't. I feel like I must be missing the big picture...I just don't get why it would be an ethical dilemma?

If you enjoy free stuff and don't mind blogging about it (and giving it an *honest* review) -- since hey, it is free, then do it. If a person feels that that is selling out...than don't. Seems straight forward to me at least.

Ed said...

I agree with Alicat. Journalists have for years been getting free products. And companies for the most part have been prepared to take the bad reviews with the good.

I receive free wine and sometimes I write about it. Other times I don't.

The important thing is not to get into agreements where the PRs want to send a product on the condition that you write about it.

Just write about what you want to. You could always highlight if a product is a freeby.

Derrick said...

As I said on the Megnut post you mention, I always tell the p.r. folks straight out that I won't promise a review.

You can see my full comments on the megnut post, but the gist is that I view my job as informing readers, and that samples provide a way for me to do that job better. I can more readily place a wine in the context of California wines if I've tasted a bunch. I'll be honest about the product...if I review it.

Kalyn Denny said...

I also got the e-mail asking if I'd like to try the soy-based products and perhaps recommend them to blog readers. I was pretty sure I didn't want to recommend them, so I had no problem turning that one down.

Rachael Narins said...

Public relations people are under a lot of pressure from their bosses and clients to find new and exciting ways to get the word out there on their products. This is just another avenue. If you aren't interested, ignore the email. Trust me, they are used to it.

On the other hand, once you get on that bandwagon, it might prove fortuitous. As I say over and over, you never know who knows who, you know what I mean?

nika said...

I agree with the PPs.

College profs get review copies all the time, some have their offices packed full with them. They dont always use them and some dont even get read. Some are standard and well vetted and become the class text automatically. It mostly feels like a courtesy copy for consideration at some point (or to be used for slides tho thats sorta iffy in a copyright sort of way but we are talking about academia here).

I have turned down various co-marketing schemes and free stuff and free press through podcasting at my homeschooling blog ( because of ideological issues (am not interested in supporting the fundamentalist christian world of homeschooling and the massive commercialization around that).

I definitely support progressive education resources but those opportunities do not seem to find me.

These issues do not come up much in food (unless you are a staunch ethical eater, which is fine, its your compass).

My food blog gets TONS more traffic and I have not gotten any solicitations until very recently (in amongst requests for free use of my pics!). I find that I am mostly getting offers to network versus actual items to review.

I think I would be open to review many things except for clearly suspect campaigns like "Organic Walmart" (yikes, talk about "Puritan Foods").

Bottom line for me, review copies of books are not bribes, they are the way this business works. My time is worth alot more than the cost of the book. I would do it for a desire to: 1) be involved with the cookbook industry, 2) provide some fresh content to the reader, 3) perhaps get some downstream Amazon rev (tho I get much more of that at my low volume homeschool blog than on the food blog).

None of these things are profitable.

Passing time enjoying the new cookbook and testing and shooting a few example recipes and writing about it is all the "reward" I expect.

William I. Lengeman III said...

I've received numerous samples of tea in the year or so I've been running my site and have reviewed quite a few. I don't make a 100%commitment to review everything sent my way, but I get around to most eventually. As for whether the review is positive or negative, that's up to the reviewer (me). No one I've dealt with has ever tried to influence that.

Anonymous said...

I have the opposite dilemma, people send me stuff and I rarely review it because I'm lazy. It's a shame because some of it would make good content.

I don't feel too bad about not reviewing stuff though, as Rachel said, PR people are used to it, and aren't going to call back and yell at you, although they may do a polite follow-up. We're not writing about electronics or cars where they want the review sample back after you're done.

Maki, funny enough, someone did send me samples of cacao nibs recently.

Sam said...

We are not journalists, we are bloggers, which is why we might choose, if we so wish, to not operate in a similar way to journalists.

Obviously Maki and I are in a guilt-wracked minority here.

Yesterday I wrote a post called "dumb design" about a product I paid for and really didn't like. It is safe to say, that if that same product had been sent to me by a PR company to review I absolutely would not have written anything about it, because I would have been embarassed. I would have felt guilty about having been given the gift for free and then trashing it. But since I paid for this piece of crap with my own money, I had no problem announcing exactly what I thought of it. Indeed, I almost felt it was my duty to save other people from wasting $5.95 on it. But had it been a free review sample - I wouldn't have bbeen able to bring myself to trash it. Interesting, huh.

I think it some bloggers are trying to follow a more traditional journalistic-style model, and some aren't. It is up to the individual to choose, Ali is right, but it isn't a simple black and white case of either you do or it don't. People really are struggling with these issues.

Btw - I don't think anyone took up the offer of that soy product - it just seemed to jar with what most food bloggers are about.

I have no doubt that most bloggers are totally honest when they receive these free products, or at least try to be.

But I also think there is a slight different perspective on a free product to a purchased one. When you spend your hard-earned money on something it definitely gives you a slightly more keen perspective on the product than if you had received it for free.

FJKramer said...

It's your blog, you get to do what you want. As some one who has been in pr, marketing and journalism and who is now a blogger, I think that whichever way you go you need to be true to yourself and honest with your audience. If you don't want to say anything bad, just don't write about something that's a flop for you. Persoanlly, I always think of warning off people from a bad product as a public service.

If you accept a product to review you should disclose it, especially if the dollar value is signficant. If you decide to review you are under no obligation to like the thing. Just be honest.

If you decide accepting freebies is not your thing, don't.

PR and marketing types are professionals. They don't expect to buy your loyalty for the price of a few steaks or soy products, they just believe (or are paid to believe) in the products and are trying to expose them to a wider audience.

My relatively small blog also receives these pitches. Most of these I ignore because they don't fit the scope of what I want to do with Blog Appetit. (Also I am usually so pressed for time I can barely write about the stuff I want to anyway). I did go to the Fancy Foods Show and really liked getting to meet the producers and I am more open to samples and writing about these folks.

Julie said...

I've given this a lot of thought as I follow all your comments. I know that PR people send out samples/review copies as a matter of course and as one component of a large marketing campaign. They know that most of the items sent out will never be mentioned by the recipient, and they take their chances on negative reviews. Sometimes bad press stirs up a debate and winds up becoming good press.

My feeling is that I would accept samples as long as I was under no obligation to review them at all. I truly think Sam makes a critical point that it is natural to be far more critical of something you spend your own money on. All the reviews of Kitchen Sense are more positive than not. If I understand correctly the reviewers had to commit to blogging about the book, so it seems natural that they would find at least a minimal number of good things to say. But when you are under no obligation to blog (I too resent being told what to write about), accepting samples is fine. It is a service to your readers to mention new books or food products, positively or negatively, that they might not otherwise discover. It is also interesting for readers to know what current books are being publicized to death in the marketplace. It puts all those ads, endorsements and glowing reviews in perspective when you think about the PR efforts behind it all. Definitely disclose that you received the product for.

Having said that, I do think we all take individual approaches to blogging, and we should do what we want and what best suits our visions for our own blogs.

Owen said...

all this angst! I got a similar request for the first time ever to my blog on behalf of the same grass fed beef people.

putting on my journalist hat (some of you may know that in real life I have been a journalist and editor for more than twenty years in areas where we get serious pressure from PR agencies and product manufacturers and vendors) this is absolutely normal practice. There are some basic rules.
1. all products are supplied under absolutely no guarantee or undestanding that they will be written about.
2. No product valued at over $40 may be kept or retained for personal or professional use - if the vendor doesn't want it back then you have to donate it.
3. the exception to the above is mroe germane to food - obviously destructive testing is an exception - ie eating the food product!
4. usage of the product is no guarantee of coverage
5. coverage may or may not be positive
6. there is no implied contract in accepting a product for review

Then there are some unwritten rules - gratuitous negative publicity is frowned upon - that is negative publicity that serves no purpose except to be malicious. That does NOT include a negative review based on facts but it does include mocking a product or vendor without trying it. Same is true of gratuitous positive publicity.

Obviously these rules do not have to apply to blogs. But they can and I think they are good rules if applied with good intent ethically.

And for those that look eagerly forward to the spate of freebies - it grows thin very quickly.

Having said all that, I am looking forward eagerly to whatever it is the grass fed beef people have to send me. I happen to be very interested since grass fed may be the way forward to save us all from BSE

Anonymous said...

I fall more on the "it's no big deal side" of things, likely because the offices where I work are filled to overflowing with freebies, many of which never get reviewed. As has already been stated by a few people here, the PR reps usually understand that they're neither guaranteed a review, nor will it necessarily be positive if they do get one.

One thing though that does separate bloggers from mainstream media is the lack of advertising. Personally, I think this makes it easier when you don't have to worry about an advertiser pulling out over negative publicity, which in turn can make the blogger's opinion a more reliable one for readers.

At the end of the day, you have to live with yourself (and your readers) as to whether you're comfortable accepting a product or not.

Anonymous said...

I am with Owen--as a former journalist, I look at it from a journalist's perspective, and with the same journalism ethical code that he quotes in his reply.

I still need to answer the grassfed beef--and I think I will accept the sample, and write about it, because I want to compare it to the locally produced grassfed beef we have here in Ohio.

Write about what you want to write about people. If you recieved something free, and you review it, be honest--tell them where it product came from and review it honestly--what did you really think of it. It really is as simple as that.

Sam--if someone sent you a set of measuring spoons that really sucked that badly, you should say so. You are not a journalist by training or by paycheck, but readers value your opinion. If by stating that a product sucks, you save some readers a bit of cash, you are providing a great service to them. It doesn't matter whether you paid for the product or not--your honest opinion is what matters.

And truly--that is the chance that PR people are taking in sending the swag out in the first place and they KNOW that. They take that chance because that is what they do. And more often than not, they feel that the chance is worth it, because they believe in their product.

Look, I used to make a decent living being a freelance book reviewer, so I have a library filled with free books. Most of the books I have reviewed on Tigers & Strawberries I have paid for, but I am getting more and more review copies sent to me. I don't do anything different when I review them--except say that they were sent to me by a PR person. That is it. I give them no more or less consideration than I give any other book I read.

It isn't that big of an ethical dilemma, -if- you look at it the way a journalist does--and even if you don't consider yourselves to be journalists, I guarantee you that your readers often look to you as a similar kind of trusted authority, and so in a way accord your word the same kind of weight -- or maybe even -more- weight than they give the word of reporters--because they understand that we are not being paid to do this. I guess it makes it all more real and honest.

So, give honest opinions, because they are valued, even if they are not all rainbows, butterflies and flowers.

Rosie said...

Barbara -

My hubby says that if you can't find it in your professional ethics to eat that beefsteak, he will be more than happy to take the karmic burden upon himself. He also said if you have any other food stuffs that are sent to you he would gladly relieve your burden of those items as well!

What a sweetie.

RadiationWatch said...

Thanks everyone for all the comments. I think that my main problem was getting into the journalistic mindset. I've written for publications before but never really thought of myself as a journalist, since that is not my background. And what Barbara says about giving something a negative review regardless of if it was paid for or received free makes a lot of sense. I think that was where I was getting stuck also - feeling bad about writing something negative about something received for free.

kitchenmage said...

I suppose I've answered this already in real life since I've published a negative review of one of the Blogger's Fuel coffees, which were freebies. There are six kinds of coffee, thus six entries (two done so far) and so far one positive and one negative review. All of the reviews say that the coffee was free.

The negative review is lightly humorous (guestblogged since I'm not a big coffee fan, but someoneElse is) and acknowledges that maybe we just got a stale, lame bag. If the folks who make it read the post and decide to send a fresh bag for a re-review, I'll be happy to post on that too.

Parisbreakfasts said...

I reveiw food products all the time it seems and I paint them too. But it's stuff I've bought myself.I just wish La Maison du Chocolat or Pierre Hermé would choose me as a test taster. Hmmm...
I did get tons of free chocolate at the Fancy Food show but that was a toughie to write about-too much to review!