Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life
Takeaway Lessons From Billy Madison
In the movie Billy Madison, there is a classic (I can call it that now, right?) scene in which the title character, played by Adam Sandler, faces off against the weaselly Eric (Bradley Whitford) in a battle of wits: the victor will gain control of the Madison hotel empire. The contest is loosely styled after Jeopardy!, one of the categories being “Business Ethics,” a subject in which Eric, to put it delicately, lacks expertise.
Though Eric is a fictional character, there are very real people on the Internet who have no sense of ethics whatsoever. I don’t mean the ne’er-do-wells whose malicious intent is obvious: the smut peddlers, the spammers, the phishers, the Nigerian scammers, etc. I mean the people you would normally trust, the ones running the so-called news sites—blogs, even—that purport to uphold some semblance of integrity. At very least, they are expected not to lie to their readers. More than a traditional printed publication, which has an office and paid reporters, free Web publications rely on trust to build their brands.
I’ve been betrayed.
Several days ago, I came across a very disturbing post on The Apple Blog, a publication for which I have previously written: “Get your product reviewed on TAB”. If the title didn’t speak for itself, TAB writes, “[F]or the remainder of this week we’ll be offering a discounted price to review your Mac/Apple related software or hardware. If you’d like to have us review your product, head over here and purchase a review and we’ll get you rolling and get you a review on TAB!” Clicking through the link in the article takes you to a site called ReviewMe. By paying the “discounted price” of just $200, you can move to the head of the line and get your product reviewed on TAB.
TAB very wisely rescinded this offer within 12 hours of posting it, after wide and vociferous condemnation. (At press time, neither of these links to TAB was working, the original posts having been deleted.) TAB maintains that it has never accepted money to review a product and that it intended to flag these products as reviews that had been paid for, if they ever came to pass.
Sorry, guys. That’s not good enough anymore.
This practice is unethical and indefensible, and it betrays the trust that your readers have in you. On the Web, as in print, your brand is only as strong as your readers’ identification and trust. Can we still trust you?
A Thin Product Line
My freelance writing hobby has seen several different Internet-based outlets: at one time, I wrote for Low End Mac, and I was paid modestly for it. I moved on to writing for ATPM and SchwarzTech, both volunteer positions, and eventually, my (brief) time at TAB, which was then and is still largely a volunteer position. (TAB now pays its most regular bloggers a monthly stipend.)
How is it that sites like these get product reviews without paying their writers? Well, you thread a very fine needle: it’s fairly well-known in the industry that the review products are yours to keep, with few exceptions. This presents a modest conflict of interest, because the reviewer is getting something for free, and that may encourage him to write a positive review of it. That’s why Consumer Reports, the most respected product reviewer in the English-speaking world, actually purchases every product they review off the shelf. They refuse to accept free review items, and won’t sell advertising to companies whose products they review.
With these extreme measures, Consumer Reports has eliminated the conflict of interest; but they are the exception to the rule, and for a reason. Most Web sites don’t make enough money to enjoy Consumer Reports’ luxury of complete independence. Many print magazines don’t, either; Car and Driver is kept afloat almost exclusively by advertising bought by the automotive industry, and their strict editorial independence has cost them ad campaigns in the past. So, like the rest of the world, like other big-name magazines like Macworld and Car and Driver, a strong dose of journalistic ethics should be enough to separate editorial from advertisement.
With this duty to the reader in mind, publications generally accept free products for review, although they may not—and often can’t—review everything. So, rather than charge a fee to bump a product to the head of the line, they evaluate what’s worth reviewing each issue. It’s their job to be self-policing, because their readers take their honesty and ethics at face value.
The manufacturers are in on this game, too. They send out these products knowing that if they get a good review, it’s well worth the cost of the unit the reviewer is going to keep, and even if they don’t get a good review, the old PR axiom applies: there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
I don’t and can’t condemn the practice of accepting free products for review, and I see no problem with it as long as the writer remembers his ethical duty and puts the reader before the product. I believe the staffs at ATPM and SchwarzTech do a fine job of keeping the faith with their readers, and my reviews for The Apple Blog were also written with that intention.
But any site that claims to do independent product reviews had damned well better be independent. Paying someone $200 to review your product makes it a review no longer; it is an advertisement, at best, it is “advertorial” content. One of the cardinal rules of journalism is that you never allow advertisements to appear as part of your content. You print the ads in a different typeface, you set them off in a special section, you put a different background behind them, you clearly mark them as “ADVERTISEMENT,” and so on. ReviewMe’s FAQ reads, “We do require that all reviews are…disclosed as being sponsored in some fashion.” It’s not at all clear whether ReviewMe enforces this requirement, but it’s irrelevant. Call this what it is: an advertising campaign on the part of hardware manufacturers and software publishers.
To allow readers to believe that a review bought and paid for through ReviewMe is an honest, unbiased test-drive does them a tremendous disservice. Even calling it a “review” is dishonest. They are to have it both ways, but at the end of the day, there’s a difference between threading a sewing needle and using a knitting needle. TAB’s latest proposal comes out on the wrong side of this equation. Are we really to expect that, after being paid $200 for the review, TAB would be willing to slam a bad product? Or that they would really adhere rigorously to the standard of flagging paid-for reviews?
I understand, probably better than most people, that earning a living by running a Web site is a difficult business, unless you’re selling porn. The Web, like most marketplaces, can be a very cutthroat environment. But it is of the utmost importance that these sites maintain strong ethical principles and run their businesses in an upstanding manner. Insulting your readers’ intelligence by thinly disguising advertisements as content is not only unethical, it’s very likely to drive away the very people who are writing your meal ticket by visiting your site in the first place.
We’ve been down this road before. Newspapers were once no better than TAB, in the early days of the industry, intermingling their advertising and news content so they were all but indistinguishable, and often selling the most prominent editorial positions to advertisers. Search engines used to bump up the search results of companies that paid them; Google’s grand innovation was to reject weighted results like this and to clearly label their advertising. Even now many magazines still offer a certain amount of editorial product placement for advertisers over non-advertisers.
TAB may have rescinded their offer to write “expedited” reviews for pay, but there’s a valuable lesson in here for other sites.
Also in This Series
- About My Particular Macintoshes · May 2012
- From the Darkest Hour · May 2012
- Shrinking Into an Expanding World · May 2012
- Growing Up With Apple · May 2012
- Recollections of ATPM by the Plucky Comic Relief · May 2012
- Making the Leap · March 2012
- Digital > Analog > Digital · February 2012
- An Achievable Dream · February 2012
- Smart Move? · February 2012
- Complete Archive