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Ethics of Reviewing...

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by , 01-21-2009 at 03:30 PM (1934 Views)
Thanks, Smokey Joe! I think I'm going to give this blogging thing a try.

And the topic of my first post is something I mentioned in another thread: Reviewer ethics and free samples, affiliate links, advertisements, and sponsors.

When I first started doing reviews, I was purchasing all of my own products. I had two jobs at the time, and between them I had a healthy budget for buying gadgets and toys, and redirected that all towards e-cigs.

It wasn't too long before I began to be offered free samples, and the first time I was, I really pondered the question of ethics. Is a review copy a conflict of interests? Does it compromise objectivity, or create a bias?

I researched review ethics, and found a variety of approaches. Professional media organizations have rigid ethics policies, most of which prohibit receiving free samples, or require all samples to be returned after the review. Freelance journalists are expectd to abide by the ethics policy of the organization they are selling their work to.

Bloggers, OTOH, are generally independant, and so do not have any outside policy to adhere to, and typically are not getting paid for their reviews, so accepting free copies is more common, and is not generally considered unethical.

At the time it was an option for me, not a necessity, but in the end I decided to do it, since I had no real interest in the particular device, and would never have purchased it for review otherwise.

Time passed, and I lost my cushy second job, cutting my regular income by over a third, and completely eliminating the extra hours and pay I used to get occasionally.

Now sample copies are no longer an option, but the only way I can continue to review. I have enough of a budget to cover my personal e-cig supplies, but nothing at all to try new devices with.

So, I began soliciting review copies. This hasn't always worked out very well, however. For one thing, it puts me in an uncomfortable position if some of the parts are bad.

We all know these devices have a horrible failure rate. Even the quality brands sometimes have DOA parts. I don't think it's fair or useful to review a device based on defective parts, and always try to resolve any needed exchanges before evaluating the device.

That's a simple customer service matter if I've purchased it. But if I got it for free to begin with, I wind up either feeling a bit like a begger who's been given a dollar and asks for 25 cents more, or worried that the seller will think I'm just trying to get more free stuff, or both.

Another problem with soliciting samples is that it cuts me out of the normal customer service experience. I am dealing directly with the owner, or occasionally a marketing department. But they know who I am, and what it's for. I can't possibly extrapolate from that to how an ordinary customer is treated.

And it leaves open the possibility of them "cherry picking" the best possible unit, thus giving a deceptive impression. I haven't seen any sign of that yet. In fact, I am often surprised that they didn't seem to at least test them before shipping. But the possibility is there, and concerns me.

SO I am now starting to think about extablishing a revenue stream using affiliate links, and if I ever get a website set up, maybe advertisements. The primary goal would be to allow me to purchase devices for review, but of course I would hope for a decent surplus over that. ;)

But that brings me back to the ethical question. Professional media separates their advertising departments from their content producing departments, but that's not an option for amature bloggers.

There doesn't seem to be any consensus on the ethics of bloggers or amature reviewers and advertising. Opinions I found ranged from "if you can make money talking about something you enjoy, go for it," to others who say it's Ok as long as it's clearly disclosed, to those who view it as an inherent and unavoidable conflict of interests.

It's that latter that concerns me. Without my credibility, my reviews are an exercise in pointlessness. I may as well be talking to myself. My whole goal is to help other people, help inform them about the available options so they can find the best device for them. I can't help anyone if they can't trust my opinions.

I have already had a couple people say they don't trust me because I receive reviewer samples. One said that whether its a paycheck or merchandise, I am in "their" employ, and not independant or unbiased.

I take a bit of offense at that, but it is a legitimate criticism, and I can't just dismiss it. Accepting free samples is a bit of a comprimise between ethics and practicality, and advertising, affiliates, etc would be a bigger one.

OTOH, I've had others tell me not to worry everybody does it. That's not a very acceptable answer to me. I want to be on firmer ground than "if it's OK for them..."

The middle ground, total disclosure and transparancy, is of course the way to go if I do decide to do this. Well, not [I]TOTAL [/I]transparancy. I'm not going to open my books for public accounting, for example. But I would make it clear that this is an affiliate link, that is an advertisement, etc. And transparancy is also part of the reason for this post. I want an open discussion on this issue.

What do you all think? I am interested in everyone's thoughts, but there are a few people I especially want to hear from.

TBob, you were a professional journalist, I'm sure you have a good perspective to offer.

Smokey Joe, you aren't exactly in the same position as a webhost as if you were a reviewer, but it is somewhat similar ethical territory. You have advertisements, did you have trouble deciding to do that? Do you see any conflict, and if so, how did you resolve it for yourself?

KittyBurn, Pegaso, you all have your own sites, I imagine you have at least considered ads etc. What's your opinion? Do you or will you be promoting affiliate links? Why or why not?

Dusty, I know you have some affiliate links (and let me be clear I am NOT "calling you out" or criticising you on the issue), did you have similar concerns, and how did you resolve them? Have you received any criticism over it?

Parked, you're just beginning, but I KNOW you will soon be as influential a reviewer as Dusty and I, what's your opinion?

Trog, other than myself, you're one of the harshest critics I've had. You can push my buttons more than anyone I've ever dealt with, but I've never doubted you were being honest. If anyone would be willing to call me a sellout to my face, it's you. Would this make me a sellout?

Friends, foes, rivals, peers, admirers, critics, I really want to hear from everyone on this.

Have at it, then! :thumb:

Updated 01-21-2009 at 03:55 PM by leaford (Thought of a better title. Then fixed a few typos.)



  1. KittyBurn's Avatar
    That is funny you bring that up. I believe ads are OK for certain types of websites as long as they are not too intrusive and take away from the users comfort on the site!

    I have always had a no ad policy but when google adsense came out, it was less invasive and I usually ad at least one to all my sites.

    As for reviews, I have had many of the same internal conflicts as you have had. "is this really the costumer experience" "how do i review if the unit is defective" "Do I accept free units to review"

    Well usually if someone wants me to do a review I give them the option to send me a unit that i can return or keep. It is up to them.

    I don't think of it as a bribe but as something I can later use on my site as a prize or with my photography as a prop.

    Then my head is pretty clear when it comes to my reviews as I am not NEEDING these FREE units to do what I am doing.

    I find one of the best ways to get past the idea that something may be broken or a review may go sour is to offer an on the spot review. This is when you don't open the package until your camera is on.

    While these reviews may be a little more bland than say walking down the street shaky cam style, it allows you to give an honest first impression without repercussions, because you opened it RIGHT THERE for EVERYONE to see.

    Also with a background in film and knowing the aches and pains of youtube/advertising etc vs making money... You do not need to feel bad throwing a few adds or links to bring in the cash flow, this is YOUR time you give up and that is important.

    But what you do need to do is make sure your PR can MATCH or surpass any of your ads. If you let the free units or ads take down your quality or over shadow your passion and drive than people will notice.

    Hope that helps :)
  2. leaford's Avatar
    Thanks, Kitty. I'll wait to respond more until other have had their say, but as far as doing "unboxing" reviews goes, that was a choice I made back when I first began. Whether to do unboxings, first impressions, or the more detailed, comprehensive reviews I eventually chose. I decided on the longer evaluations basically because that was what I wanted to find when I was researching my first e-cigs. Seeing someone blow a few puffs is one thing, but I wanted to know more than that. And I wanted to serve as a check against the outrageous claims about cartridge and battery life. Unboxings are fine, they serve a good purpose. But in the end, it's not my purpose.

    Besides, Dusty does them very well, so that need is already served in our little community.
  3. efaglil's Avatar
    I found your first article really interesting Leaford. Your style is very engaging. :)

    For what it's worth, I think you should go for it.

    There will always be cynics but you know what? Doesn't matter. So long as you stay true to what you really believe and maintain the trust and respect of the guys around you, you'll do just fine.

    If your reviews don't live up to what they stand for people will realise soon enough and will simply stop listening. If they're not listening, the suppliers won't ask you to review and then you're back to square one (feeling a little sh-tty 'cos you "sold your soul." Something tells me that won't happen.

    You've already made the first step by being completely honest and open about it. So I say, "Fill yer boots laddie!"
  4. Trumpybloke's Avatar
    G'Day Leaford, my take on this is pretty simple. I think I have a fairly well developed Bull-shyte meter .... You and Dusty are probably the only 2 serious reviewers I have seen that haven't set it off LOL Like anything in the world its caveat emptor as far as the buyer of a product is concerned , as a reviewer its simply up to you to point out the good or bad aspects as you see them ,the job of drawing the market place to a product might be yours , but the purchasing power still lies with the person holding the cash. Both you and Dusty have a straight forward impartiality to the products that you play with I feel , and this comes across .. trust your instincts , and better still i think you should realise that your ethics shine thru in every video review I have seen you in .... If a supplier sends you a product , I sure as hell dont think your morals would let you rave it up just for a paycheck ??? I could be wrong , but I dont think so .... Credibility is a hard thing to pinpoint, but I think you have it , because your moral compass tends to steer you well , even in the creating of your article here, if you dont lose sight of it , it wont become a problem .
    Keep up the great work , and I'm sure Mike wouldn't hang around if you were a bad bloke ............or is he just after the seed LOL
  5. leaford's Avatar
    Thanks everyone for the kind comments and for your support and understanding. I was hoping this would be the case. I know, some people have told me privately I am overthinking it, and worrying too much. Maybe I am.

    Of course my reviewing standards and objective approach will not change. They are part and parcel of who I am. My concern wasn't whether I would acquire a bias, but whether a bias would be PERCEIVED.

    Honesty, Integrity, Ethics, those are things you own yourself. You can lose them, or throw them away, but no one can take them from you. Credibility and respect, though, are given to you by others, and can be taken away by them. And, they may take a long time to earn, but can still be lost in a heartbeat.

    I'm glad I won't be throwing away your respect, won't lose my credibility in your eyes.

    I've pretty much decided to go for it, but it will take some time to implement, so there's still time to hear contrary views. And I actually hope I do get some. If nothing else it will provoke thought and discussion, which is always good.
  6. paxes's Avatar
    Hi Leaford,
    As a supplier of one of the products you purchased and reviewed, I too think you should go for it. You have been here long enough for people to realise your not in it for getting a freebie and your reviews are honest and informative. Your posts are never promoting one supplier over another, unlike many other users on the site.

    Even though you dont do out of box reviews I think you should add how long the product has been in use for as certainly in my review the vapour shown seemed to be quite diminished from what I would have expected.

    Anyway whatever you decide you cant go wrong with being completely honest as I know you already do.
  7. leaford's Avatar
    Thanks, Paxes! And if you want, I would love to re-review your 89mm DSE-101b. I agree I never did a proper review, it was more of a mini review; and as I said in one of the reply threads at the time, the dang thing needed a cleaning or something.

    But to be clear, the score I gave it for vapor production wasn't based on how it was performing during the demo, but on how it had been performing during the evaluation period (that's always the case). About a 2, or 2.5 at best on my 1 to 5 scale, IIRC. ;)

    But getting back to the topic, I appreciate your confidence, and I think I am going to go for it.

    Go see my second Blog post, for more info... :D
  8. leaford's Avatar
    BTW, even though I've made my decision, I'd still like comments, especially from anyone critical of my decision. Got a problem with it? Let's discuss. ;)
  9. Singalo's Avatar
    Hi Leaford, don't be too harsh with yourself. People feel a million of negative things but those feelings are not real. Unfotunately there is only that much that one can do.
    I personally believe that you are very onest in your reviews and I trust you more than any others but is crucial that you belive it too! Like my friend use to say: it is what it is.
    Ciao and good luck
  10. nicowolf's Avatar
    Leaford, what you do is a tightrope walk. You must always maintain a balance of credibility and feasibility. I think your questioning yourself lends to your credibility. As for ads, we understand that they pay the bills and we are in no way obligated to by from the advertisers. I do, however think that banner ads are the equivalent of selling your soul. It is giving the advertiser top priority over your content. Mannerly ads that are placed out of the way, not overtop of your content, are pragmatic and do not detract from your e-cig cred. Accepting review copies is ok in my eyes and so is soliciting them and asking for replacement parts in order to do the review. The supplier/manufacturer wants a credible review and that is why they are sending you the merchandise. They can get any number of people to sell their endorsement or to be spokespeople. A credible review can make or break a product, and thus, is crucial to a manufacturer. The real criteria for credibility is lack of bias and/or commercial interest. As long as you are doing the reviews fairly, supporting your own daily e-cig habit, this should not be a problem. I have faith in you. You have earned the credibility and the respect you now enjoy. You better believe you will be called out if we ever suspect a nondisclosed conflict of interest. Trog may call us happy bunnies, but we can also be vicious, rabid bunnies if we feel we are being played or conned - not that you would, just that you can rest assured that you will hear about it at the first sign of impropriety. Overall, go for it, we'll share our thoughts honestly with you at every step of the journey. That can be your guide - public opinion of your credibility.
  11. Pleased2BHere's Avatar
    Hey Leaford,
    Your reviews have always seemed genuine and so long as you keep that up, I see no real problem with soliciting or taking freebies. There will always be nasayers and that is just part of the game, but the bulk of the audience can tell what is what.
    As far as ads, they will likely just reflect what you liked so I doubt it will impact your situation and we all are a little afraid of the wolf at the door about now so I would not think less of you for taking them on. Keep up the good work!
  12. e-pipeman's Avatar
    I have always enjoyed your reviews as they have been written clearly and with conviction. I also enjoy your dry wit! Keep at it - you do not strike me as the sort of individual whose integrity would be compromised by reviewing a freebie.
  13. igetcha's Avatar
    hi leaford,

    i am in the mere beginings of becoming a reviewer but i already recieve emails from various suppliers and even regular consumers who want my address to send me "freebies". when i done my 1st ever video review on the mirage electronic cigarette about 6 weeks ago i actually done it as a "one off". it was only after the positive reactions from people that i thought i might do another one.....and then another one etc. like yourself, i was as 1st purchasing e-cigs, juice etc out of my own pocket just so i could try the product and if i liked it, do a review. (i personally dont bother doing a review on a product if i cant give it at least 6 out of 10........i cant be bothered to waste my time on a product that i dislike or am not impressed by!)
    but like i said, i soon began to recieve products in the post from suppliers who were "hoping for a good review". this then also made me question the ethics of recieving freebies and i must admit that i almost felt a sense of obligation to love it. and your reference to begging for a dollar and then asking for 25 cents more is spot on. a coupe of times now i have recieved freebies for the purpose of a review only to find them defective and had to ask for them to be replaced. i wont name names, but one supplier sent me a bottle of their new menthol juice that they were going to release soon but when i tried it i soon discovered that the manufacturer of it had not added any menthol! i felt pretty awkward having to email them and ask for a new bottle to be sent out and all i could think was "i wonder if they think im lying just so i get another free bottle?" on the plus side though, that supplier then cancelled the several thousand ml of juice that they ordered and are now looking for a more reputable company to deal with.

    i also agree about its important to mention customer service when doing a review and when recieving freebies it does not make that possible. my 1st review on the EVO was via purchasing from them so i felt completely comfortable about talking of the customer service i experienced. however, my recent review on the black EVO was a freebie so i didnt mention my customer service experience and i honestly feel as though it let the review down in some way as opinions of customer service are a valuable tool for a viewer who may be interested in making a purchase.

    i think that the most important thing when doing these reviews is honesty.......but in many ways that can also lead to downfall. for example, the review i done for the original EVO showed how happy i was with it as a consumer and how enthusiastic i was about the performance of the product. since then, i get asked hundreds of questions on it and because of the kind of person i am i always make sure to answer everybody that sends me a pm, email or youtube message. by doing that and for showing enthusiasm for a product, i now get many nasty PMs and emails from people on this forum accusing me of working for intellicig or even actually owning the company! for as many people who have said i helped them, there are probably just as many people who think im fake and not to be trusted........probably quite a few of those people have responded to your blog here!

    so, i think that provided your reviews remain true and honest......who cares if it was a freebie or a purchase. if you can find a way to raise revenue for the purpose of purchasing e-cig related products then that is definitely the way to go. that way you still get the product for the purpose of a review without having to spend the cash from your own pocket whilst still being able to make honest opinions on the levels of customer service. if a website with adverts make that possible then you should go for it mate!

    i will be honest and say that i have not seen too many of your reviews. but from the ones that i have viewed i notice that regardless of whether you like or dislike the product, you remain quite placid and restrained. kinda non judgemental either way if that makes sense. i think that approach is maybe something i should try to adopt for future reviews as my enthusiasm seems to be good to some people but also leads to a lack of trust from others.

    good luck with what ever your final decision will be,


  14. louis's Avatar
    Continue to review & post your honest evaluations.
    Even if they are bad just remind everyone that these are your own opinion & their results may be different.
    If a vendor wants an honest opinion he won't mind but probably not send you any more "freebies" to review, so it's a thin line you will have to walk.
    Anyway to look at it is that if a vendor hasn't done their QC before send you the product it will be like the example you cited. You did them a favor man.

    Keep on Vapin & reviewing.
  15. igetcha's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by louis
    Continue to review & post your honest evaluations.
    Even if they are bad just remind everyone that these are your own opinion & their results may be different.
    If a vendor wants an honest opinion he won't mind but probably not send you any more "freebies" to review, so it's a thin line you will have to walk.
    Anyway to look at it is that if a vendor hasn't done their QC before send you the product it will be like the example you cited. You did them a favor man.

    Keep on Vapin & reviewing.
    lol, cheers Louis for the support

    my original post in this blog was over 2 years ago now and i had forgotten that i had even posted here!