Skip to Content
Skip to Table of Contents

← Previous Article Next Article →

ATPM 13.04
April 2007





Download ATPM 13.04

Choose a format:

Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Chris Lawson,

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TAB very wisely rescinded this offer within 12 hours of posting it, after wide and vociferous condemnation.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

Reader Comments (4)

bill h · April 8, 2007 - 19:01 EST #1
Thanks for your interesting editorial---today was the first time I had visited the atpm site.

Your story reminds me of the day I found out that many industry pubs "sell" the articles in a manner that is linked with advertising. I thought a description of that "linkage" might be of interest to you. Here's my story:

I worked in the printing industry for 25 years. I worked for medium-sized firms, during most of my career (approx 100 employees), and being a curious sort in a competitive industry, I was always curious about other printers that we competed with---what kind of equipment they had, what types of jobs they printed, who their customers were, etc. So, I read the three big magazines in our industry regularly: American Printer, Graphic Arts Monthly, and Printing Impressions. Often there would be articles about printers we competed with, both in California and elsewhere, and I just figured that the reporters at these magazines looked around for stories and reported on them.

Then one day, I was pleasantly surprised to see that MY company was featured in a story in one of these industry magazines. One of the managers at our company mentioned something about "it was all arranged by our Kodak rep", (we used a lot of Kodak film, plates, chemicals, and equipment). I didn't understand what that meant at the time, but years later I found out.

At a later date, I had changed companies, and I was working with an advertising agency, who was working on an ad campaign that appeared in a bunch of "industry publications". They explained that all they had to do was buy ads in each publication, and then the publication would write an article featuring their product---frequently disguised as a news article about a company that used the product, instead of just a "press release" about the product.

This blew my mind, but when I went back and looked at the printing magazine articles about printers again, it made perfect sense. Buried inside of each article was in-depth detail about some type of equipment that the printer used, and details about how that equipment worked, that wouldn't normally appear in a straight "news" article. And of course the company that "sponsored" the article had a big ad in the magazine.

My friend further explained that the companies who "sponsored" the "stories" not only got their product described in depth in the "articles", in a believable format, but also, they could use this "tool" to sell more products and to gain new accounts.

Here's how that worked. Of course there was a lot of competition in the business for these suppliers---gaining a new account for printing supplies was very lucrative, as was selling a new printing press or scanner, etc. Since most printing shop owners are essentially small businessmen (even in these medium-sized companies), it would be an easy matter to sweeten the deal, by promising the owner of the shop that he could have an article in a national printing magazine, perhaps even be featured on the cover, in exchange for purchasing a big piece of equipment, or perhaps switching from Kodak to DuPont for materials, or something similar. So the companies that supplied the printing industry benefitted in both ways---they got their products mentioned within an article in a believable way, and they also were able to promise "articles" to potential clients in their quest for new business.

Hope the above was informative.
Bill H -
Angus Wong · April 12, 2007 - 23:03 EST #2
If journalists are not paid, who will report the news and how will we know it is the truth?

If doctors are not paid, who will heal the sick and how will we know they aren't killing people?

If teachers are not paid, who will share knowledge and how will we know what they teach is accurate?

If programmers are not paid, who will write quality programs and share their source code?

If citizens are not... hmmm, better stop here. ;-)
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · April 12, 2007 - 23:17 EST #3
Angus - I see where you're going, but there's a flaw in your logic.

The first half of the flaw is assuming that journalists and product reviewers are the same thing. They most certainly am not. I actually perform both functions for completely separate organizations (reviews for ATPM and journalism for my day job). I can say first hand the two are not the same.

The second half is your understanding of what a journalist does.

Journalists haven't really "reported the news" since I was a youngster. I'll be 37 in July.

Ever since a little program called 60 Minutes where station owners and shareholders realized that news could actually pull ratings and be profitable, journalists only sensationalize the news—not report it.
http// · July 15, 2011 - 15:28 EST #4
"Mr. Madison, we are all dumber now, having listened to you." I agree that Billy Madison definitely deserves "classic" status. I also agree that it's a bit of an ethical dilemma reviewers face. I think the policy of purchasing products for review is an excellent one, whether the product be computers or toasters or BMW repair.

Add A Comment

 E-mail me new comments on this article