Freebie vs. For Review: What's the Difference?

Feb 162010
 

kitchenscaleA blogger thought she got a product for free, then was asked to return it. On a listserv, she wrote:

“A PR person contacted me, representing a large cookware store. ‘If they could do anything for me…let them know.’ I told them I was testing bread cookbooks and could use a scale. If they could work somemagic on that end…great!

“The response I got was a link to their entire kitchen scale inventory and was told ‘pick one.’ I did. They sent it. I haven’t received it yet, but in an e-mail with the UPS tracking code I was told, ‘Once you have finished testing, can you please send it back to the corporate office?’ (address included)

“I’m astonished! When I questioned it, they said it was a ‘media loan’ and ‘The normal procedure is to loan the product, media tests it and then returns it.’ This was never made clear in the initial e-mails.”

I didn’t understand why she was astonished until later, when she said this same company has sent her free product in the past. This time, however, a  public relations (PR) person approached her. Usually PR people deal with the media and are the ones to handle a review. The blogger was not doing a review. She sent the scale back, unopened.

What are the takeaway lessons here? The main one for me is that bloggers can get confused. They are offered and sent lots of freebies. Should they take them? I say no, because I think bloggers are no different from journalists. To remain objective, people who write aren’t supposed to take free product and expensive meals.

There’s an exception, of course. Reviewers (those who critique, whether in print or online) can take free books because it’s accepted to do so. As for other review items, reviewers are supposed to return them, especially if the company says so or the products have value, such as kitchen appliances. Sometimes, however, the company says reviewers can keep things.

Is this confusing?

I’ve discussed freebies and how to deal with them in the past, so let’s not rehash. Mostly I would like to know:  Are you confused? If you’re a blogger, is it hard to differentiate between freebies and review product? Are you asked to return things or told to keep them?

  28 Responses to “Freebie vs. For Review: What's the Difference?”

  1. I have not been blogging very long, but my experience has been that I found a product I enjoyed, wrote about it, then the distributor found my posting and sent me free stuff as a “Thank You.” Works for me. The genuine enjoyment of a product you discovered on your own can’t be replaced by one that is sent to you — no matter how great it is or how much you enjoy it.
    Just my two cents!
    (Thank you Dianne for your great blog.)

    • I like your attitude Michael. It helps if the things you write about are inexpensive. I’ve managed reviews for products that cost thousands of dollars, and there’s no way the magazine could have purchased them.

  2. In college, I majored in both anthropology and communication. In anthropology, we were taught to remain unbiased in our participation/observation research writing. For instance, if we were researching cannabalism and how the food was cooked and eaten, we were to remain unbiased and non-judgemental, we just reported the facts. In communication, however,we were taught to present both sides of the story(the good and the bad, the pros and cons) and then to present our own persuasive arguments.

    The quote, “To remain objective, people who write aren’t supposed to take free product and expensive meals.”, is really the important part.
    I agree that we may become biased, feel pressured or obligated in some way if we take freebies. Feeling obligated and pressured is no fun and it takes the joy out of writing.

    So, if someone approaches me with a free offer, I should consider declining. This doesn’t mean that I can’t be excited and passionate about my original story ideas. If I wasn’t passionate about the story, I probably shouldn’t be writing it in the first place.

    • Much has been written on whether people can be truly unbiased and non-judgmental. How fascinating that you learned to both report and persuade. I take it from your last paragraph that you’re more interested in the latter.

      I don’t know if you should always decline a free thing. You need to look at why it is offered to you, and what the expectation is, and whether you are abusing your power by taking things for your own personal use.

  3. This is definitely confusing. If you’re ok with keeping review products, I say the best policy is to ask up front – is this a loaner or must it be returned? Then there’s no confusion.

    Simplistic, I know.

    • What if you want it and it’s supposed to be returned? Then it gets complicated.Some people are inclined to “forget” to return it.

    • Actually, I would take just the opposite approach, Stephanie. I would assume up front that ALL product is to be returned, and if offered after the review is posted, and only after the review is posted, then it is OK to accept it. But if you know up front that the product is a freebie, it will color your review, because you may feel obligated to write something good because you got something free.

      I write reviews for technical products, but the understanding is the same. First, we are not allowed to write about any product we have purchased. Often, if you paid for a product but did not like it, you will be less objective than if you did not pay for it. Same on the positive side. Our web publication makes it clear that ALL product will be returned, and we even tell the PR and companies up front that they must provide return postage or a shipping account number to handle the return. Often, after the review is completed, the company will say “… just keep it…” but we do not expect that, nor are we allowed to ask. We can ask to purchase the item after the review, and I have done so on a few occasions, often being offered a discount. Our exceptions are usually software and books, which are seldom requested back.

      In this case Dianne mentions, why would a company simply offer the blogger a free product out of the blue? There is usually a catch, and typically that catch is you will write something positive. That catch already has a bias if you accept.

      If they let you keep it after the fact, then that is their decisions. But to expect free stuff is just wrong.

      • It’s nice to have someone who has reviewed for years weigh in. Thanks.

      • Having a policy against paying is really interesting–I would never had thought that would be the case (though it make sense when coupled with a policy to return).

        I used to have a housemate who worked for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety–you know, the folks who crash test and rate cars. Their policy is to not only buy every car they test, but to pay sticker-price. I bet the car sales folks LOVE it when the IHS comes around.

        • Wow. They had deep pockets (courtesy of the American taxpayer) to go with their ethics. Unlike bloggers, I’m afraid.

  4. I was doing a web search just the other day on some non-food topic and noticed that the results included a blogger’s review of ActiFry. Since I had just seen (and mocked) the add for the first time the night before, I couldn’t resist checking out what the guy had to say.

    It was interesting because the blogger made it clear that he had a policy against doing product reviews and was making an exception in this case to satisfy his curiosity about the machine (which claims to “fry” potatoes in just a tablespoon or two of oil. And, smack me down if he didn’t convince me that it might not be a completely stupid product! I’m certainly not going to buy one (not least of all because I have a teensy, tiny NYC kitchen), but I was a bit surprised at how a blog posting could influence my opinion so much.

    • Yep, that’s David Lebovitz in action, doing something outside his comfort zone. And wouldn’t you just know it, even though he went to all that effort to explain, his very first commenter said, “Oh, how I wish my blog had a big enough readership to beg one for myself… “

  5. It certainly sounds confusing! Bloggers should always have a clear policy in writing before accepting anything from a company. If you know something has to be returned you will think twice about accepting anything offered to you. I would be annoyed if that scale incident happened to me!

    I have never accepted free products offered to me simply because I find it would be difficult to be objective in a review. It’s difficult to write a negative review of a free product if it was given to me with the intention of persuading me to write a favorable review. Also I wouldn’t want to be mean. Negative reviews are a bit pointless.

    I have written a few blog posts encouraging people to buy items that I have purchased and love (including holiday gift recommendations) based solely on my personal enjoyment of those products. I was always clear about my personal connection to the product so as not to give anyone the idea that I was paid (with money or free goods) for my recommendation.

    • Erika, my you are catching up with your comments today! Lucky for me.

      I wouldn’t think twice about accepting a product for review that had to be returned if I thought my readers would benefit from knowing about it (as Ethan mentioned re the Lebovitz post). Re reviews being positive or negative, most bloggers feel (wrongly in my opinion) that they can only promote products in their blogs. The best reviews list pros and cons (again, like the Lebovitz post). Totally negative reviews are rare. I don’t think they’re pointless when it’s something expensive that was announced with lots of fanfare.

  6. I’m glad you noted that cookbooks are an exception. I’ve had various discussions about freebies and some people just don’t get the review book situation.

    Am I confused about other items? Yes. Sometimes you have to take freebies to research a new item. How can you test a new variety of apples not available in stores without being given them? You can’t return them and you can’t buy your own, so where does this fall?

    • Yes, it’s a standard thing to accept free books from publishers.

      Re the apples, if there’s no other way to research them, there’s no problem with accepting free apples. The issue is their availability. There’s no point in writing about them unless your readers can buy them.

  7. I read the Lebovitz post when it came out, and I didn’t feel the least bit compelled to buy one, so I guess the takeaway from an article is subjective. (I thought, “Those fries look good, but show me the truffles!”) Then again, some of those I’m-ready-to-buy-one comments may have merely been from the “Looks Delicious” camp.

    • Well, I’m not sure why you should have felt compelled. His job was to review, not promote. I think there’s a lot of confusion about this in reviewing. I feel a post coming on.

  8. At least the PR person didn’t “invite” her to review the product in exchange for free samples. And went on to say that “ideally” they’d want the “blog entry to be positive in tone and include where to purchase” the product. And finally, “If you find that you do not like” the product, “we ask you not to write about it.”

    I honestly laughed at this email but I think a local publication fell for it because I saw them write about said product shortly after.

    My blog doesn’t have a huge readership and I don’t really write about products so I’ve only gotten a handful of offers to review them. I’ve always declined but I agree that if it’s something that your readership would be interested in and you can share your experience testing the product with pros and cons, it’s not bad.

  9. I’d love to hear you tackle this same issue with regard to press trips. To me, that’s the trickiest topic of all. Can’t be lent, can’t be returned… either you take it, or you decline. Talk about confusing…

    • Hmmm. Can you give me an example of a tricky situation you’ve been in? Maybe email me or give me a call. I don’t have an opinion right off the top of my head (how unusual!).

  10. My situation is maybe unique to most if not all of your readers. I live in Asia, where it is fairly common for resto reviewers to be comped (invited even) and usually make themselves known to restos when they arrive to eat there. (Which is why I learned long ago not to trust reviews I read here.) For 16 months I was the Food Editor at Time Out Kuala Lumpur. I only agreed to the job when I was assured that Time Out has a strict ‘anonymous reviewer’ policy. I and my Exec Ed had to constantly drill it into the heads of local reviewer hirees (or freelancers) that (1) you go in anonymously and (2) you pay for the entire meal — concepts that are totally foreign here.

    I have found that most food bloggers here (in Asia) have totally jumped onto that bandwagon, telling themselves and their readers that ‘as long as I tell you the resto’s PR person invited me and comped me the meal my review is still legit.’ Food blogging is often seen as a road to wining and dining and traveling on someone else’s nickel.

    I don’t get alot of product offers, but when I do I refuse them. (I make an exception for cookbooks — and I advise whoever queries about sending me a book that (1) I may or may not get around to reviewing it, as my schedule allows; and (2) if I do review it I’ll do so honestly, ie. I’ll try a few recipes and take it to bed with me to read and if it doesn’t appeal to me or the recipes are lacking that will go into the review — hopefully in a thoughtful way.)

    It’s not that I fear I couldn’t write an unbiased review; I’m sure I could. But when I read a positive review of a product that’s been comped, I just can’t help but second-guess it. I don’t care if a blogger writes ‘XYZ Bistro invited me to sample their food and offer an unbiased critique’ — if the critique is positive (even it deserves to be!) I am suspicious. And I just can’t help but think that I have readers who would do the same if I had a (honestly) positive review of something I’d gotten for free. (Postage is prohibitive — there’s no way I would pay to ship something back to the States or wherever.)

    (I read D Leibovitz’ review of the fryer and I have to admit he really finessed it. I believe his review.)

    SeattleTallPoppy recently tweeted a link to a food blogger’s (I think) manifesto, something along the lines of ‘What Food Bloggers Want’. One was ‘To be treated like bona fide media’ ie. have access to press junkets and free goods and entry to events, etc. Perhaps it wasn’t elegantly written, but actually am bona fide media, and my immediate reaction was “Excuse me, but not all bona fide media accept freebies! I certainly don’t.”

    I didn’t get into food blogging or writing for print and other media on food, travel, culture etc. for the freebies. Sometimes I feel that with the lines blurring between blogdom and traditional media the behavior of the one reflects on the other. When you’ve got bloggers clamoring for free trips, meals, booze, whatever because they want to be treated like ‘bona fide media’ then that leads some to believe that ‘bona fide media’ is all about free trips, meals, booze, and etc. I have occasionally detected the slight sneer when I identify myself to a restaurant owner or hotel manager as a writer working on a story (not a review; I don’t identify myself for reviews) — they expect the next words out of my mouth to be a request for a discount or a comped room or meal. And that is thanks to those who’ve come before me.

    Bottom line is, I don’t accept free stuff bec I think that doing so calls into question my objectivity — or it *gives the appearance* of my being less than objective. (Some of my assignments are for more ‘newsy’ than others.) Part of that concern stems from writing for publications like Wall Street Journal or NYT that have strict ‘ethics codes’ for contributors and freelancers. But mostly it’s about doing what keeps me comfortable in my own skin.

    (A related issue — publications are paying so little these days, and many don’t cover expenses or don’t cover all expenses. What is a writer to do? It’s only natural in this instance to ask for discounts on rooms, meals, etc for coverage in an article, right?)

    One last thing — Dianne, you responded to my tweet that a positive review in exchange for a free meal = an advertisement by saying ‘not necessarily’. I hope you’ll elaborate on that, here or in another post.

    Let me add finally that I have been enjoying this series of posts, from the perspective of both a blogger and a writer for traditional media.

    • Wow Robyn! Thank you. I’m so pleased that you took this off Twitter. Can you imagine fitting your comment into a series of 140-word posts?

      One of the fundamental problems for bloggers is that no one’s reimbursing them for expenses. From that standpoint, unless they’re making lots of money from ads (unlikely), paying for meals, trips etc. comes out of their own pockets. It’s not so different for freelance writers these days, because what they get paid doesn’t always cover their expenses either. I think lots of them take freebies too, and ask for discounts.

      The question is: if you get it for free, can you write objectively about it, and discuss the cons? Yes. But most bloggers choose not to. Perhaps the reason why is unsaid: They’re afraid they’ll be crossed off the list because they’ve said something less than positive.

      Re your question about whether a positive review = free advertising…In theory, yes, because it’s better than placing an ad, and it cost the restaurant or company nothing. Some reviews can be straightforward without gushing or promoting. I’m concerned about writers who think they need to promote a product just because they got it for free and like it.

  11. Boy, I love coming to your site, such great concepts under discussion.

    I’ve now been getting the PR folks and more contacting me for reviews. I haven’t responded to many so far. For the most part, I’m not sure how to handle it yet. Ads too. I’ve been getting requests for ads and I still don’t see that as much different than product review.

    Still ruminating on this for my own work…

    • Oh good. I appreciate your comments, Cheryl — they certainly add to the discussion.

      I hope you get some ideas on how to handle reviews from the discussions. If not, feel free to bring up questions and I will do my best to answer. Maybe other people will chime in too.

      What do you mean that you’ve been getting requests for ads? You’re referring to some kind of writing?

  12. Dianne,

    As always, I appreciate you opening the dialog on these topics.

    We’ve had many conversations around the topic of providing a true review and not being bashful about assessing the pros and cons. In the past, I was afraid I would alienate chefs, authors, etc. with a more candid review. Until recently, I avoided reviews because I was unsure how to handle them. I’m still on the learning curve but my first couple reviews, I called out some shortcomings and had both authors and publicists thank me. It was a pleasant surprise.

    RE: Restaurant Reviews. As a blogger the challenge is not having the financial backing of an organization to provide a comprehensive review. This is another reason why I avoid doing restaurant reviews, having worked a number of years in the restaurant industry, I realize that a sampling of two or three dishes is not a solid overview of a restaurant’s ability. However, I recognize I do have influence in this area and bear Michael Bauer’s excellent “How To Evaluate Restaurants” in mind: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/mbauer/detail?blogid=26&entry_id=4946

    RE: Other Perks: Going forward, I’m taking a cue from Robyn above and establishing a stated policy. She says, “1) I may or may not get around to reviewing it, as my schedule allows; and (2) if I do review it I’ll do so honestly, ie. I’ll try a few recipes and take it to bed with me to read and if it doesn’t appeal to me or the recipes are lacking that will go into the review — hopefully in a thoughtful way.)

    This, I must admit, is especially difficult as many of my friends are writing books these days. One author, I loved her blog, hated her book. Of course she’s expecting a favorable review and has nudged me by e-mail and Twitter several times “I hope you like it!” I’ve elected to not write about it since there’s so little about the book I enjoy. It’s a very awkward situation and frankly, I’m still trying to figure out how to handle it. Perhaps you or others here would have some suggestions?

    ~T

    • Hi Traca, nice to hear from you.

      So good to read that your reviews mentioned some cons and got a positive response from the publicists and authors. That should be heartening for bloggers who are worried about saying anything negative.

      I’m pleased that you’re establishing a policy. I’ve talked about that in a previous blog post.

      That’s a super list from Michael Bauer. I think he wrote that as a feature article years ago, And — sorry to put in a plug here — I wrote 9,000 words on how to write restaurant reviews in Will Write for Food.

      Re the blogger, since she keeps emailing you, maybe it’s better to just tell her you’ve chosen not to review it. Anyone else have a good suggestion?

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.