In the course of my blogging life, I’ve reviewed a handful of things, including software, gadgets, and even food. Most of these I’ve bought myself, either out of curiosity or need (of course I need to eat!). But some have been sent in by companies who ask to be featured. And yes, I do admit having written a couple of sponsored reviews before.
The concept of being sent stuff for review is not new to me. I run dozens of personal and Splashpress-run blogs, and I get contacted about anything from parenting books, WiFi gadgets, personal apparel, coffee, software, and the like. I can understand that manufacturers and sellers of these would have no qualms in giving away $50 gadgets in exchange for links and publicity.
As for big-ticket items, I’ve been lent a few laptops, but those I have had to return within a few weeks’ time. And so I was a bit surprised when SonyEricsson representatives in my region invited me for a meeting, and gave me a review unit of their latest Xperia X1. I asked how long I could use it, and they said that as far as they’re concerned, the smartphone was mine. And they also gave review units to 10 newspaper journalists and three other bloggers.
And it was no $50 gadget, of course. More like $900.
And so this has made me think about the implications of being given “gifts” for review. When you buy yourself something, you usually feel comfortable writing about both the good and bad sides. And if your review is mostly negative, you would have no qualms about hitting the publish button. But somehow, when you get a freebie, would you still feel comfortable pointing out the bad side?
Think about this from another perspective–from the giver’s. If you gave out freebies, how would you feel if the feedback was bad? Sure, if someone said your restaurant’s food is a bit bland or a bit too expensive, you can definitely do something about it. And that’s constructive criticism, which can help you down the road. But isn’t it different with a $1,000 gadget that you’ve already produced, boxed and marketed? What if it was a lemon? A dud? Buyers do take online reviews seriously these days, and potential customers might shy away from your product if they see mostly bad feedback.
Or is there such a thing as bad publicity at all?
Here’s one question that remains in my mind. What’s the difference between writing a sponsored post and reviewing a freebie? Surely, the mode of “payment” is different, in that a sponsored post is paid outright in cash, while with a freebie you get an item of value, but that you may not necessarily convert to cash.
Reading the fine print, I found out that my Xperia X1 was a marked as a prototype unit, which was “not for sale.” And so while the phone was worth a thousand bucks, it couldn’t exactly be converted into a thousand bucks in cash. Does this make it less valuable? Maybe, and maybe not. Does this make my writing a review less of a sell-out? Maybe, and maybe not.
I know this has been a big issue before, but with the blogosphere arguably growing to be more mature in this day and age, is there now any much difference with how we thought of sponsored reviews before?
In my reviews, I do try to be balanced, and I try to avoid any bias. And lest I be accused of selling out, I do try to be as transparent as possible, especially in disclosing whether an item was given or whether a review was sponsored. But from the point of view of a seasoned blog reader, how do you feel when reading reviews when you know a blogger was given something in exchange? And does it make a difference if there was proper disclosure?