The Ethics of Reviewing Giveaways

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?

12 thoughts on “The Ethics of Reviewing Giveaways

  1. Interesting idea! I think I will be raffling off the Xperia X1, then!

    Seriously, I could perhaps raffle off the smaller items first. I don’t think SonyEricsson would appreciate my raffling off their phone at this point as they might feel I didn’t like it.

    This leads me to another question. If I keep on giving away the review stuff I receive, will it not make me look like a disinterested reviewer? It’s like me saying “This stuff is really great. But I’m giving it away to someone after I write about it, and maybe that someone will have better use of it.”

    Compare that with me writing about how I use a gadget or gizmo everyday and about how it helps me work better or play better (or otherwise). I guess that would make for a better review rather than posting a few product shots, first impressions and some specs.

    Any thoughts on this?

  2. The other thing I almost always do is pass on the stuff I’m asked if I’d review to my readers in contests. I have kept a few medical devices I use with my patients, but otherwise I try it, then give it away. This works nicely with books, relaxation tapes, CD’s, etc.

    I have also written to many companies to request a review copy of their product. I tell them I have a blog and a medical practice, and would like to try their product. I tell them if I like it, I’ll review it on my blog. Most say yes and send me the product.

  3. Accepting gifts for review is never going to make for a fair review. The best thing you can do is put yourself in the shoes of your reader, who is going to be forking over $900, which is a good chunk of change.

  4. I’ve worked as a magazine writer in the past and I have received review copies of various items. While some mags like Consumer Reports claim to purchase everything they test to avoid bias, most consumer mags rely on items lent to them by the manufacturer for reviews.

    I have road tested numerous new cars when I was writing about the auto industry. I can assure you I didn’t get to keep any of them, but I was able to drive them for a week or two before taking them back. I believe the arrangement is the same with most high-ticket items; the manufacturer lends an item to a publication to test for a specified period. At the end of the evaluation period, the publication has to send the item back. Low cost items, such as books, music and certain software are usually given outright to the reviewer, because neither side wants to get involved with packing, shipping and tracking small-ticket items. When the sticker on a item inches north of a hundred dollars, however, most companies prefer to lend reviewers the merchandise for testing, rather then giving it to them.

    Why should it be different for bloggers? If a blogger receives merchandise to keep, I think they need to inform their readers, because that merchandise could influence their report. If they receive merchandise for testing, with understanding that they have to send it back after a period of time, I feel there is much less of a concern that the review will be tainted.

    If the blog regularly reviews items and does a good job of writing fair reviews without favoritism or bias, most readers could care less if the items were purchased, given as a gift or loaned to the blogger for evaluation. In the end, it is all about trust.

    Tom Bonner is the author of the Sony Alpha DSLR-A300/A350 Digital Field Guide from Wiley press. He blogs regularly at

  5. It’s interesting to note how the monetary value of a giveaway affects our thinking about whether it’s ethical to accept it.

    Now this is a good one. I have not thought too much about the ethics of receiving review items until now. Previously I thought it wouldn’t hurt to receive stuff worth $20, $50 or even $100. As long as it’s being sent to me in good will, I would also write about these in good will (and promptly return the item if requested or required so). But this is a different case because of the value.

    And so do we come to a double standard? Is it okay to keep on receiving free stuff if they cost just a few bucks? And then if it’s a bit expensive we do pause a while and consider the implications?

    Models sometimes get to keep the designer clothes they use on the runway. What’s the ethics behind that? Do they earn the right to keep those, perhaps as a bonus or perk from the job? How about the cost? Don’t designer clothes cost big bucks? Or is it marketing on the part of the designer anyway? (In hindsight, HP’s marketing folks here were very happy that I had a TV appearance showing the Mini note they sold to me at discount.)

    What if someone asked me to review a car? What if I were told I could keep it? That would probably make me pause and think a bit longer.

  6. Yehuda,

    Although not necessarily obvious, many people are reluctant to give bad reviews to items on which they spent their own money, especially a lot of money, because they don’t want to appear foolish to others, or even just to themselves.

    I would rather warn others about not making similar mistakes–that way, even if I make a fool out of myself, I feel good about helping others make better decisions. At the very least, if I purchase an item that turns out to be a dud, I could ask for replacements or refunds (although this depends on the consumer laws in one’s country or region). Or, perhaps if it’s a concrete item, I could sell it to someone who would find it of value.

    I like your points about disclosure. From the many blogs I read, some would often post reviews or mini-reviews about gadgets and sometimes I wonder if those reviews were summarized from online reviews elsewhere, or if the reviewer constantly receives gadgets and stuff for review, or if he/she spends out-of-pocket for those. If there was no disclosure, at some point readers are bound to have doubts and even lose trust.

    There are some people (traditional-media journalists and bloggers alike) who would perhaps be wary of dissing products or services in fear that companies might no longer send them stuff. But there are people who would still be sent stuff no matter if they post mostly positive or negative reviews. Only a few are like this, though (I could name some).

  7. I do agree that writing a review is a service to one’s readers. Again, the trust factor is there–people would rather read about others’ opinions first before trying something out on their own. So for you, it’s all right to review items sent, but not to post something because you were paid.

    And as for posting something only when the review is mostly positive, that is one way to “protect” yourself from criticisms from either readers or companies. Good points!

  8. It’s interesting to note how the monetary value of a giveaway affects our thinking about whether it’s ethical to accept it. A $900 price tag would likely give anyone pause. On the other hand, publishers routinely send free review copies to book editors, and nobody gives that practice a second thought. Malcolm Gladwell would probably have something interesting to say about this phenomenon.

  9. When you buy yourself something, you usually feel comfortable writing about both the good and bad sides.

    I think you’re wrong here. Although not necessarily obvious, many people are reluctant to give bad reviews to items on which they spent their own money, especially a lot of money, because they don’t want to appear foolish to others, or even just to themselves.

    And I think there are other important factors to consider when giving reviews that take higher precedence than who payed for the item:

    a) the fact that others, including the designer or publisher, will read it.
    b) a responsibility to your readers, especially if you are cognizant of how you depend on others’ reviews.
    c) simple reality about the product.

    Disclosure is important. And the more reviews you give, the more you earn credibility for disclosure, and the more your readers can tell a) if you are a disinterested reviewer, and b) whether the things that matter to you in your reviews matter to them, or vice versa.

    Disclosure works both ways: you have to let the people who give you stuff know before hand that you may write good or bad. Chances are that a mixed or even slightly negative review is still good for business, so long as you don’t trash the product.

    And there’s always the possibility of contacting the person who gave you the item if the review is very negative before you post the review. They may be able to correct a misinterpretation, fix an error, or promise to correct the problem.


  10. Great questions! I won’t write sponsored reviews, i.e. a company pays me money to write something, as I feel they can’t help but be biased, and they make a blog look too commercial. I do accept items to review as I think this is a service for my readers. But I tell companies I’ll only post a review if it’s mostly positive. That way they have some “protection” and I’m not in the position of accepting something, then saying it’s really bad.

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