Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Ethics of Product Reviews

It's no secret that my allergy list is longer than some students' homework lists. I also happen to mix my own homeopathic anti-allergy capsules (for regular maintenance) and can't use medicines like Claritin* because I develop a tolerance after a week.

Would it be ethical for me to review Claritin?

I've tried it, and it didn't work for me, so I have that personal experience to draw from for my review. I also know plenty of people who use it and are happy with it, so while that's not needed to review something, it can help a reviewer balance their review.

However: I mix my own anti-allergy capsules.

Does that make me a competitor? Would it be unethical for me to review a medication because I make an equivalent home remedy for my own personal use?

No? Okay. What about if I start selling my recipe?

Now, if I were given a free sample of Claritin to try and review, most folks would deem that acceptable.

But what if the company heard that the medication didn't work for me and gave me compensation for my trouble, like a $10 gift card to buy something that'll work for me? Would it be ethical for me to review the medication then?

Yes? No? I seem to be getting conflicting answers, there, and the compensation wasn't even directly for the review. I can imagine it would be sharper if I were paid for a review.

What about if I knew the company's CEO?

Hmm… Answers also seem to be conflicting there. Some folks assume that knowing the person would make you more likely to give a good rating, while others insist that knowing the person doesn't have to affect the rating whatsoever. And a few up here in the rafters with me say that knowing the CEO would make us more critical in our reviews.

You might or might not have heard the recent hullabaloo about people paying for product reviews, including John Locke of How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months fame. (And for the record, I do still believe his book can be useful as a reference for some marketing techniques, or at least for nudging your imagination into ideas for further ways to market something.)

And then J.A. Konrath went investigating fake reviews and had so much fun reading them that he posted some himself, for fun.

Any argument about ethics appeals to morals—but it also relies on assumptions.

  • Someone who says it's never ethical to review someone you know assumes that knowing someone means you won't say what you actually think.
  • Someone who says it's never ethical to review a product for which you receive compensation assumes that compensation necessitates a positive review.
  • Someone who says it's never ethical to receive money for a review assumes that money is compensation for the review.

Depending on the situation, any of those can be incorrect…or correct. ^_^

Have I ever paid for reviews? No—as long as you don't consider a copy of the story to be "payment".

Would I ever be willing to pay for reviews? Theoretically—because someone who writes a review has spent their time on the product, so the payment would be reimbursement for that time. But I'd have to 1. have a budget for that and 2. find reviewers I could trust to list what they actually think, rather than cater to what they think I want to hear…and I'd have to do damage control for folks who assumed the reimbursement was necessarily for a positive review… Really, my time's better spent elsewhere. ^_^

In the latter situation,would I be willing to rehire someone who posted a negative review? If they supported their complaints, sure! (That would, of course, be dependent on their willingness to work for me again.) I mean, if you're squicked by first cousins as spouses (which is perfectly legal in most municipalities and actually not all that unusual), then a paragraph or two in "The Corpse Cat" will turn your stomach. By all means, put that in your review so others like you will be warned.

Notice, though, that I'm saying I have no problem with reviews by friends or relatives or employees as long as they're honest.

And it's entirely possible to be honest when reviewing someone you know, are related to, or have been paid by.

Ergo, calling one of those things necessarily unethical is missing the point about what makes that something unethical.

(Note: Fake reviews are honest, too, because they're obviously jokes. Don't believe me? Check out some of Konrath's.)

Now, such reviews might still be good to avoid, to avoid the appearance of dishonesty, but that's an entirely different matter.

Do you agree with me? Why or why not?


*I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Claritin. I know some folks who've used it for years, and it's still working great for them. I mention it specifically because it's a well-known antihistamine medication, at least in my area.

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