Sketchy ethics around product reviews

“The saddest thing is how hard it is for everyday people to tell real and fake news apart these days; the situation is the same in the world of product reviews.”

In 2018, I think the trends we’ve been seeing and living for a decade will continue: Ads will get more dire as a source of revenue, eaten up by Facebook and Google, and companies that have over-optimized on bite-sized, free viral content to keep up with falling rates will continue down that path. At the same time, companies — or, at least, those offering the quality of work that is worth paying for — will be more open to pursuing subscriptions and similar models. And more companies will get into formats pairing affiliate marketing with product recommendations, similar to what Wirecutter does under The New York Times.

Unfortunately for readers, most media companies will merely emulate the product-review format and do so in a way that is not so reader focused. Over the past few years, we’ve heard alarming stories of conflicts of interest in many successful publishing houses that are either experienced or learning about this type of content. We hear of deals that are paid for by retailers or manufacturers, not clearly labeled as anything but editorial, that are actually promoting overpriced junk. We hear of ad-sales teams in companies moving hundreds of millions of dollars in recommended products and services who are authorized to bestow editorial awards upon advertisers. And we hear of venture-funded publications that claim to do extensive testing but merely pick popular things off Amazon and present them through a false narrative. We know of these stories because the talent at these companies come to us for jobs when they can’t stand the conflicts of interest anymore — and worse, they say they wouldn’t trust the work their own companies put out into the world when they do their own shopping. Pretty disgusting, huh?

The saddest thing is how hard it is for everyday people to tell real and fake news apart these days; the situation is the same in the world of product reviews. So I think transparency in process, as both service and marketing, will be a critical way for people who do great work to be able to charge for it and separate themselves from the pack, differentiating themselves from business leaders who are too busy looking at their quarterly reports to realize that no one trusts or respects or believes what they’re saying any longer.

Brian Lam founded Wirecutter.

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