Let's say that you operate a popular blog that routinely dispenses your personal opinions and expert advice on various topics. A business believes that your audience contains many potential customers for their product or service. They write you a nice introductory e-mail.

In the e-mail, the business explains that they'd like you to consider reviewing their product or service, because it might be of interest to your audience.

  • Is it appropriate to ask for payment from the business in exchange for the review?
  • Would your opinion of the ethics of the situation change if the business offered you the payment first?
  • Assume that you'd disclose that such payment was received for your services.

In particular, I'm interested in whether there are commonly-used ethical standards adhered to by journalists, bloggers, etc., which preclude or encourage this sort of practice.

  • You don't say whether you plan to disclose the fact (albeit not the amount) of the payment in the resulting article. It might not matter to everyone, but there's a substantial constituency for whom disclosure is the crux of the ethical issue. Apr 16 '14 at 22:07
  • @SteveJessop: I hadn't considered the possibility that someone wouldn't disclose it. That strikes me as clearly unethical. But I'll clarify. Apr 17 '14 at 3:00
  • Getting the product for free in exchange for a review is pretty standard. Apr 17 '14 at 9:13

An important consideration is that in the US, the FTC requires clear disclosure of paid reviews by bloggers. Both the advertiser and the blogger may be held liable if the blogger does not disclose that the review was paid.

From http://www.ftc.gov/sites/default/files/attachments/press-releases/ftc-publishes-final-guides-governing-endorsements-testimonials/091005revisedendorsementguides.pdf (emphasis mine):

Example 5: A skin care products advertiser participates in a blog advertising service. The service matches up advertisers with bloggers who will promote the advertiser’s products on their personal blogs. The advertiser requests that a blogger try a new body lotion and write a review of the product on her blog. Although the advertiser does not make any specific claims about the lotion’s ability to cure skin conditions and the blogger does not ask the advertiser whether there is substantiation for the claim, in her review the blogger writes that the lotion cures eczema and recommends the product to her blog readers who suffer from this condition. The advertiser is subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made through the blogger’s endorsement. The blogger also is subject to liability for misleading or unsubstantiated representations made in the course of her endorsement. The blogger is also liable if she fails to disclose clearly and conspicuously that she is being paid for her services. [See§ 255.5.]

  • Interesting, I didn't know that. I wonder if other countries have similar laws. I never heard of anything like that. +1
    – user5645
    Apr 16 '14 at 19:31
  • Worth mentioning that the same legal situation exists in the EU, Ireland, and most other European countries. Apr 17 '14 at 10:29

As I see it, getting paid for reviews can be broken down into different scenarios:

  1. You work for someone that pays you to review other products i.e. you're being paid by a neutral party with no affiliation to the product itself.
  2. You are approached by someone with a vested interest in the product, and are either paid to review that product, or get given the product for free, but the expectation is that your review is your own, and in no way needs to be positive or negative.
  3. Same as above, but you are expected to write a positive, glowing review.

In the first scenario, this is generally okay. Many companies - consumer magazines, newspapers etc. - do exactly this. Whenever there may be a conflict of interest, it's always wise to be transparent and reveal it.

In the third scenario, this is clearly unethical. It is tantamount to a bribe - "we'll give you money if you say something nice" - and it's for this reason that such reviews are viewed as being unethical.

The second scenario, especially if you're getting paid, can be a grey area. For example, you may be more inclined to say something nice, or to tone down your negativity, in order to ensure you get similar work in future. If you are really critical, you essentially shoot yourself in the foot because no-one's going to come back to you if you're posting negative reviews about their products, and no-one else will want to approach you to review their products at the risk of you saying something negative (unless, of course, you have such a large readership that it's worth the gamble).

As an aside, I used to DJ and get free promo records from companies, and in return I needed to give feedback. After being brutally honest with a few reviews, I ceased receiving any more records from certain labels, so the pressure to be more forgiving and positive is real.

The question you have to ask yourself is, what is the purpose of the reviews for you and your business model? Is the revenue to come from the businesses in question, or is it to come from increasing your profile and build your readership to make more money from them (e.g. donations, clicks on advertising on your site, purchase referrals etc.)?

If it's your readership that you're focusing on, then it seems obvious that you should maintain your impartiality, and not accept payment for the things you review. You need your readership to trust you. In most cases, getting access to the product for free (e.g. getting a free book, access to the service etc.) should be enough. If you build up your readership, and become an influencer because you're honest, constructive and transparent, you'll find you're more likely to get access to more free stuff. I would also recommend always mentioning that you were given the product for free in order to do the review.

If the revenue is to come from the businesses, and you can't think a way of changing that business model, then at the very least you should be transparent by revealing to your readership that you were paid to do the review, but I wouldn't recommend this approach, since the question always lingers as to whether or not you were truly impartial.

As a reviewer, all you have is your integrity and honesty. Lose that, and you lose your readership. They'll no longer trust you, and that can lead to the end of your online profile.

  • If it's disclosed then scenario 3 is, in essence, working as a freelance advertiser although of course using different techniques than someone who films commercials. There's nothing inherently unethical about this provided you don't say anything culpably false, but as you point out it affects who will choose to read what you say. Your readers might disagree with any claim that it's a "review". Apr 16 '14 at 22:13

You are asking for opinion, and this, I believe, is offtopic on this site. But as long as your question stands, here is my opinion:

In this time and age, grabbing money wherever you can, is the norm. Not taking money, when you can, is generally considered stupid. So you should. Everybody does. Fooling the customer is not unethical, otherwise advertising would be forbidden.

But as a consumer searching for information on the quality of products and services, the only thing of true value for me is the truth, i.e. honest reviews by users of those products and services.

In a time where blog posts, Amazon reviews, and forum threads, are being created or paid for by the sellers, it has become almost impossible to find trustworthy information on the products I consider. Creating a resource that users can trust, is worth more, both to the public and to your income (in advertising or affiliate revenues), than whatever payment the producers might offer.

Creating a reputation for honesty is time consuming, but for a review writer it will pay off in the end. Getting paid for advertising-disguised-as-review is a short term strategy only, because once people buy what you falsely praised, they will avoid your site like the plague. If you want to work towards a future as an expert that users turn to, then honesty is your most lucrative investment.

  • My intention wasn't to have the answers be opinions as much as "are there commonly-used ethical standards adhered to by journalists, bloggers, etc., which preclude or encourage this practice?". But I see your point. Thanks for your answer! Apr 16 '14 at 16:07
  • @JohnFeminella could you add what you said here (about common-used standards) to your question? This is an interesting question but does skirt close to the opinion-based close reason -- but I think that change would make a big difference. Thanks. Apr 16 '14 at 17:36

In the financial world, it is common for a company to pay a credit rating agency to review their company's ability to repay debt (meaning their ability to repay bond holders) and make that review publicly available. http://www.cfr.org/financial-crises/credit-rating-controversy/p22328#p3

  • Agreed. As long as you're completely clear that you're being paid and may be biased, it should be fine.
    – Muz
    Apr 21 '14 at 17:03

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