Over the past week or so there has been a firestorm on a popular Internet backpacking forum due to a gear review by a well know blogger, who posted a link in the forum to the review on his blog. What the gear review did not include was a disclosure that the blogger has a relationship with the manufacturer of the item being reviewed, and he is “sponsored” by the manufacturer. Of course, no one knows the conditions of the sponsorship, but many felt an ethical review should include a statement revealing if the gear was purchased for full price, was obtained at a discount, or was given to the blogger for free.
About three years ago, in The Business of Backpacking, I warned people about gear reviews that might have a bias when the reviewer has a relationship with the manufacturer…
Keep in mind that there are Reviewers, Ambassadors, and Sponsored hikers with integrity who write unbiased gear reviews. It is up to you to determine who is who.
Ethically, gear reviewers should disclose any consumer/manufacturer relationship and apparently there is even a Federal Trade Commission regulation requiring this disclosure, even for reviews on a personal blog. To be honest, the FTC has over-stepped its bounds. More precisely, there should be no FTC, it should be abolished and replaced with personal accountability requiring consumers to think.
DOES ALL OF THIS MATTER?
So, this debate needs to be broken down into two pieces: was the reviewer biased, and more importantly, does the reviewer have any expertise on the subject? Because I don’t need this piece of gear and really don’t care about it, I didn’t read the review. I don’t know the reviewer, so I can’t make a determination of his creditability as a subject matter expert.
Conclusion: all of this doesn’t matter.
THE DUMBING OF AMERICA
Each year I see a growing percentage of the population that refuses to think, accepts anything they read on the Internet as gospel, and make important life decisions or inconsequential purchase decisions based on what others think.
Whenever a citizenry refuses to think, governments are more than happy to take over by creating bureaucracies and regulations to control people and do their thinking for them. This is dangerous. So is the FTC, for this very reason.
ARE PRODUCT REVIEWS VALUABLE?
They can be helpful, but they are no substitute for rational thinking and good decision making.
When it comes to backpacking gear, we need to take into consideration that every person is different. Some backpackers are more than willing to live with a bit of discomfort, and others try to replicate the comfort of living at home in a controlled environment. This will impact how they perceive and review a piece of gear. The skill, knowledge, and experience of every hiker does vary, and we usually cannot determine this – other than what the reviewer tells us. This leads to the famous quote, “Buyer beware.”
Let’s take a look at a backpacking sleeping bag. Aside from the skill to properly use a sleeping bag (yes, there is skill here), some backers stay warm at 10F using a bag rated down to 20F, and some skilled backpackers are cold in the same bag at 30F, because each of us has a different physiology. Someone who is in the market for a sleeping bag must know thyself, and a quality review by an experienced and expert backpacker may be irrelevant.
I do most of my shopping on the Internet and I do read reviews. What I mostly look for is the manufacturer’s responsiveness should there be a product defect: does the manufacturer stand behind their product? If a lot of people say no, then I do more research because I cannot take the word of people I do not know.
Also, I look for feedback on the quality of the product with a wary eye. Let me provide a couple of examples:
Recently we bought five ceiling fans for our house. The fans we liked had some very mixed reviews mostly excellent or very poor: either 5 stars or 1 star. The poor reviews all related to the same issue, three screws had to be removed to install a bracket and then re-attached. The one star reviewers could not remove the Phillips Head screws and damaged the screw heads in the process. Knowing that Phillips Head screws are not the same size, and a proper screw driver must be used (e.g., #1 or #2 in most cases), I deduced that the poor reviewers were either not knowledgeable on how to remove a simple screw, or were incompetent. Because of the mixed reviews, the fans were on sale. I had no problem with the screws and benefited from inaccurate product reviews. The unfortunate result is a good product that was condemned by the incompetent and hurt the manufacturer’s reputation.
The second example is a portable propane patio stove we purchased a couple weeks ago. Seems many purchasers had difficulty assembling it, saying the instructions were poor and the fasteners were not the right size. Because I own another product produced by the manufacturer, I decide to buy it – assuming the 1 star reviews were by people who cannot read or cannot assemble simple products… plus I bought it on Amazon, who has an excellent return policy. The assembly was easy and I was soon on the patio cooking on our new stove. We are thrilled with our purchase.
Reviews can be useful, but the final decision to purchase or pass lies in the brain of the reader, not the so-called expertise of the reviewer, or a perceived status of gear expert. Reviewers are people, and like all people, everyone has an opinion. Keep in mind the old saying, “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. Take reviews with a grain of salt and THINK for yourself.