Sunday, March 04, 2007

Gift, Inductement or Bribe

What’s the difference in a bribe and a gift? Apparently, Microsoft is offering free laptops to certain bloggers for their use and in hopes of favorable reviews. See Chalain’s Journal HERE and Joel Splosky’s blog HERE.

Encarta Dictionary defines bribe as “money or some other incentive that is given to persuade somebody to do something, especially something illegal or dishonest.” Gift is defined as “something that is given to somebody, usually to give pleasure or to show gratitude.” Neither word seems to fit this situation.

Microsoft is offering a premium product free to an influential person in hopes that person will write a favorable review of the product on a much-read and credible blog. The laptop is not a bribe because the offer specifically did not carry conditions. Joel contends that, even though the offer did not contain conditions, the acceptance of the laptop would harm not only his own credibility but that of other bloggers. This attempt to be completely objective can be accomplished only, as he points out, by Consumer Reports, a non-profit testing group that depends on consumer donations and subscriptions and purchases all the products that it reviews at retail.

I would call the offer an inducement to provide free publicity. Magazines, newspapers and television have been doing it for years – perhaps they’ve slowed down some now, but, during the 15 years I worked in journalism, I received many inducements to provide a short blurb about a new product. Some were included with good reviews; some were included with bad reviews; and some were trashed. The reviews always included the disclosure that the product was received free. Readers and listeners take those things with a grain of salt. And, I imagine the same is true for reviewers in the blogsphere. While some reviewers may have more credibility than others, no one is exempt from the skepticism of “Buyer Beware”.

Thinking that one particular reviewer is the only source of information and that readers will not check others and read specs is pure egotism. Such thinking is not about credibility or ethics. It is pride.

One field which offers inducements on a regular and expected basis is the arts. DJs get music, readers get books, and critics get tickets to plays and movies. A few reviewers have such credibility with their readers that they can influence the purchase of that product, but, they have built up that credibility over a long time. If a reviewer raves about a show, and the consumer sees the show and agrees, the reviewer’s credibility is raised. On the other hand, too many bad calls and the reviewer is out of a job. But, the free tickets and other inducements to see, read, or hear the products are expected in this field. They are not bribes, nor gifts, nor inducements, but part of the job.

In government, such “gifts or inducements” are mostly prohibited now. It’s called buying votes, like when a candidate for office sent my bootlegger grandfather a note to give the fellow a pint of whiskey because he voted the right way.

Product review on the other hand often depends on the reviewer’s budget, and most of them have no budget. I laud Joel for his efforts to become more objective by buying the products that he reviews. But, most bloggers can’t afford to do that. And, some of them provide good reviews (and bad reviews) of products that are catching the public eye. Their credibility is based more on how often their opinion fits with readers’ opinions than on where they received the product. Their credibility can also be based on how well they write and what facts they provide to back up their opinions but, still, not on the source of the product.

All reviewers in all media can be biased, no matter how they receive the product. Readers, and presumably buyers, should carefully consider the track record of the reviewer as well as read other reviews and check out specs and data and previews and short clips before they buy any product.

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