‘Free’ Ethics: How to accept products for review, or as gifts…
By: Jennine Jacob

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While getting products ‘for free’ is always a nice thing, sometimes I can feel torn about receiving them. Particularly in the early days of my blog where I wondered if it would compromise my integrity. I would feel guilt, and worry, and wonder if I would really like the gift knowing that it was given so I would post about it.  As time went on, and I saw how some bloggers can do it quite gracefully and without guilt, I started to look at the whole free product question quite differently.

Doing reviews can be loads of fun, some companies will actually send  you free samples for your review. It’s a mutually beneficial exchange because you’ll get a good personal experience to write from creating good content with perks and they will receive publicity. These days, it’s almost become common for bloggers to receive gifts, or free samples for review from companies. In the fashion blogging sector, follow any blog, particularly a popular one, and you’ll see mentions of gifts pop up frequently. Since blogging is relatively new, here are a few things to think about when creating your own policy around free goods for product reviews or gifts.

Bribery?

Questions often arise every now and then about the ethics behind accepting free products, and it’s important to think about. In the journalism industry, writers aren’t allowed to accept gifts from companies because they are perceived as bribes. In traditional media, the line of trust is defined by a clearly laid out code of ethics as there is no personal relationship between the journalist and the readership. [UPDATE TO ADD: from what I understand, journalists are allowed to receive free products for review, and are not required to disclose it in their content. They generally aren't allowed to receive gifts.] Where Blogging is more fluid, like a conversation, since many of bloggers write about personal experiences and opinions, the line of trust comes from the authenticity and reliability of the blog .

Reputation

A bloggers reputation is based on the transparency and honesty of their opinion. Receiving gifts may affect a blogger’s opinion.. but not always. Companies still cannot buy editorial coverage, even on blogs. I have received pitches for things I wouldn’t be caught dead in, and I’ve received free things that I wouldn’t use because they were faulty, or I wouldn’t purchase them myself.  If like the product in general, but there are features that I am lukewarm about, I’ll say it, in fact, it  helps establish that a review is honest, as nothing is perfect. Some bloggers will write negative reviews. Since I prefer to blog about what I like, if I can’t say something nice, I won’t say anything at all.

Up front & Clear

When a company approaches me to review a product, or to send a gift, make sure they know what my blog is about. Sometimes freebies will come from blog friends, and they already know… sometimes it will be from companies that may have just glanced at  my home page in which case I’ll have to say ‘Thanks for getting in touch. My blog is about ________, and I am/am not interested because of _______.’ If the representative from the company is any good, then they’ll understand, and hopefully keep me on the books in case something else comes up, or if I want to do the review, then they’ll keep you on the books in case more things like it pop up. Either way, it’s always good to build a positive relationship, because one never knows when they’re going to need someone’s help.

Businesses should already know that positive editorial content cannot be purchased, they may reminding, a simple statment of policy whether it be silence or negative reviews should be sufficient.  ‘I only post content I believe in, and what my readers will like.’ I always try to give feedback, and sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s not.

Sticky Situations

Most companies are really great, and I’ve had some really wonderful experiences, however not all companies are the most ethical.  Some companies, may ask to read your review before you publish it or sign a contract stating you’ll only publish a positive review, but that is not common practice, nor should it be.  If that is to ever come up, then remind them what your blog is about, what your policy is. Do not allow them to guilt or bully you into writing positive post, they are being unethical, not you. If you have any questions, or if you are asked to do something you feel uncomfortable about, talk to your community, your blog friends, or you can always post your question in the IFB forums. Whatever you do, don’t feel alone, because there are lots of bloggers with experience who can help you.

Disclosure

While a universal code of ethics may not be established for blogging…. yet. It’s common practice to disclose anything received as a gift, any samples, anything free. While no one is required to post just because a free product was involved, if a post and a free product is involved, so should a disclosure. It doesn’t have to be in big pink letters, but it can be worked into the body of the text. “I received this from____,” or “_____ sent me this lovely gift”  is fine.  Transparency is vital in building trust with readers, they have a funny way of detecting dishonesty, so in order t to build a positive reputation, then disclose, disclose, disclose.

UPDATE: Though some bloggers do not feel they have to disclose a free sample for review, I personally think this is a grey area becuase so many bloggers post about thier own personal purchases. Since it’s not always clear to the readers whether it’s a testimonial of a product purchased or a review of a product which passes the editorial grade but has not been purchased. The weight of the opinion is different, and the readers need to know that. I believe free samples and gifts should be disclosed.

What’s your opinion about accepting free products?

What about your experiences?

Resources:

Comments

  1. Excellent, excellent post, m’dear!

    I, for one, think receiving free stuff is cool. Who is honestly going to say that they don’t like free things? It’s why we go to conferences, to meetings, to make-up counters.

    That being said, I think there’s a lot to care about concerning integrity and respectability. We should be honest in our reviews, and any posts about the product should reflect that. I’ve been very fortunate to only receive goods I’ve been ecstatic about & excited to share with my readers. I love your policy on, “If I won’t say something nice, I won’t say anything at all.” I think that’s a very keen way of saying things!

    In the event that a company tries to force a blogger to sign a contract stating a positive review or bully them in to doing so, I think maybe the opposite isn’t a bad idea– post it on the forums, let other bloggers know what this company is doing AND maybe post it on your blog. State that they had contacted you about writing a review, but took XYZ actions that made you feel uncomfortable. The nice thing about blogging, that traditional media doesn’t necessarily have, is how we kind of band together against those who are not willing to treat us with respect.

  2. eye4style says:

    Great post!

    However, I will add that there’s a distinction between “review samples” and “gifts” – Gifts are generally received at press events or sent to thank a journalist or blogger for great coverage (few outlets limit the value of gifts that their staff of writers/editors can accept) while review samples are intended to introduce a writer to a product in the hopes that they’ll cover it.

    To clear up any misconceptions is is how ALL major magazines and newspapers operate (with the exception of Consumer Reports) – PR firms send info, offer experts and samples for feature or review. Some samples are sent back and some are not (depends on industry and value.)

    As blogs continue to grow in importance, I believe it will be the norm for blogs with a larger audience to operate in the same way.

  3. Jennine says:

    ❤ ashe… yeah, the integrity part is something that is so important, i know it’s easy to say, but i do also know that i donl’t like making people unhappy, and sometimes that happens.

    ❤eye4style…oh you are so right. i should have made that more clear, though sometimes i’ll recieve gifts knowing that they are being sent in hopes i’ll post about it. so in that case the line get’s fuzzy. and thanks for letting us know what happens in major publcations… i knew they got samples, but was not sure exactly how that worked.

  4. Very interesting. I have started to get emails from PRs trying to plug designers and products. So far I have not taken enough interest in anything to blog about it. Do you recommend always responding to these emails, even if you are not going to write about it?

    Sarah

  5. Receiving free stuff is amazing, who doesn’t love free things. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed my internships (that and the experience). However, if you don’t deem something worthwhile, then why write and feature it on your blog.

    I pride myself on being honest about what I like and don’t like and I think that reviews should be truthful. If something is not useful then why bring it to your readers, unless of course they ask your opinion. I have yet to receive any “swag” (lol) but if I do, I would have to totally love something to review it, or the bad review would have to benefit readers.

    Just my thoughts

  6. Margaret says:

    Great post. I’ve accepted review freebies in the past and post honest reviews on the products I like and post nothing about those I don’t. I believe transparency is important so I always mention I was given a product for review. Here is what I don’t like — PR people who pitch me, offer me a product and then specify when and where they would like me to review it.

  7. The Style PA says:

    I think it is fine. If the company value your judgement and think that your blog can be a good marketing tool, then that should be taken as a complement and a sign that you are doing something right.

    I am quite happy to review and feature products that I like. But I would never feature something that I didn’t think was a good buy. There is nothing wrong with including a down side either.

    And I think real journalism is skewed as much as blogging. I worked for a magazine company, and big advertisers are almost always given preferential treatment when it comes to editorial coverage.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for this post, it’s good to have it open for discussion.

    I can’t write about anything I’m not genuinely excited about, it just doesn’t spill forth. So it’s not hard to be ethical!

    In response to Sarah’s comment about the PRs pitching stories, I get those, too. I reply to some depending on who they are and what they’re pitching, and if the email is personalised, I may. I only use pitches for posts if it’s something I’d write about anyway because I would buy it, wear it, use it, whatever, and if I think it’s something my readers would be interested in, of course.

    The same goes for advertising on my site – they have to be companies I personally buy from with impressive service, and those I was already writing about before the fact. But I won’t have them if I don’t like their creative, it has to look good on my site! I just cancelled some for not updating their campaigns regularly – I think of the blog first (which is really the readers as it’s them who have to look at the site) before anything else.

    So, I think if you follow that line of thinking you won’t have conflicts of interest.

    Denise

  9. I was a publicist for over a decade specializing in fashion, entertainment, and consumer goods. We sent “presents” and pitched articles to many, many people every day. Although the idea is to foster a relationship with the person you are gifting and ultimately receive coverage on a particular object/client ..I wouldn’t say that the pr folks EXPECT to receive an adulatory piece just for sending some schwag or samples your way.

    It’s already been mentioned, but many esteemed publications won’t allow their staff to accept gifts in relationship to items they plan to feature (NYTimes for example)

    I have no problem accepting gifts, it doesn’t necessarily mean I will be featuring the item. The same is true of when I write for print publications. More often than not, it’s a good thing I was sent the present because it makes me aware of a product or company I wouldn’t otherwise be familiar with. In that same vein it may have introduced me to a publicist who could be a great resource for story ideas. Even if you don’t feature the item you are initially sent, the pr folks have a stable of clients. Just be clear in your response to and thanks to them what your feelings are about the product and the sort of items you do have an editorial interest in.

  10. Jennine says:

    ❤ sarah… oh man… you don’t have to respond to all the emials…but i try to respond to the ones that don’t seem too much like an emial blast
    ❤stylish…oh yeah, i’ love getting free stuff too… though sometimes it doesn’t feel free. ;)
    ❤margaret..the nerve! or if they have ‘corrections’ which weren’t previously disclosed before posting.
    ❤style pa… wow, that’s an interesting point… many people on the blogging side don’t really talk about how advertisers skew journalism, but it’s very real.
    ❤denise…writing stuff you’re not excited about is so difficutl, i know
    ❤fashion overload…thanks so much for your comment, it’s really good to hear the story from the other side, often times bloggers don’t know, as it’s not a message clearly related to from the pr agency

  11. Üdo Ümami says:

    Hmmm yes, so how do you get them to send you free stuff? Does that usually happen when you allow advertising on your site? Just curious… I’ve often wondered how that works. <3 Üdo

  12. lluviaschick says:

    I think it’ll be interesting on writing a article or a second part of this article about buzz marketing in general and the part that affects blogs (and bloggers) because it’ll be good to have the other side point of view. I did a project about it for school and it help me a look to discover how I wanted to manage my blog (regarding this issue).

  13. Catherine says:

    What a great post! I am a personal stylist, editor and product tester. Not only do I bring awareness of great products to my clients, but also my audience. I am very picky when it comes to products, mostly because I’ve been around so many … I look at them differently. I am open and honest about how/when I test – every product is on the same playing field (no home field advantage). PR reps know I use a fine tooth comb and if their client’s product is that great, it will pass with flying colors. If it’s not, my clients and audience will know about that, too. Every product gets covered in the same format – good or not so good. I cannot compromise my reputation by holding back a bad review. I am in business for and because of my clients and audience, after all.

    Developing good relationships in this business is key. You have to trust. And you can’t be afraid to be yourself. I love that emphasis was put on all the right places in this post. Kudos!

  14. Eyeliah says:

    I think you covered it all very well here, I agree to only post about a product if my review was positive and I feel no guilt to write a review if I enjoy the item. I have however been sent ‘free items’ only have the postman to ask me for $100 in fees (yeah right!) so there are also the scammers to watch out for.

  15. jihanemo says:

    I actually found this article a little while ago and made a mental note to return to it and read later on. I’d hoped that eventually I would be approached to do a product review. And I finally have! (yay!) But what I’d like to know is this… how do I exactly express my concern for compensation once the company has approached me about a review?

    jihanemo’s last blog post..The Black Givenchy Nightingale Bag

  16. Tiffany Witherspoon says:

    What irks me is when mom bloggers ask for a free sample of my product to blog review, I send it and after several follow ups, not only do they never post a review but I never even hear from them again…not even a thank you. Enjoy your freebie!

  17. cheri says:

    I am interested in testing/trying products of all types in my home to review them for businesses who wish to have an informed opinion about their product(s). Anything from health/beauty products to pet foods and more. Please contact me with information and advice on how I should begin this venture. I can assure you i am very interested in this and am capable of giving honest, educated reviews and can be your best or worst critic.

    Sincerely,
    cheri Osborne

  18. Denyce says:

    I think when bloggers write the same message to every company it is annoying and only shows they want free products. In return, if I choose to work with a blogger, I will also be posting a review about them and how they conduct business. It will be my true opinion of them. Companies need to know what kind of people and bloggers are out there just to get free items or if their work is quality.

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