You Tested a Complimentary Product and It Was AWFUL; Now What?

tested a bad product
Here's the scenario: you heard that one of your favorite makeup brands just came out with a new lip gloss and you can't wait to try it! You request a sample of the aforementioned lip gloss from the publicist, and upon testing, you are devastated to discover that it is a chunky, goopy mess that possesses a “summer subway garbage stench” fragrance and insanely dries out your lips. So….

Perhaps this example is a bit extreme, but have you ever had a situation in which you've been given something to review that's been requested or voluntarily sent from a brand or PR firm that just isn't up to your standards? Be it fashion, beauty, tech, or otherwise, there must have been something that you've tried that has been mediocre at best or just plain awful.

It's an awkward situation because you don't want to offend anyone or tarnish relationships…

It's an awkward situation because you don't want to offend anyone or tarnish relationships, but I've found that being up front and honest about why you aren't going to feature an item on your site, or give it an unfavorable review tends to be the best policy. It's good to start a communication about it early in the game, before the publicist, designer, CEO, etc begins the repeated check in with you to see when you may feature the product. As a market editor-turned-blogger, over the past ten years (and a shopping addict) I've had my fair share of products come across my desk and closet that truly weren't worth writing home about, so I'd like to share some polite, assertive, and professional ways that I've devised to handle this kind of situation.


The Polite Distraction Approach

This kind of email is the softest blow to not featuring a product because you basically think it sucks; it basically lets the recipient know your personal point of view, and that even though this particular product wasn't a home run, you want to keep the door open and stay in the loop for future opportunities.

“Dear ___ ,
I received the lip gloss you sent on Monday; thanks so much for giving me a chance to review your latest offering. I found that it didn't quite work for me, and since blogs, and mine in particular can be rather subjective, I'm going to pass on reviewing it on the site at this time. Thanks again for the consideration, and please keep me updated on future releases and the latest excitement regarding the brand, as I'd love to continue working with you.”


The Constructive Criticism Offer Approach

With this option, you are more than just saying “I won't be reviewing your product, sorry,” or “I will be giving your product a crappy review, sorry!” but are rather giving the opportunity to turn your experience into a quick, complimentary analysis on what didn't work and where you think there can be improvement. If I was making a product which had some flaws, I wouldn't want people to be hush hush about it; tell me so I can fix it!

“Dear __,
I recently tested the lip gloss that you sent, and to be honest, I was disappointed with the quality, as I was really looking forward to trying out and writing about a blockbuster product from such a reputed brand. I hope you don't mind me being so forthright, but I'd be glad to share my experience and speak with you or jot down some of my feedback on the product if you may find this helpful, since I believe, with a few tweaks it could certainly be a star!.”


The Mission Statement Insurance

Depending on the kind of site that you have you may review things that aren't necessarily great in order to warn readers about them, or you may not breach this subject at all. I am the latter; I feel that I don't want to waste my valuable time and publishing space writing about things that weren't good that will also live on my site forever, so in my “about us” page, I include in the mission statement that I only feature the BEST products on my site so that readers can cut to the chase. Basically, I save them time and money by testing out a bajillion products and picking out the best ones so that they don't have to do it themselves.

Because I'm candid about this on my site, it's almost as if I am free of the anxiety of being held hostage by a bad product, as the readily available info in the site's mission statement acts as insurance; a place to ‘back me up' in this kind of instance. Whatever your policy is, or is going to be when reviewing the good, the bad, and the mediocre, I'd recommend mentioning somewhere easy to find on your site so readers, brands, and publicists know what to expect.

“Dear __,
While I am honored that you sent me a sample of your new lip gloss and I enjoy working with you, I wanted to let you know that unfortunately I won't be featuring the lip gloss on the site. My site's mission is to only feature the best products on the market (insert link here to your mission statement page), and after a thorough testing and analysis, sadly I didn't feel that this product met those guidelines. I appreciate you respecting my opinion and site's policy in this matter, and look forward to working with you again soon on another feature.”

In the past, what have you done when you've been in this situation?

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27 Responses

  1. Kylie

    Great post and helpful replies. I don’t think it is in good taste to slate a product that has been given to you. If its clothes they should be sent back saying they are not right for you maybe a little critic and a thanks for the consideration. With used beauty product a polite note saying it didn’t work for you, but you love the brand usually.

  2. CynthiaCM

    I’ve given less-than-stellar reviews, especially for grocery items. I think people have a right to know that products aren’t as good as they claim to be, including PR reps and brands.

    • julia

      Hi Cynthia, Yes, I completely agree- I think honesty is the bottom line and good writing; there is a graceful way of delivering even negative reviews!

  3. Renee | Beauty Fool

    This is really great, professional and mature template for responses.

    Since my blog is primarily beauty and contains a lot of reviews, if any brand would like to send me a sample of two to review, I make it very clear it’s for consideration only and thankfully the PR here in Singapore understand that and don’t pressure us, and still continue to work with us even if we don’t feature stuff they send.

    x Renee

    • julia

      Hi Renee,
      Yes- great point– I forgot to include that! I think its good for brands to know that there arent any guarantees of everything, just because they sent you something.

  4. Grechen Reiter

    i honestly wish more bloggers would provide negative reviews – i understand the desire to only feature the best products, or only do positive reviews, but i also think that can take away a bit from a blogger’s integrity if she’s not already well-known and/or respected. i mean, if a blogger is constantly positive, and over-the-moon about EVERYTHING, i sincerely start to question the reviews – especially when all the products are sent for free from brands/PR cos. being honest includes being both positive and negative sometimes, i don’t think you can have one without the other.

    then again, i don’t work with PR companies to do reviews, so i’ve never received free product that i had to decide how to approach the review. i have never hesitated to give an honest review of things i buy and wear on my blog, and funnily enough, whenever it’s negative, i’m usually approached by the brand itself to offer some sort of recompense…which i also write about.

    i get that this is touchy because of PR relationships, but i really do wish we could find some sort of happy medium here, and not let blogs just turn into to outlets for pr companies to get glowing reviews of every product they send out (although they kind of already are…). because even if one blogger won’t review it at all unless she can give a positive review, someone out there WILL review it and give a positive review to keep in the good graces of the PR company…

    • Aida

      I completely agree with you! There have been so many times that I wish I had been warned about a certain product. Either the reviews were positive (and the product might have worked differently on them) or I cannot find any reviews at all. I also at this point do not receive any free products, and if I ever do I feel like if I took the time to try the product then for me it is not a waste of time to write a review.

    • Hey There, Stylish!

      I agree with you also, Grechen. When I’ve received or bought a product that’s not great, I feel that it’s my duty to my readers that I tell them the product was less-than-amazing. Going with the lip gloss example, I would say something like “this really wasn’t the shade for me,” or “it left my lips feeling dry” then I offer a solution to those problems. With this approach, I still feel that I’m giving an honest opinion without hurting PR relationships.

    • julia

      Great points Grechen; I think that it’s a lot harder to produce a well-written, negative one, then a glowing positive one, and its good to be able to use blogs as a reference for both the good and the bad. I think the bottom line is that bloggers should be giving honest reviews, and not feel pressured into having to create practically an advertorial-like for a product to spare a relationship or keep future product-giving in tact. Maybe I should write a post on how to write a negative review, since it seems to be such a topic at-hand!

    • Barbara

      I have actually provided a negative review about a brand or 2 but those were brands I interacted with based on purchase and I was not in anyway affiliated with them.

  5. Katie

    I think this is a great topic that when my blog gets bigger, I will be returning to. I haven’t been sent anything yet but hopefully my blog will continue to grow.

    As a frequent reader, I would like to know how to approach doing a negative review, though. I’m a very straight forward and up front type of person, so it’s natural for me to want to review a product- positive or negative. Is there a way to market that honesty to a company in a constructive way?

    • julia

      I think a good way at looking at different kinds of reviews is honestly the WWD runway reviews! AS far as the best way to market that honesty to a company- do you mean in an email, or written in a post?

  6. Barbara

    Only once have I received a truly wacky product and it was through a third party who shared the same opinion that the product was indeed bad so I didn’t have to meet with the brand owner or explain anything to them.

    However, I think the first approach is really the best and will leave everyone’s ego intact.

    Lagos, Nigeria

  7. My Fair Vanity

    I have to turn down most product offers bc the brand doesn’t meet the standards of my blog (eco-friendly, fairtrade or made in the USA). It’s more awkward for me when I simply don’t like a piece that I’ve been asked to review, like its not my style….

  8. Maliha Rao

    I have faced this issue at times. My approach is to politely tell the PR company / Product Agency that it was sweet of them to send me the product for review but it has more cons than pros and I dont want to diss them out so might not blog. I also try to be witty with my remarks when I am writing cons so if there are minor issues no one minds 🙂

    But this is a great Post and VERY relatable. Thanks for sharing 😀

    Maliha Rao aka Red ALice Rao
    Karachi, Pakistan

  9. DeLynne

    As a consumer and mother of a blogger I went to the internet to check reviews for a beauty product. Funnily enough all the reviews I read from bloggers who had been given pre-release samples were positive or gentle. As time went on the the product was released the reviews were universally negative. Bloggers will have to be silent or honest (and in this instance some bloggers were politely honest) if they expect consumers to take them seriously. So glad I hadn’t dropped $100 on the basis of a blogger’s ‘opinion’!

  10. Lizzie Maitland

    I’m going to respectfully disagree with this post. I think that yes, you do have a duty to inform the PR that for whatever reason the product doesn’t suit you but you also have a duty to your readers and yourself. To quietly put a product to one side because you don’t want to annoy the PR might be seen as good business sense but it is totally disingenuous.

    I hate writing negative reviews but it is important to readers to low whether a product is good or not. By not giving an honest review you are silently endorsing it. Also you end up with a blog saying everything is amazing which just looks fake and people won’t trust your judgement, leading to fewer hits and less PR engagement.

    My PR disclosure is that I am periodically sent products for review but this does not affect my review or objectivity. I stand by that and would recommend to any blogger to do the same. It’s not about placating PRs. It’s about being a honest voice, if not then why bother even trying the products at all? You can just say “they’re great” regardless!

  11. Narmai

    I agree with most of the ladies that commented before me. I think that when a brand sends you their product for review, they forfeit the right to influence the content of the review (it’s what the product itself should do).

    When I encounter this kind of problem, and unfortunately I have, I contact the brand to let them know what problems I encountered. I mention in my review that the product was not up to standard, but I also mention what kind of solution the brand offered (like take it off the market, do some of their own testing, etc). That way, my readers get my honest opinion and the brand gets put in good daylight.

  12. Chere

    I’ve actually given both good and bad feedback on the blog–I think brands actually appreciate it. So, for example, ‘this 100% organic lipstick smells like a hot peach pie and tastes almost as good when you lick your lips. The rosy hue looked wonderful in the tube and goes on strong, but unfortunately only lasted an hour or so on my mouth before the pigments started to wear off…’ is fair, balanced and gives good information to your readers, as well as the brand.

    Some brands have expressed their ‘disappointment’ I didn’t love the product, but they were also grateful for the honest feedback–and readers know they can trust our reviews.