Monday, May 11, 2009


I need your help with a dilemma that I am facing...

From time to time I review sailing products on this blog. Sometimes they are of products or services I have bought; other times the manufacturer sends me a sample of his product and asks me to review it on Proper Course. My question is whether it is ethical for me to accept such a "sample" and write a review of it. I ask because perhaps there is a risk that I may write a more favorable review because I was given a sailing goodie for free, or at least my readers might perceive that my opinion is biased because of accepting such a gift from the maker.

A few days ago I received an email from a vendor who recognizes how tricky this situation is. He would like me to try out a new product he is launching and if I "think it is good" to write about it on my blog. (Hmmm. What if I think it's crap?) But he is worried that if he just sends me the product for free that I "may feel obliged to write good stuff." (True. That's the dilemma.) At the same time he feels that he cannot ask me to buy the product at full price and then enjoy the benefit of a favorable review. He suggests the Solomonic solution of a 50% discount... or perhaps a larger credit against one of his other offerings. But I'm not sure that either of those really solves the problem.

To complicate the issue somewhat, the sender of the email is someone I already know through sailing... not a bosom friend but a sailing buddy at least. (That's true of some of the other products I have reviewed here in the past too.) Does that influence me to write favorably about his products? Maybe.

So what do you think?

  • Is it OK for me to accept free products and services and then review them here? Would you believe such reviews?

  • Does it solve the problem if I disclose the fact that I have received the item under review for free and/or the manufacturer is someone I know personally?

  • Or should I never accept such free "samples"? I suppose I could pay for them in full, send them back after testing them (if practical), or donate them to other sailors.

  • Does the value of the product make any difference? For example, would it be OK to accept gifts up to a value of $100 say, but not anything worth more than that?

  • Or do you think I am making too much of this? Most of the reviews of stuff you read in the mainstream media is given to the review writers by the manufacturers, so why should bloggers be held to a different standard? (I've no idea if the first part of that last sentence is true, by the way.)

  • Or do you think it's a non-issue because you never believe anything you read here anyway. You think that most of what I write is utter nonsense, or the opposite of what I really think, so you never give any credence to my reviews.

  • Or perhaps you don't want me to write reviews here at all. You just want more stories about Tillerman making a fool of himself on the race course.

Seriously, I would like to know what you think. Comments please.


Brendan Gill said...

I would like to see reviews here you blog. However I do feel that whatever you say would be quite powerful and will be remebered by most.

perhaps if you wish to write q review on a product you could ask a terminal to comment on any issues you have with it before you make the post?

tillerman said...

Thanks Brendan. Not sure what you mean by "ask a terminal" but if you mean that I could raise any negative issues I perceive with the supplier before writing the post, then that is normally what I do. For example in my review of the Intensity Sails Laser Foil Bag, it seemed to me that it carried the daggerboard the wrong way up. So I raised that issue with the supplier, Jim Myers, and published both my view and his response.

yarg said...

The day that we find out that Tillerman is in the pocket of "Big Sailing" will be a dark day indeed, yet another loss of innocence. At that point we will demand full disclosure of all discounts received on all sailing gear over the years. We should see tax returns too. And maybe check immigration status. Until then, I'm will to trust.
Do you think you could get Jim Meyers to give my sailing team a few of his new 420 reduced area mainsails in exchange for a review?

tillerman said...

lol yarg. Thanks for the trust.

But you're on your own with Jim. Good luck!

O Docker said...

At the mainstream (at least for now) newspaper where I work, we have a strict policy about freebies.

Writers may accept no products or compensation, period - even the books or cd's they're reviewing. It all goes to the paper and is then sold to our employees, with the proceeds donated to charity.

For a while, we weren't even accepting loaner cars for driving tests on the auto page - we'd rent them. Eventually, that became impractical, but, even though the cars were returned after a week, management was still uncomfortable with the idea.

Once you start down the path, all of those slippery questions you've raised come up and, you're right, it would take a Solomon to resolve them. Not that you don't possess the wisdom of Solomon, but Solomon never needed a spiffy new drysuit.

I still like reading your product reviews, though, even though I'd probably never use most of the stuff since I don't sail a Laser. I guess I just like seeing how you're going to rationalize getting free goodies this time.

tillerman said...

Thanks O Docker for clarifying the policy of at least one mainstream media outlet. As I half suspected, what I wrote about the policy of the MSM in my original post was total crap... like a lot of the stuff on this blog.

I'm pleased that you are looking forward to seeing how I'm going to rationalize getting free goodies this time. So am I.

Hmmm. Let's see. Maybe I should just charge the vendor a fee for each review (on top of the freebie) and just put some small print on the post saying "Advertising Feature"? Isn't that what newspapers do?

harrymvt said...

Write an honest review, solicit comments about it, then give the swag away to a random commenter.

Turinas said...

Total transparency. Do it

Litoralis said...

The most ethical solution would probably be to accept the products on loan from the vendor with the understanding that the items will be returned after the review period. However, you are not trying to be the Consumer Reports of sailing here, so accepting the occasional freebie is not the end of the world. As long as you are clear about what is going on, I think people will understand.

O Docker said...

You raise (or at least hint at) a good point.

Despite their sanctimonious policies about freebies, newspapers have been guilty for years of publishing entire sections dedicated to promoting the products of major advertisers. Most food and auto sections are very thinly disguised promotions with mainly happy talk articles about advertisers' products.

When was the last time you read a really scathing car review in a newspaper?

(And you wonder why I post here with an alias?)

tillerman said...

For that matter, when was the last time you read a really scathing review here?

Does Uncrustables count?

Anonymous said...

Practical Sailor scrounges equipment from vendors, so you'd be in good company.

Steve in Baltimore

Andrew said...

Take what is offered and write an honest review. If you find you are offered less, because vendors only want a positive story, the roblem resolves itself.
Just continue to tell the whole story, all cards on the table. I enjoy your reviews.

Andrew said...

Looks like I have a 'roblem' with my typing :)

Jos said...

If you feel the product is only send to solicit a positive review and your not free to write what you want, don't accept it.
And disclosure is always a good idea. Readers can then determine if they accept your opinion with all the facts available.

You're payment for the product may not be in $ but still has value for the semder - otherwise he would have send it in the first place. And "trading" goods (services) is how it all started...a long time ago, so why not?

Carol Anne said...

The newspaper at which I used to work had a similar policy to that of O Docker's employer. The reviewers are, for the most part, not to keep the items that they review -- although there was one interesting twist for books. They could be taken home and kept by anybody other than the person who wrote the review. I have a couple of interesting souvenirs of my sojourn on the sports desk.

For the purposes of your blog, I would go with disclosure that products have been donated, and in the case of particularly valuable items, you would either a) pay the full price if you wanted to keep them or b) donate them to an organization promoting sailing, especially for people who can't afford to buy their own fancy stuff, such as disadvantaged youth.

Mike said...

I agree with most of the previous comments.

Perhaps you should get back to your ‘friend’ and let him know that you won’t be bribed into giving a dishonest review. If you think his product is crap you’ll say so. He may not get back to you.

There are, I'm sure a lot of folk out here who, like me are increasingly sceptical of adverts and reviews. And in the present financial climate we are desperate for reviews we can believe in.

Remember the reason we follow your blog is ‘cause we trust you.

Zen said...

I agree with Andrew, take the stuff and write an honest review. If they do not want or can not handle honestly, they will not give up any more, garden is weeded and problem is done.

BTW I thought you were off-line?!

Brendan Gill said...

Tiller man i am sorry "ask a terminal" was supposed to read ask a supplier..

I have too much work on my mind..

Anonymous said...

All this sounds more complicated than necessary. To expand on earlier answers - Please keep reviewing both good stuff and trivia. I suggest you accept all goodies and review them if you feel moved too. If you write an honest opinion that you feel is negative, clearly you won't want the cr*p you have reviewed and invite the supplier to arrange collection. If you right a positive review keep the item and consider the supplier well recompensed for his efforts.

Finally id offered a Swan 55, which you hate - please write a positive review and let me know where I can collect the now unwanted boat!

AKA Poesje

Anonymous said...

Ethics: a set of moral principals

It is only a dilemma if you feel that the set of moral principals by which you guide your life will be violated.

Your writing and views speak of someone who has a high regard for honesty and integrity.

Will your integrity or honesty be impinged by reviewing a product that was given to you for free? Only the Tillerman can answer that question.

JP said...

Interesting question.

Never had to battle with that one, but my instinct is to say no if you think it will in anyway restrict you from saying what you think about it.

Yes it is your blog and you can do anything you like with it, and we do trust you to say what you think, but it might be easier if there is no obligation.

Carol Anne and O'Docker's views from inside the MSM are good pointers as to what *should* be best practice.

On the other hand if Swan or Oyster offered me a new yacht if only I'd review it my conscience would probably take a couple of days holiday ;)

Luckily no danger of that!

M Squared said...

I agree with Litoralis.

PeconicPuffin said...

The highest standard of review is probably set by Consumer Reports, who not only accept freebies, they acquire their test samples via retail so manufacturers can't provide a tuned up item.

But this is a blog, of course.

If you can ruthlessly tell the truth, then reviewing gear is fine. Pros blow it all the time (the guy who does consumer electronics reviews for the Wall Street Journal has churned out some serious bozo work.)

Anonymous said...

I would simply like to know whether the author of a product review bought the product or it was given to him for free. Because a lot of stuff, especially sailing gear, would surely be really neat to have but is just too darn expensive to bother (I surely would appreciate a complete Zhik outfit, even if it would make me look like a all-the-gear - no-idea dork but would I spend double the price? I would like to know, among other things, is it worth the asked price to You? That might be harder to answer if just arrives in mail and it's just a matter of 'gee, this is nice!'.

A Dude

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