The ethics of reviewing products

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This article is part of the Internet Marking for Artists series that you can follow at

Today I want to talk about a different type of marketing: product marketing through influencers. While this isn't related to marketing yourself, I hope there may be something useful you can learn too.

This article is inspired by someone who called me a shill on Youtube -- that comment has been deleted by the person so I can't link it here.

I've reviewed thousands of products over the past ten years and I can't remember the last time I was called a shill. But I'm not surprised being called one because I've reviewed too many products, and it's fact that there are many shills on Youtube.

In this article, you'll learn how reviewers, or shills, make money and the ethics of reviewing products.

Conflict of interest: Who doesn't want a free product

Influencer marketing is a huge thing and is getting bigger because the number of so called influencers is increasing. Display ads placed by Youtube or Google can be blocked. Reviews made by Youtube creators can't be blocked and are usually watched because people want to hear what their favourite Youtubers have to say about whatever products they are featuring.

These are several ways to get products to review:

  1. Borrow from a friend
  2. Buy the product, review, then sell it away
  3. Get a loan unit which you have to return to the company
  4. Get a sponsored (free) product in exchange for a review
  5. Get a sponsored product and get paid money to make a review

I use the first four ways to get product to review. I don't ask for payment to review products is they are sponsored, and when I get free products I always tell companies that I can't promise a positive review, only a balanced review.

Most people won't refuse a free product in exchange for a review. But that also creates a conflict of interest because when you get something for free, there's this innate human instinct to reciprocate.

But just because there's conflict of interest does not mean the review may be biased. A person getting a free product can still put out a balanced review. Paying for the product yourself does not mean the review is going to be unbiased too, e.g. look at all the Apple fanboy reviews.

I try to review products as factually and as objectively as possible. I'll just present my findings and let people decide whether the product is worth the money.

The problem comes when Youtubers/influencers want to return the favour by putting out unjustified positive reviews in hopes of getting more free products in the future. Because if you say something negative, the company can easily go to other reviewers.

The consequences of a biased review

There are consequences to putting out a biased review.

When people buy a product based on your recommendation and the product does not perform up to expectations, you can expect people will come back to complain. You're lucky if the complaints are sent through email to you directly. Most people just complaint online, in comment sections. Some will call you a shill publicly. You can delete comments but how many can you delete? And you most certainly cannot delete comments not posted on your platforms.

The product you review may also be owned by the viewers. When you promote a product that does not deserve merit, people with the same product but less than ideal experiences will speak up. Whenever I mention problems/glitches/downsides I discover, I sometimes see people report the same problems.

All this will affect your integrity.

People who buy products based on biased reviews are going to waste money. You may get a free product or earn money through affiliate sales but in the long run you'll lose trust, be known as a shill and people will keep coming back to complain, and you'll lose subscribers. Only the company benefits while your viewers and you suffer the consequences of the biased review. So is it worth it to trade your integrity for some free products?

Case study: PaperLike
PaperLike actually contacted me to ask if I would review their matte screen protector. Their screen protectors are priced at US $40 for two pieces. I know of cheaper alternatives, e.g. SuperShieldz sells three pieces for less than US $9. PaperLike screen protector actually performs fine but cheaper alternatives perform almost similarly at a fraction of the price. In other words PaperLike is seriously overpriced.

Since I know of cheaper alternatives, I cannot accept the free product to go on and tell people not to buy PaperLike.

There are so many reviews for PaperLike on Youtube because the company understands influencer marketing. The company just has to send out some screen protectors that cost less than $3 per piece to these influencers, let the influencers do their job, and reap the rewards. The revenue for each sale before costs is probably US $34. Influencers may earn some money too if they are signed up with the PaperLike affiliate program. It's a win-win for the company and influencers, and maybe the customers if they don't mind paying $40 for two pieces of screen protectors.

Are those Youtube creators shills? I can't say because I don't know if they know of cheaper alternatives they can recommend to their audience. But if those creators actually know of cheaper alternatives and still recommend PaperLike, obviously it's unethical.

Anyway, I went on to purchase the PaperLike screen protector so that I can make a video to tell people to save their money and get cheaper alternatives. I've nothing against the company. I do that because I see so many Youtube channels promoting PaperLike and it just doesn't feel right to me to be promoting overpriced screen protectors. I wanted to make a video to tell people there are cheaper options available and they can save money.

After my video was published, there were many who said they saved money by getting the cheaper alternatives I recommended.

What matters most is a balanced an informed review, not one that's positive or negative

A balanced and informed review is a helpful review. Whether it's a positve or negative review isn't important. All you have to do is present your findings and let people decide on their own. And you should definitely not withhold information related to the product that you know but others don't. E.g. cheaper alternatives, hiding a flaw.

When I suspect there's a chance that I won't give a positive review, I won't accept the free product. It doesn't make sense to take the free product only to tell my audience not to buy the product.

But if I do receive a lousy but free product, then I just have to review the product as it is objectively without hiding anything.

There are many occasions where I had to give less than positive reviews for sponsored products or products on loan.

E.g. Lenovo MatePad Pro 2021 is not worth the money because of the limitation of Huawei AppGallery. All of Microsoft Surface, Dell, Acer, Lenovo Windows tablets I've reviewed have issues with drawing performance. So I don't ever recommend them for professional illustration work. It's sad to say that because I have featured many of their products over the years and they just don't get better. XP-Pen Artist 16TP ($899) has issues with pressure sensitivity. Artisul Pencil tablet is more a beer coaster than drawing tablet. Bosto 16HD pen display is just not good. ASUS PA32UCG ($4999) has quality control issues. The legendary and expensive Winsor Newton series 7 brush is kinda crap.

Can you imagine the amount of backlash I would get if I were to hide the flaws and put out positive reviews for those products mentioned above?

Companies may not like the negative reviews obviously, but your audience will thank you for for the balanced reviews even if they don't say anything. Companies can also use negative reviews to improve their products. The early pen displays from Huion and XP-Pen had many issues that I pointed out over the years. Those two companies take the feedback, not just from me, and improve on their products every year. Their recent products are now so much better than the earlier ones. The pros and cons lists now have more + than -.

If companies don't like my reviews and don't want to work with me, it's fine too. I don't make money online just from reviewing products, and I most certainly don't just work with one single company. I made over thousands of reviews because I enjoy reviewing stuff, and it makes me happy when I see my reviews help people. The money I earn is just a byproduct of the reviews I make.

How do reviewers make money?

There are many ways a reviewer can earn money from product reviews, namely:

1. Affiliate sales: Each sale made through an affiliate link will earn some commission for the reviewer. This is kinda like how car salesman or property agents earn, through affiliate sales.

2. Sell the sponsored product: If you get the sponsored product for free, you can sell it off. When you have receive too many products, you either give them away or you sell them off. Over the years, I've given away many products (above) as prizes.

3. Earn through display ads: Youtube pays creators based on the number of views an ad is shown. So if your video is popular and has large number of views, you'll earn more. Payouts is typically around US $1 - 3 per thousand views.

4. Get paid by the company: When this happens, the company usually is asking for a product promotion, product placement or an ad. They don't want your review because they don't want you to say negative things about their products. Companies pay you to talk about the features. When companies pay you to make reviews, not an ad, the result is usually a very pretentious review where everyone knows you're paid. I've seen influencers promoting fruit juice say they drink 1 litre a day. Are they recommending diabetes to their audience? It just tells your audience you're a sell-out.

I earn money through the first three ways.

I do work with companies occasionally to write some sponsored posts which are usually in the form of shopping guides based on products that I've already review. That's pretty much the only type of sponsored posts I get paid to write. I don't write those often though, only during back-to-school sales and holiday shopping season.

Can negative reviews earn money?

Negative reviews can still earn money through affiliate sales.

People buy products for all sorts of reasons. They could buy products because there's some promotion, or maybe they don't mind the downsides of the product, or maybe they just have a limited budget.

Just because a product is excellent doesn't mean everyone will be buying that product for reasons I've mentioned above.

To make money from a negative review, just recommend better products as alternative. When I put out a negative review, I don't expect to earn much from affiliate sales. But I can still earn through affiliate sales when I recommend better products as alternatives.

More about my approach to reviewing products

I don't like unnecessary to and fro conversations with companies who want to change reviews. That's why I'll be upfront to companies and say that I can't promise a positive review.

I usually don't approach companies to ask for products to review unless I've worked with them before. Most of the sponsored products I reviewed are from companies who approach me. It's easier to work with companies who want to work with you in the first place.

If you want to review a product and you don't know who to contact, be prepared for a lack of response or to and fro conversations. Some companies only respond or provide review units through PR companies. So if you contact the companies instead of the PR companies, you don't get replies.

It's also important to let companies know the type of exposure they can expect. When and where will the review be posted? What's the demographic of your audience or readers? How many views are expected based on articles you've posted in the past? There will be awkwardness and unpleasantness if you don't let the companies know all these upfront.

I try to make my reviews as helpful to people as possible. People may comment to thank you for your reviews. You can show those thank-you quotes to the any new companies you may work with in the future. The best thank-you quotes are from those who actually bought the product based on your reviews. I love those because that's why I make reviews in the first place, to help people and let them know exactly what they are buying.

Every so often I may miss out on mentioning certain things and people will ask me in the comments section. I always make it a point to include the info in my future reviews. Sometimes I have unboxing videos where I ask people what they want to know so that I can answer them in the full review.

I've been burned by bad reviews or untruthful reviews before. I once bought a phone which was reviewed to have really good video recording quality but was actually crap in real life. That was when I learned that sometimes you can't take reviews at face value. You have to do more research on products that you buy, especially for expensive products. There are creators who care more about making money, getting constant supply of free products, than their audience. Some creators care more about views than anything else.

I don't keep all the products I receive. I may sell them or give them away. As such, there are times when people would ask me about the durability of the product and that's always a question I cannot answer because I just don't use some products that long. Just be truthful and people will understand.

Some of the products that I review are really good. Those are the easiest products to review because there's no troubleshooting involved. But there are also products which are problematic with issues and those can take a lot of time to troubleshoot, complete with days of to-and-fro conversations with companies.

One last thing. Know who your reviews are for. I'm an artist and graphic designer so my reviews are for people who are artists and graphic designers. It's actually quite competitive when it comes to reviewing products. You can search for a product and see lots of search results on Google. Unfortunately, many are actually written by content farms who just re-writes reviews from others and compile them into a list with a big BUY-NOW Amazon button after each paragraph. The best way to compete is to write for very specific audience. For example, graphic designers would value reviews from graphic designers more because they do the same work and may have the same needs, wants, problems and challenges.

So that's all I know about reviewing products.

Other sources

Check out this review where Arun Maini talks about how tech companies manipulate reviewers.


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