The Ethics of Blog Sponsorship

This week we’re going to have a two-part post looking at ethics in the pen review world. You may have noticed an increase in sponsorship over the last few months of fountain pen review blogs and Youtube channels, and I thought it might be a good time to discuss some of the issues that it raises for the community. The first post is going to focus on sponsorship while the will look at the conflict that emerges when reviewing a friend’s product. Some of the ideas here came out of a discussion on reddit and I’d particularly like to thank Brad Dowdy for his comments (under the username /u/placket).

We’ll kick off with a discussion about why sponsorship has picked up lately and why it’s beneficial for reviewers before moving onto the ethical issues that it raises.

A recent post had a look at the role of reviewers and made two points that relate to this post: first, a good review is one that helps others understand the actual experience of owning the pen, and whether it is worth the price. Second, reviews of a pen are really beneficial in the online community to help reduce the amount of uncertainty that we face in spending perhaps hundreds of dollars on a product that we may never have seen or used before.

It’s hardly a surprise that retailers and brands would be keen to encourage more reviews of their product: not only does it help get the word out but it helps buyers to discern whether they will be happy with the product ahead of time. It increases sales and decreases the number of returns. It’s a relatively cheap investment too: for the cost of a single product (even a discount on the product or a temporary loan of one), an informative review can spur purchases and drive greater brand awareness. So it’s easy to understand why they’d be happy to sponsor reviewers.

It’s also easy to understand why reviewers would jump at the chance to get a pen for free or at a discount – isn’t that every pen nerd’s dream?! – even if it’s just for the experience of trying something new or different. Paid sponsorships – like the Pen Addict’s weekly sponsors -  are even better, enabling reviewers to be paid for doing what they love.

Audiences also benefit by getting exposure to more brands and pens than they would otherwise see and from reviewers being given an incentive to build the blogs, communities, and interaction that can support a sponsorship effort.

So although there are benefits to all stakeholders, some ethical issues are raised when one party begins benefitting, potentially at the expense of another. Before we get into those issues, I want to be clear and say that I support sponsorship in principle, when it is done properly and brings benefits to the entire community.

The first problem is fairly straightforward: if a reviewer is sponsored by a particular brand, it might change their behaviour in ways that benefit the sponsor but harm the audience. I think most reviewers in our community are entirely decent and honest, so it seems unlikely to me that anyone would recommend a pen they know to be bad, but they might be inclined to engage in some self-censorship and avoid direct criticism. Obviously once a reviewer has a sponsor, it’s inevitable that they will want to ensure that the relationship with the sponsor is a positive (and ongoing) one or perhaps to establish a reputation that attracts other sponsors. So it does seem possible that a reviewer could soften the language of a negative comment or omit some aspect of a review. Or a reviewer might choose to put greater emphasis on positive aspects of the product than they would otherwise. We might describe reviews of this sort as biased, although some might debate the choice of phrase.

It’s worth noting that this might not be a conscious, intentional bias: all of us, as people, are hard-wired to want to please other people and this can manifest itself in ways we don’t necessarily expect or realise. And, in my opinion, this is less of a problem in the FP community than it is elsewhere.

In obvious or extreme cases, the problem is self-correcting: a reviewer producing biased or unreliable reviewers will not be helping their readers to make better buying decisions and will likely lose that audience and soon enough the sponsors will be lost as well. It is only by maintaining their integrity and honesty that a reviewer can hope to keep their audience and the sponsors they support.

This is a serious ethical issue which, in my opinion, every reviewer with sponsors (or a sponsorship offer) needs to consider seriously: who is your primary audience? Is it the readers who expect – and arguably deserve – your honest opinion of the product or the sponsors who may be supporting you financially? If there is a conflict and one side needs to be chosen, which are you choosing and why? And whatever your answer: I think you need to be upfront with your audience about that choice.

Whenever there is money involved (or other support) and the potential for bias, I think a reviewer has a duty to be honest and transparent with their audience both about the identity of the sponsor and their expectations. Ideally, I would like to see reviewers stating categorically that they will only accept sponsorship money or products if the sponsor is willing to accept a negative review. I can understand why a reviewer would be hesitant about this – nobody wants to give up the potential for freebies, especially when it might be a pen that you’ve been itching to acquire – but my opinion is that it’s the only choice you can make. For reviewers, your honest opinion is the main thing – indeed, the only thing – you can offer to your audience. Once that's gone, so is your audience and sponsorship deal.

I also think that for anyone who is borrowing or given a product, it’s inappropriate for them to make any claims about whether the product is worth the price (unless they then choose to buy it at that price). While this is not exactly common practice, I have seen it done and find it genuinely unethical. Most readers have probably been in a situation – with pens or something else – where you have ordered a product online, only for it to arrive and for you to feel that sting of disappointment when you realise that it is not actually worth the money. If you are reviewing a pen that you were given and are pretty happy with it, that means it was good value at $0. You can guess that you'd be ok with paying for it, but it's just that: a guess. It may not feel the same way if you had to give up $100 or $500 of your own money, and it’s not something you should comment on unless you have been through that experience for yourself. After all, you wouldn’t review a pen you haven’t actually used.

Being offered some kind of sponsorship can be thrilling and can make product reviews a lot more rewarding for the reviewer, but it can also raise issues about bias, integrity, and what you want your site to be: a place for people to learn and become informed about products or an outsourced part of a company’s marketing department. 

Our next post is going to explore another ethical issue: the conflict raised when you need to review a product made by a friend or produced by someone who will be soon reviewing a product of yours.