Please Review Bad Pens

Last week, I noticed that Ian Hadley (of Pens! Pencils! Paper!) had updated his product review disclaimer to be more transparent about reviews (a move for which I congratulated him), and this got me looking at the disclaimer of other FP blogs. While reading the disclaimer at Gourmet Pens, I came across this:

“If I don't like it, I generally don't review it, because, like I said: it's a lot of work.” *

I don’t want this to seem like I’m picking on Azizah because this is a fairly common attitude (and because I respect the amount she contributes towards the community, particularly her flexy music nib pictures on Instagram) but I totally disagree with the idea that it’s only worth reviewing good products. So in today’s post, we’re going to look at the argument in favour of reviews of bad products.

The first reason is that reviewers have an ethical duty to their audience: if your review can influence someone’s decision to spend hundreds of dollars on a product – perhaps a week’s wages – it seems reasonable to expect that a reviewer will be honest about their opinions. And honestly doesn’t just mean the truth, it means the whole truth: sharing what a reviewer genuinely likes and dislikes about a product. I think that most reviewers are comfortable with that claim and are honest in their opinions. But when a reviewer chooses not to share their opinions about a product that they dislike or think is a bad pen, it starts to get murkier: the audience may be getting the whole truth about specific products, but not about the product range.

If no reviewer were to publish a review of a bad pen, we might reasonably expect that a potential buyer would google around, find nothing negative, and proceed with a purchase that they would not otherwise make: if the purchase were something like a Stipula Splash (which I consider to be a bad product, if you’re after a flex nib), then that user would be out $65. For some people, weeks or months of saving might lead to a purchase that they very much regret.

Having the ability to influence how someone spends their money cuts both ways: it’s fine to be a cheerleader for products you love and think others will love, but that also means you have to warn people away from buying products that you despise and think others will despise too.

I realise the counterargument for some people will be that they want to keep their reviews light and positive, but I don’t accept this: Funkmon on Pens was a short-lived blog that showed how a negative review can be hilarious and fun. It’s certainly more challenging to the writer, but when done well, it can also be more entertaining to the reader.

A second reason is that negative reviews are a useful tool for readers to calibrate their own preferences against the reviewer. I think most readers are delighted when they come across a reviewer who has the same preferences as themselves, but it can be difficult to figure that out when most of the comments are positive. It’s not until a reviewer can articulate why they dislike a particular product that readers can understand if those preferences are well matched. My inner cynic might be coming out here, but I’ve always felt that a true friend isn’t someone who likes the same things as you but someone who hates the same things as you. Those are the ties that bind.

It’s worth remembering that negative feedback is actually quite useful for brands: if a bad product actually makes it to market, it might be a sign the manufacturer doesn’t have the greatest internal architecture. In those cases, negative reviews might help a brand to understand why a product isn’t selling and to generate ideas on what needs to change. If companies can learn to interact more with the community, it should hopefully lead to better design and fewer bad products in the first place, but this isn’t something that can be achieved without negative reviews.

Of course, all of this is relatively benign so far: we aren’t discussing actual harm being caused, but simply the opportunity for reviewers to do better by the community and potentially prevent some harm which may otherwise occur. My deeper concern is that an unscrupulous reviewer could take advantage of this kind of policy: say to their audience, I don’t do positive reviews for sponsorship, and say to the sponsors that you also don’t do negative reviews. This is a pretty sweet arrangement for the sponsor but it’s not quite as sweet for the audience, which may be deceived into believing the reviewer is more independent or reliable than they really are. I’m not saying the deception is intentional – it may be entirely unintentional – yet the outcome is much the same as being paid for broadly positive reviews. And our opinion of such a reviewer should be that they are unethical, for they are perpetrating a harm at the expense of their audience for their own benefit.

Now, I’m not saying that any reviewer in the community does this at the moment, simply that the potential exists. This potential is increased where there is acceptance of the view that negative reviews are undesirable, and – for me at least – this is the strongest argument in support of changing those review policies, alongside the fact that they are informative, useful to buyers and to firms, and can actually be quite entertaining.

So my simple request of pen reviewers in the community is this: please, write reviews of bad pens.

*Update (23/3): As Kerin has noted in the comments, Gourmet Pens' About page has now been edited to remove this quote.