5 Despicable Things People Do for Good Online Reviews
As a savvy consumer, you're too smart and cynical to be taken in by cheap hype and ad campaigns. You ignore the buzzwords and slogans and TV spots full of CGI and dubstep and go right to the reviews. That's where you find out whether or not something is worth your ad dollars: hearing from the unbiased people who've actually tried the product.
Only, well, there's a few things you should know about that ...
Companies Fill "Customer Review" Sections With Fakes
If you've ever bought or rented something online, you've probably spent some time reading user reviews on sites like Yelp before making a decision -- after all, 72 percent of consumers trust online reviews as personal recommendations. To most people, a five-star Amazon rating is the same thing as their best friend telling them to buy that book.
Also, 72 percent of consumers named the Internet as their best friend.
Sure, the cynical among us know that some of those reviews are planted by the sellers -- they're the ones that are a little too transparent in quoting the manufacturer's ad campaign ("I found that this vacuum cleaner provided a revolutionary cleaning experience thanks to its cutting edge Vortex(TM) technology"), but if you had to guess, what percentage of reviews are fakes? Five percent? Ten percent?
More like up to 30 percent -- almost one in every three reviews you read could be plants, depending on the product. So where do companies get so many fake reviews? The answer is that, like anything else in the world, you can buy them online.
"Reputation Warehouse, this is Linda speaking, how may I up your street cred?"
Yes, there are sites exclusively devoted to this. In 2010, Todd Rutherford started the (now defunct) website GettingBookReviews.com, which would write a positive review of a client's book on Amazon for $99. For those looking for even more praise, $499 got you 20 reviews and $999 got you 50. Rutherford ended up making $28,000 a month selling bullshit reviews, mostly to freelance writers who wanted publicity for their self-published books. And it worked: Author John Locke commissioned a shitload of fake reviews from Rutherford and, within five months, he became the first-ever person to sell a million e-books.
"Short answer: Put legs on the cover. Also, by cheating."
Rutherford's site ended up closing after Google frowned on his business, but as long as there are desperate writers who will buy them and even more desperate ones who will write them, fake reviews will continue to thrive. And they don't even have to be credible to work: As one Texas businessman tells it, for only $100 you can get someone on another continent to write you 200 positive reviews for whatever you want. In this case, the clearly fake reviews were filtered by Yelp, but other sites kept them up, and now the Texan's business is one of the top results in his category on Google. We're just gonna assume it has something to do with butt plugs.
Everyone wins, right? Well, except the consumers who ended up going to that guy's store or buying those shitty books, obviously. But, believe it or not, it gets worse ...
Companies Stifle Negative Reviews by Threatening Customers Who Write Them
If you're looking to rent a place and the landlords don't have any glaringly bad reviews out there, you know you're safe, right? If they were running a scam, past tenants would surely have said something. Since when do people hesitate to bitch on the Internet?
Since humanity decided that the world would be a better place if ... pffffft, sorry, we couldn't finish that with a straight face.
Since they started getting fined for it.
Say you want to go on a nice vacation in another state with your spouse, so you rent a house to stay there for five days. Unfortunately, the house has multiple problems, so after being denied a refund by the owners, you do the only thing you can do: You leave a bad review on the Internet. You then find that they have charged you an extra $500 on your credit card, just for posting that review. Yes, this can (and has) happened.
"We're trying to figure out how to send electric shocks through Yelp, but until then, this will do."
Renters Tom and Terri Dorow were contacted by their rental agency, Progressive Management Concepts, and told to delete the "unauthorized review" they'd posted on VRBO.com. It turns out that the agreement they signed when they rented the house (which you'd assume would include just the usual "You broke it, you bought it" and "Don't shit in the pool" clauses) contained fine print that prevented them from saying anything about the house without the owners' authorization. Technically, they couldn't even say good things about it.
"Well, we definitely stayed in a solid, three-dimensional construct."
But this is their fault for not reading the full contract, right? And it could never happen to you because you always do that, right? Well, the couple claims that they only received the papers weeks after paying for the rental, and at that point it would have been too late to back out anyway. In the end, they only got their money back after they agreed to delete the offending comment, plus an extra $200, presumably just to make them feel dirty.
Apparently this is part of a whole trend in the rental business, and the possible fines for leaving "unsolicited reviews" go up to $10,000. Oh, and you'll be blacklisted from renting any property managed by that company, too. And that's all legal.
"Also, we get one of your children. And no gingers, either; one of the good kids."
Meanwhile, the owners claim that they're just protecting themselves from customers who threaten to leave negative reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.com if they don't get free stuff. If you're not a douchebag and honestly didn't like the place, then tough shit. The only real way to deal with the fine is by contacting your credit card company and trying to deduct the charge. Also, you know, do read the contracts before you sign them, guys.
So if user reviews are so unreliable, you should just rely on the word of professional critics, right?
Publications Get Paid for Positive Reviews, and Critics Get Fired for Not Going Along
Notice how video game websites tend to run ads for the very games they're covering? What do you suppose happens when the game reviewers want to give a bad score to the same game that's paying their salary that week? You could ask Jeff Gerstmann, a former editorial director at GameSpot.com who got fired in 2007 after two mildly negative reviews caused Eidos Interactive and Sony to threaten to pull ad revenue from the site. You see, those companies spent money advertising the games, and it was implied that with that ad money would come positive reviews, regardless of the quality of the actual games.
Meanwhile, in 2010, Variety magazine was sued for publishing a negative review of a movie, which, again, is what they're supposed to be there for. Calibra Pictures argued that they bought a promotional package from Variety that promised to build their movie Iron Cross Oscar hype in its advertisements, but apparently they forgot to include a "Keep quiet if you think the movie sucks" clause in their contract. When a freelancer panned the film in a review, Calibra sued Variety and even got them to pull the review for a while, before a judge dismissed the lawsuit.
On the basis that "No one's ever heard of this movie, ever."
And if the site won't pull the review, there are other ways to smite them from the face of the Earth. Thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), it's extremely easy for copyright holders to fire off takedown notices that get websites automatically delisted from Google, so why not just file one against whoever said something mean about you? In August 2012, both Universal Music Group and Microsoft incorrectly served takedown notices to innocent blogs that just happened to host negative reviews of their latest turds (Drake's album Take Care and Windows 8, respectively). None of those sites hosted or linked to illegal content, but Google practically erased them from the Internet right away. That's how the DMCA works -- you're presumed guilty until you prove your innocence, so an accusation from a huge company is all it takes.
Maybe that's the sort of thing you'd expect from the music industry and a software monopoly, but you know who you wouldn't expect it from? Doctors. Yet there is a group called Medical Justice that consists of nearly 2,500 doctors who, when not going on Yelp and posing as satisfied patients, use copyright to remove negative reviews written by patients. They do this by having the patient sign a contract that gives the company ownership rights to any online reviews. That way, if someone writes a review that the doctor doesn't like, a DMCA takedown is used and the review is forcibly removed.
"And that isn't the only thing we'll forcibly remove if you don't leave that keyboard."
Ads Take Critic Quotes Out of Context to Make Them Seem Positive
Of course, the real value of praise from a professional critic is that the people selling the product get to paste a glowing quote right on their ad. The customers don't need to go look up no reviews for this shit! The review is right there in the ad! Gene Shalit said it was "mesmerizing!"
But here's where it gets sad: Getting positive blurbs for, say, a movie isn't that difficult -- there's a special type of critic lovingly known as a "quote whore" who will intentionally fill every review with short, enthusiastic phrases in the hopes of seeing their name on a movie poster or a TV ad. That's how the poster for Will Smith's I Am Legend ended up looking like this:
"I literally dug up Orson Welles' corpse and shat in his mouth!" -Ben Lyons, E!
Some critics provide the blurbs to the studio on demand and are rewarded by being invited to junkets (free trips to screenings where critics are treated to a fancy time) or just by having their picture taken with a star. Others willingly sign off on studio-created quotes they never wrote. But the problem with quote whores and junket queens is that their names soon lose credibility, so the studios have to figure out how to get good quotes from more respected reviewers ... even if it means pulling their words out of context to make them say something they never meant.
Let's say you have a reviewer calling Live Free or Die Hard "hysterically overproduced" and then "surprisingly entertaining," which isn't exactly the sort of endorsement you'd put on a poster. No problem -- just shorten it to "hysterically entertaining" and call it a day. This happens all the time: In 2010, one reviewer at Variety described the show Lost as "the most confusing, asinine, ridiculous -- yet somehow addictively awesome -- television show of all time." Naturally, the folks at NBC omitted the "confusing, asinine, ridiculous" part for their ads, completely changing the meaning of the sentence.
"Ah, ellipsis, you've done it again, you magnificent bastard."
Not desperate enough for you? Well, another common trick is to find a sentence where the reviewer is saying good things about something other than the movie, then pretending it's about the movie. For example, one blurb for the famously shitty Norbit read: "Eddie Murphy's comic skills are immense." What it didn't mention was that the critic was actually speaking about Murphy's other, non-terrible movies, before wondering why he would appear in what he defined as "a comedy for masochists."
The poster's tagline was taken from Murphy's therapy sessions.
The studios will even do this for reviews that aren't completely negative. A 1995 review for Se7en gave the film a B grade, while pointing out that the opening sequence was "a small masterpiece of dementia" in itself. The studio simply took that one word -- "masterpiece" -- and slapped it on their ads.
The Critic Whose Review You Read Might Not Even Exist
And here's where it gets even sadder. Let's say you're a studio executive and your usual quote whores aren't giving you enough exclamation marks to convince people to see your movie. No problem: Just do what Sony Pictures did and make shit up.
You see, if you paid attention to movie ads between 2000 and 2001, chances are you read several blurbs from David Manning, a critic working for The Ridgefield Press who consistently wrote good reviews for the movies Sony crapped out, including Rob Schneider's The Animal. Knowing that no critic could possibly give a good review to a film where Schneider says anything more than "You can do it" without self-destructing, Newsweek decided to do a little investigating and found out that The Ridgefield Press had never heard of "David Manning." Sony then admitted that Manning was invented by their marketing department.
They fashioned him with magic, like a golem, only from cocaine instead of clay.
Sony lamented the lapse in judgment ... and then proceeded to do it again. When Mel Gibson's The Patriot came out in 2001, a commercial was aired showing two ordinary moviegoers calling it "the perfect date movie," except that they weren't so ordinary -- they both worked at the marketing department at Sony. Man, what are the chances, right?
We suppose we should point out here that this practice is older than Sony, or even movies. When Walt Whitman released his poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855, the first line was "I celebrate myself," and that's exactly what he did. When critics called the book "a mass of stupid filth," among other things, Whitman simply wrote anonymous reviews for his own work, calling it "transcendental and new" and comparing himself to William Shakespeare.
"Indeed, the only fault one can find in Whitman is his inconveniently large penis size." -Anonymous
If Whitman had had an Internet connection, he probably would have taken his trolling even further, like British thriller writer R.J. Ellory, who got himself in a heap of trouble when it was discovered that he used multiple Amazon accounts over the course of 10 years to praise his books. He'd call his work "a masterpiece" and give himself five stars, at the same time using the same accounts to give one-star reviews to other writers.
That shit happens all the time. Orlando Figes, one of Britain's leading historians, also used Amazon to anonymously praise himself while trashing his rivals. When people began challenging him about the reviews, Figes threatened legal action on those people and later blamed the whole thing on his wife, eventually admitting that it was him all along.
"And by 'me' I meant the dwarfs who live in my keyboard."
Sammy Trujillo has a Tumblr about his love of movies.
For more stupid things people do on the Internet, check out 6 Places You Should Never Twitter From and 5 Wacky Internet Pranks That Can Get You Jail Time.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out Why McDonald's Has the Most Insane Twitter Account.
And stop by LinkSTORM to see what we thought of the new Gold Bond cream with aloe.
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