How I Used Fake Reviews For Tons Of Free Crap
Hey, did you know that you can get your stuff published online, where millions can view it? Good god, you might even be paid for it. And what's more, the feedback you get may propel you to even greater heights as a writer! Well, maybe you did know that. But maybe that's not for you. Maybe you're looking for a bunch of free crap that involves zero work and a whole lot of deception. Good news: That's an option as well, because the internet is both the greatest tool for communication and an endless source of villainy. As we found out when Brian Penny told us about how ...
Unpaid Bloggers And Uncurated Work Are A Recipe For Disaster
When my personal blog got some attention in 2013 and The Huffington Post invited me to write for them, I felt really proud at first. Wasn't this the outlet that had just won a Pulitzer? (It was!) And wasn't this one of the most read sites in the world? (Sort of!)
Truly, this was an honor.
Then you really take a look at the site and realize how little of it is of any substance. Go to the front page and you'll get a story taken straight from Reuters -- which is a legitimate way of spreading the news, sure, but HuffPost doesn't deserve credit for that. Then you get a political report that's a direct rewording of someone else's linked article, which in turn just reports a single line from a CNN interview. Another article, credited to a "HuffPost reporter," is 60 words introducing a GIF someone else made, then embedding various reaction tweets. And then come the various pieces that do nothing but summarize late-night comedy videos.
And that's the sort of high-quality content HuffPost values most -- that is to say, the stuff produced by the staff, whom the site pays. In addition to all that, the site uses bloggers (9,000 when I was there), and they aren't paid at all. They're just supposed to be thankful for the privilege of writing for such a platform, and for the exposure they'll receive. HuffPost laughs off criticism that they're exploiting these bloggers -- "when John Kerry writes an op-ed for us, he's not angling to make $50," they say. But these bloggers very much do want to be compensated, as hinted at when they put together a class-action lawsuit.
So I had a prestigious position, but no money. Hence, I was eager to monetize my HuffPost platform ...
Any Given Blog Post Might Be Written By A Marketing Company
Along with writing for Huffington Post, I was also trying to make a living. So every morning, I would wake up and check the job boards at sites like Mediabistro, Freelance Writing Gigs, Craigslist, and Indeed, trying to find anyone to pay me to write. I used my HuffPost links to show proof of my abilities. And while I didn't get many offers of the kind I wanted, it wasn't long before SEO and content marketing firms offered to pay me to post articles on the site.
At first I was insulted. I wanted to be a journalist, not some schmuck selling links to the highest bidder. Having no experience in media or marketing, I didn't understand how blurred the lines really were to these people. But one day, struggling to make ends meet, I threw out what I thought was an impossible number, having only been paid $15-$50 per article for writing up to that point. I responded to a handful of offers explaining that I would happily post an article on HuffPost, but it had to be written for me, and I wouldn't do it for less than $150.
To my surprise, one very eager SEO consultant responded with several articles written and ready to post. I ran with it and put out feelers for more, gradually increasing my asking price each time to $200, $250, $300. By the end of one month, I was making $500 a pop to post articles I had nothing to do with. I did about a dozen of these articles in total, and made about $4,000 in 90 days. The articles were well-written, so the interns on the blog team had no reason to question why a guy who'd previously blogged about whistleblowing was writing articles about Blake Shelton's Pepsi concert series, artificial grass, or VOIP phone services.
Bloggers Make A Killing Leeching Off The Convention Circuit
It didn't last long. By the end of the year, the editors had caught on. I was banned from HuffPost, because posting affiliate links and promotional material violated their terms of service. But then came the next phase of my "career."
By February 2014, I had another paying gig and was offered a free ticket to the Denver Cannabis Cup and Snoop Dogg's accompanying concert. Unfortunately, the deal fell through, but I wasn't about to give up. I ended up sneaking into the Cannabis Cup and BIG Industry Show, and was given a free press pass (which was actually a vendor pass, as even High Times was still figuring things out back then). Realizing I'd stumbled on something, I pulled up the Trade Show News Network and hunted down trade shows for every industry I was interested in, sending my Main Street and Huffington Post articles as proof that I was a "legitimate journalist." Soon, I was registered as media for E3, CES, CTIA's Super Mobility Week, GDC, Outdoor Retailer, and a dozen more.
At shows like E3 or the Cannabis Cup, media is nothing, but at a show like CES, a press pass made me someone every single booth wanted to talk to. And my first thought was to use this attention in a relatively honest, aimless, and (to be perfectly frank) pathetic way. Since I had no journalistic experience, I told any interested parties that I was a blogger, and asked them for a job. No one offered me one, but some did hand me swag. For example, although video game companies treated the media like garbage at E3, I still managed to get enough free game codes to feel good about the expense of the trip to Los Angeles.
At Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2014, I was finally bored enough to keep a few appointments, and began to notice how hard the PR reps were trying to get products into my hands. I'd be there sipping champagne and eating lobster rolls (that's what convention planners hand out when they want people to feel fancy) at sponsored events held by c-suite marketing reps for REI and LL Bean, while they pitched me what I first assumed was some type of timeshare pyramid scheme. "Take a look at these binoculars!" one would say, trying to give me a pair, even though I had no free hand. "You want to review these? You get to keep 'em, no problem." My instinct was to ask them if LL Bean HQ had any positions open for "staff blogger," but then I realized how I could be really using these companies.
Many Product Reviews Are Just For Free Stuff
On a whim, in June 2016, I decided to log back into HuffPost to see if enough time had passed that I could get away with publishing another article. In their back end was an invite to use the new posting platform. I entered my email, and to my delight, I was granted posting access once again, this time without any editor checking my work before it went live. I quickly copied and pasted a couple of articles from my blog to test the waters.
In mid-October 2016, while everyone else in this country was engaged in heated debates over Hillary or Donald, I was contacting every PR agency and marketing department on the planet with this request:
PR reps responded. As soon as they saw "Huffington Post" in the email, they knew it was their opportunity for free media. Everyone wanted to have their products featured with anchor links in the largest blog online. It was the holy grail of SEO.
I published over 100 of these "articles." They started out as poor man's reviews, but as more and more products were coming in, it became a full-time job just receiving and tracking them, much less using them and creating, formatting, and publishing the blogs. I continued pushing the boundaries and skipped the "review" process entirely, simply collecting products into "gift guides" and other listicles. HuffPost loves listicles, and the PR people couldn't have cared less how they were featured, as long as they got that anchor link.
From October 2016 through March 2017, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with a brand or product I hadn't reached. For six straight months, FedEx, UPS, USPS, and even DHL were dropping off between five and ten packages a day from all over the world. I was given the latest phones, laptops, speakers, IoT tech, headphones, the finest whiskies, wines, and rums, music instruments, baby gear, jewelry, vape pens, cameras, appliances, collectibles, home furnishings, camping gear, drones, clothes, even food. Overall, I was able to sell over $3,000 worth of merchandise on eBay, and made another $2,000 on Craigslist. (Which didn't nearly cover all of it ... read on to find out what happened to the rest.)
"17 Products That I Guess Are Good. I Did Ask For Them."
Some companies even sent me stuff that money couldn't buy. I've always been a pirate and file-sharing enthusiast, so I signed up for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show as news media, and found my way into movie and TV studio mailing lists. A Fox PR person sent me a screener for an upcoming movie as though I, random internet guy, were some critic of great influence. Did I enjoy watching this forgettable James Franco comedy? God no -- I didn't even last ten minutes through it. But I sure got off on seeing my name added as an official watermark, and you better believe my web developer friend and I dissected this private website.
This is the exact sort of ethical breach Bryan Cranston warned us about.
Don't Worry, I Did Get My Comeuppance
I had to write blogs about the products I was receiving, and I had to promote it all on social media. I also had to use the products to write anything about them, so I was multitasking by walking around with a new phone, outfit, headphones, bike, etc. every other day. On top of this, if I wasn't home in time for the deliveries, boxes would pile up out front very quickly.
Everyone who knew me personally was asking for free goodies -- everyone knew I was self-employed and doing this on my own, and they wanted my stuff. And I did give plenty away, because really, what was I supposed to do with three different juicers? I gave away over $10,000 in merchandise like mesh networks, power tools, essential oils/colognes/perfumes, winter gear, speakers, headphones, and security cameras to friends, family, and general hangers-on.
I was subletting a room, and seeing a man go from living in a van to working from home and being showered in free stuff was too much for my roommates to handle, no matter how much I shared with them. Pretty soon, they started helping themselves to the lot and selling items on Craigslist and eBay themselves. My three roommates walked away with over $2,000 each in fitness trackers, Bluetooth accessories, VR gear, food, and liquor.
By March, I had lost a clear majority of the products that came in. I moved to get away from the house of thieves, but too many packages were coming in from too many senders using too many services, and I couldn't contact everyone to reroute it, so a lot of it just disappeared. In the midst of everything, my van broke down and had to be towed to the junkyard, as I couldn't afford the repairs. I may have been drinking $400 whiskey, but I'd still neglected to make any actual money out of all these shenanigans. I moved in with someone else, and less than two months later, he pulled the same stunt. I found myself sleeping on the streets for two days before finding a ride to Phoenix with a real friend to crash on his floor and figure things out.
I Might Just Do It All Again
HuffPost's blog team finally noticed what I was using their site for and removed my access once again, even going so far as to delete my posts. But the blogs that predated their new system -- even the ad ones, the ones I was originally banned for -- are still live, because they don't know what they're doing.
I now don't own a couch -- couches are expensive -- but I rotate between three $300 hammocks. Realizing that I don't have the ethics to be a journalist, I looked for something new, and became the ultimate sellout: a spin doctor for a marketing agency. But it turned out neither media nor marketing aligns with my ethical boundaries, so I quit that as well.
Still, if I'm being honest with myself, I'd do it all again. In fact, I probably will. The tech editor at Time connected with me on Facebook during her search for a tech product reviewer. I also got an email inviting me into HuffPost's Canada CMS system while writing this, so here we go again.
Brian Penny is a former business analyst and operations manager at Countrywide and Bank of America turned whistleblower and freelance writer. Here's his blog. Ryan Menezes is an editor and interviewer here at Cracked. Follow him on Twitter for bits cut from this article and other stuff no one should see.
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