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The Gray World of Online Reviews

The internet has given consumers incredible power when it comes to evaluating and purchasing products.  No longer do you have to visit multiple stores to compare different products.  Visiting websites of multiple manufacturers couldn’t be simpler but it’s not just access to manufacturer provided product information that has changed.  Consumers have always been skeptical of promotional messages from sellers, rightly assuming those messages are biased.  That skepticism has given rise to the popularity of “unbiased” consumer reviews.  Go to Amazon or most other online retailer and you can quickly find product information provided by the manufacturer along with consumer reviews and ratings.  This desire for consumer to consumer reviews has become the entire business model for companies such as Yelp.

Individuals have also capitalized on this trend by posting video reviews on sites like YouTube or creating their own review sites.  When these sites rise in popularity their product reviews can have a significant impact on product sales.  Unfortunately this “free advice” isn’t always altruistic.  Recognizing the impact these sites can have has led many companies to try to woo reviewers and incent them to push their products over their competitors.  Trying to determine if a reviewer has received any compensation or incentives from manufacturers is often a difficult process as many reviewers hide that information or outright fail to disclose it.

The Fast Company article, “The War to Sell You a Mattress is an Internet Nightmare“, provides an in-depth look at these practices within the world of mattresses.  The article details the practices of online reviewers as well as mattress manufacturers.  Some of those practices might trigger a few ethical concerns.  For instance, Casper CEO Phillip Krim wrote one review site saying, “Currently you actively endorse a competing product on our review page. What can we do not to have you endorse another product as superior to ours?”  Casper goes on to offer free products, travel, etc. to convince the reviewer to give their product a better rating than their competitor Leesa.  These incentives and kickbacks create a conflict of interest for these independent reviewers and can compromise the integrity of their reviews.

Which side is right and which is in the wrong?  There are many sides to this issue which can lead to some great in-class discussions (or a written position paper).  This is also an opportunity to highlight the significant role publicity can play in a marketing strategy.

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