Today I want to talk about something that has been on my mind a lot lately. And that is the question of honesty when it comes to product reviews.
Now, I’m definitely not that old, but I do remember the days when the beauty community shared their opinions and reviews for the love of it. There was no Instagram, people didn’t really monetize beauty blogs and the idea of getting a PR box from a brand was unheard of — unless you were a huge celebrity.
In fact, until recent years the only viable spokesperson for a brand would have either been a celebrity or an athlete, never a midwestern girl in her late twenties sharing her passion for all things Asian beauty on the internet.
But, like with so much in our world today, things have changed quite a bit. Now we have the influencer game, a legitimate career path of trying and recommending products to a following on social media. This phenomenon cropped up organically. It makes sense that as an average consumer you would trust the “normal” person on Instagram that recommends the face wash rather than the celebrity that was paid $1 million to hold a product they would never consider putting on their face.
And yet how things change so quickly. That organic movement was quickly snapped up by the marketing and PR departments of brands and quickly leveraged in their favor. Now brands pay influencers to recommend products. Some go as far as to control the caption that the influencer uses to recommend the product. The brand literally uses the influencer as a talking puppet.
Of course this isn’t always the case, and the backlash to this ridiculous advertising scheme is quite big. I believe that in a few years the days of just holding a product, wearing a bikini and letting brands talk for you will disappear soon. We can all smell the bullshit these days.
But there are some less obvious but still bullshit-ridden things we have to be aware of when we are on our favorite Instagram pages, YouTube channels and blogs.
But first let me explain just a little about the two most common types of post we need to be careful with:
Sponsored is code for paid. This is an agreement between a brand and influencer to get the brand some recognition or sales in exchange for a fee paid to the influencer. There are really no rules when it comes to how these agreements are made, and some companies will demand to have more control over the content and others will let the influencer decide. What we need to know here is that this content was paid for and is essentially an advertisement for a brand.
According to the FTC, all sponsored content must be disclosed somewhere on the post. If money exchanged hands, you must be made aware as the consumer.
A lot of people feel that sponsored posts aren’t as trustworthy as other posts because they think that getting paid will change the influencer’s opinion of the brand or product. Of course there are tons of influencers out there (or bloggers or YouTubers who have influence) that are selective about working with only brands they love. Sponsored posts are not 100% bullshit and it can be a great away for an influencer to bankroll doing what they love.
To date, I personally have only done one sponsored post, here on this blog, and I had complete control over every aspect of that review.
However, there is no denying that as a consumer, a sponsored post seems somehow less trustworthy.
In a few recent polls on Instagram, when asked if people believed that gifted reviews were less trustworthy, the overwhelming majority was no. Most people believe gifted reviews are just as trustworthy as reviews of products purchased by the reviewer themselves.
I have been in the Instagram game for a little less than a year. I specifically started up my account as a skincare account and always planned for it to be a fun place where I could review products, and maybe build a following that would like to watch my YouTube videos or read this blog. And of course I thought, maybe I’ll get to work with some brands.
In less than a year I now work with brands 3-4 a month! I have a small following but I am often approached to create reviews in exchange for a free product.
The world of gifted products is a little bit hazy. A brand will ask if you want to try a product for free and post about it on whatever channel they found you on (Instagram, YouTube or blogs are the big ones). Oftentimes, there is no standard agreement or arrangement for the content that is to be created in exchange for the free product. Actually it’s all pretty easy when it first happens.
Sometimes the brand will ask for a post to be done in a certain amount of time after receiving the product, usually two weeks. This is where I start to get annoyed.
Two weeks is not enough time to test a product fully. Not only is it not enough time to test how your skin reacts to it, it is also going to create a very shallow first impression of a product which could change down the road.
Of course this isn’t a big deal, and the easiest way around this as the reviewer is to label that content as a first impression and follow up after a few more weeks with your final thoughts.
I have had only one company ask to see the work before it was published for approval. This was unacceptable to me and I nearly mailed the free product back to the company when I learned this. It all worked out fine in the end, and my original content was what got published.
So as you can see, there can be quite a few strings attached to the gifted products.
Here’s the thing. I believe the big majority of skincare bloggers/reviewers/Instagramers whatever you call yourself, want to write honest reviews. I really do.
However, I know there is a small percentage of skincare reviewers out there that don’t care about recommending good products or helping people learn about skincare. I know some people are in this game to get free products, get a vanity following that boosts their ego, or possibly leverage this into an “influencer career.” (I don’t have a problem with any of these things as side goals, but when your main focus is on you and not your community I have a problem with trusting you and your reviews.)
The first thing you need to consider when you are questioning if a review is honest is the person behind it.
You will be able to tell by looking at a few of their last posts if what they say is bullshit. One thing that always tips me off is not talking a lot about a product in depth or just word vomiting the info from a product’s website.
Disclosure is another thing that you need to be aware of. Remember how I said that the FTC requires all paid posts to be labeled as sponsored? Well, it also requires all gifted products to be labeled as such in a review. Yep, it is against the law to not disclose a gifted product.
But guess what? Most people don’t know that, brands don’t tell you that you have to disclose how you received the product and it’s really hard for the FTC to monitor this stuff. There are micro-influencers out there that blatantly break this law with no repercussions.
I have no tips on how to spot this kind of deception. Because if you aren’t told, it’s hard to know for sure. But what I am trying to prove is that gifted is not necessarily more trustworthy just because the content wasn’t paid for.
So how do I know when someone is being genuine?
As I said before I really believe the majority of reviewers want to be honest.
I personally only want to bring value to you. I never post something unless I know that it’s going to answer a question you might have, save you from wasting your money on a hyped up product, teach you something or help you discover new products.
And that’s why I wanted to write this post today, to let you guys in on the world of product reviewing, even from a micro scale.
Sponsored posts aren’t all bullshit. Some influencers will work with brands that they truly believe in and love. Again, I believe most want to be honest and do care about their followers.
And on the flip side, just because content wasn’t paid for by the brand doesn’t mean that it is an honest review.
If you are one of the people that believes gifted products don’t sway the reviewer, let me just leave you with one thing to think about.
If you spent $100 on a product, you’d probably expect it to do a lot for you, right? You’d be extra critical of its performance, ingredients, texture, scent and results because $100 of your own hard earned dollars is a lot of money.
If you received said $100 product for free, how critical of it would you be? Probably still pretty critical — that product better smell good, have excellent ingredients and give you great results. But you would probably be a little bit more favorable in your opinion because at the end of the day, you didn’t risk anything (your hard earned money) to try it. When there is little risk involved, it’s easier to like a product.
See how an “honest” review of a gifted product can still be influenced?
Tips to spot the bullshit:
Check the vibes of the influencer in question. Do they seem to genuinely care about the people that follow them? Do they have only glowing reviews on their page? Or have they given negative reviews of products?
Is the post properly labeled with gifted or sponsored?
Does the post have a lot of detail on the product, or is the copy generic and forced?
Does the product in question show up a lot on the influencers feed, blog or channel? Do they genuinely use the product in their routine?
Does the influencer have a good balance between gifted products and products they purchased?
At the end of the day, it’s up to us as the consumer to decide if we believe a review or not. Hopefully this post shed some light behind the scenes of the influencer game and gave you some tips you can use to tune out all the bullshit and fake reviews that are out there.
Let me know your honest thoughts on this subject — I’m curious to know!