Reviewing Samples, Part 8: Josh Bernard of CollectionDX.com

This is the eighth in a series of articles about the practice of toy reviewers being given free samples for review, and whether that represents a problem for readers looking for honest assessments to make purchase decisions. You can find the other articles in the series here.

Today’s Q&A is with Josh Bernard of CollectionDX.com.

1.) When you receive free samples, do you find an urge to be kinder to the item than you might be? If so, do you find yourself softening a bit, do you try to simply be fair, or do you think you end up trying to be even more objective than usual?

The first thing to realize is there are different kinds of samples with different objectives. Manufacturers send out samples to create hype and generate interest, often before product hits the shelves. Retailers on the other hand send samples purely to drive sales to their store, and to sell that specific product. The difference is that manufacturers often send random things, without little regard to what our site actually covers. Retailers know what sells for them, what good product is, and therefore rarely send items that are not of good quality. After all, their objective is to sell more of that unit.

I think when we were starting out there were some cases where we held back some negative opinions on some items. We’ve struck a nice balance now where if you are constructive with your criticism people tend to respect your opinion. If we just went out and started raging I think we would lose credibility. I tell each of my writers to always write an honest review – but be constructive. Point out both good and bad of each toy, and let the reader decide if it is for them.

We do encourage our writers to pick sample items that they are interested in, so the toy is reviewed through the eyes of proper perspective. With so many “staff” reviewers now, and so many samples coming in, it can be hard to keep track of them and maintain a consistent editorial voice, but we try our best.

2.) Do you ever worry when writing a review that being too negative will hurt your chances for more free samples?

We have written some very negative reviews, and for sure it has impacted our availability of samples. I’m sure we’re not getting Christmas cards from some major manufacturers because of our reviews of some of their products. But we are in an interesting position compared to a lot of the other toy review websites. Most of our products are imports, and therefore samples come from import retailers rather than the manufacturers themselves. After a while the retailers figure out what toys are good and what are not, so they of course skew their samples to items that they know will review reasonably well. If they are trying to generate sales of a specific item, it’s in their interest to send a good item. We tell each retailer and manufacturer up front what we provide in our reviews. We guarantee a fair, objective review, and links to the website in question. In the case of an extremely negative review, we have actually reached out to the sponsor to give them the option to decline the review.

Something you have to also keep in mind is that companies tend to change PR agencies and press contacts fairly regularly, so memories can be short when it comes to obtaining samples. Good relations that have been forged over years can be reset overnight when a manufacturer changes PR teams.

3.) Do you think that, in general, reviews of free sample toys on the Web are generally fair, or do they tend to be biased? Is this a problem for the toy collecting hobby, or a tempest in a teacup?

It’s no secret that toy companies pick favorite reviewers and review sites based on the reviews they get. For a new reviewer, those first free samples give you such a sense of accomplishment and recognition; it is hard to give it a bad review. I’ve been there. But as a reviewer you have an obligation to the reader, not to the toy companies, to inform and advise about the item.

Is it a problem? It can be. If you get the reputation of being a corporate shill (whether real or imagined) nobody is going to respect what you do. But I think most reviewers are fair and constructive when dealing with samples. We’ve had issues in the past where readers have called out our objectivity, and we are fine with that because it keeps us on our toes. We always respond politely and let them know our review guidelines.

Comments now closed (18)

      • That's been my experience too, though, my (possibly over-) concern about journalistic integrity, combined with a general reticence about asking people for anything, has kept me from trying step #2 often.

  • How would you phrase such an email? “If you give me free toys, I will tell people about them?”

    • I have written one or two requests. All you need to do is show how it's beneficial for them, i.e., by sending samples to you (for review or just pics, whatever), you can help create publicity (some might say hype) for the product.

      Of course, there's always the risk of bad publicity…

    • First thing you need to do is start your own site. Then do reviews consistently for months, covering the toys from companies you like. After you establish a name and a following (both on the site and socially), you can reach out to manufacturers, introduce yourself, and ask to get on their press lists. From there, if they see value in what you do, perhaps you might see samples now and again. FYI – the major companies – Hasbro, Mattel, BandaAmerica – rarely send samples anymore, aside from when there is a big promo push (IE Transformers movie). Most come from smaller manufacturers and retailers.

      As an aside, the last sample I got from Hasbro – a Bumblebee Mr Potato Head. So be careful what you ask for.

      • Agreed. Of the stuff in the one giant box I received from Mattel, the only thing that actually interested me was the Eternian Palace Guards.

        And one of their feet broke.

  • i think this is the most honest set of answers we've yet received on the topic. that's refreshing… but kind of disheartening at the same time.

    i can totally see poe's point here, and i know there are other review sites that likewise don't score a plethora of freebies… and they certainly don't issues with "so many “staff” reviewers now, and so many samples coming in, it can be hard to keep track of them and maintain a consistent editorial voice" i think step 2 should be anathema to any honest reviewer. receiving things is entirely different from begging.

    • I'm not advocating begging. But what I am advocating is developing relationships with companies. If you just send an email saying "send me toys" that's not going to happen. We've worked hard to establish relationships with major manufacturers and retailers. These usually begin with an email to get on a press list – nothing more. over time they reach out to you if they begin to see that you wield some influence amongst their target demographic.

      The key thing is to not be needy. Be professional at all times. Work hard, and cover what you love, and eventually it will be your passion that will draw them to you.

      I also understand that most of these sites are run by just one or two people. I'm fortunate to have been able to find some great talent that appreciate the samples more than I do (or that I have time to cover). When I say "staff" I mean that they get paid in the samples that they keep, nothing more. Through a mutual trust they become core contributors, and because of them I can accept the volume of samples that I receive. If it was just me there wouldn't be nearly as much.

      • "First thing you need to do is start your own site. Then do reviews consistently for months, covering the toys from companies you like. After you establish a name and a following (both on the site and socially), you can reach out to manufacturers, introduce yourself, and ask to get on their press lists. From there, if they see value in what you do, perhaps you might see samples now and again.

        […]

        We've worked hard to establish relationships with major manufacturers and retailers. These usually begin with an email to get on a press list – nothing more. over time they reach out to you if they begin to see that you wield some influence amongst their target demographic."

        Couldn't have said it better myself – that about covers it all. Frankly I haven't really had much success in developing relationships with manufacturers (partly for lack of trying). I've had better luck getting to know the creative types behind the manufacturers, like the Four Horsemen.

    • I won't say I've never asked for review samples, because that's not true. For example, way back when, I did ask ToyGuru how I could get on their list of sites that receive samples (which was perhaps a little forward, though I'm pretty sure by then we'd exchanged some emails and I'd done a few Q&As and such). He added me to their media list, but nothing came of it except that one random box in December 2010. And I made sure not to pester him about it – in the interests of full disclosure, I might have asked about it a second time, maybe a year later, but that was it.

      All I can say is that if I received a sample as a result of asking (and I don't think I've ever received a sample directly by asking, unless you count that random Mattel box), I would either do my damnedest to review it as objectively as possible, or maybe just provide photos a la ActionFigureInsider. I might poll my readers first and see what they wanted me to do, now that I've run this series.

      As for why one would ever request a review sample – there's the obvious desire to add it to one's collection or just get it before everyone else, and that's obviously a strong one and I won't deny it exists.

      But a more legitimate and important reason is the traffic one gets from such previews. There's no question that Pixel Dan and The Fwoosh get traffic boosts through their early looks at toys. No one is paying us to do this – it's a labor of love for most of us – and the system is rigged such that we're actually disincentivized to be critical, because that will likely result in fewer sales to the sponsors who help keep the website's lights on, so to speak. (Not that this has been much of an issue for me until recently – I only got major sponsors in the last year.)

      And even setting sponsors aside, just getting a lot of traffic is really gratifying.

      Finally, sometimes running a website for years – especially when it's not your job and the community you interact with is sometimes a bit contentious – can be wearying, and you go through periods (sometimes long periods) of discouragement. A sample of something you're fond of is a nice reward for sticking with it. I'm sure that's going to come off sounding bad ("how hard is it to run a blog?") but as someone who doesn't get constant samples, the few times I have they've been gratifying – though again, I've always tried to review them as honestly as possible.

      To be frank (and man, is this going to sound like sour grapes….), I'm actually glad I don't get regular review samples. I'm much too faddish in my obsessions for that. It would eventually go from a privilege to an obligation; for example, had I received an early sample of Mighty Spector, I would have felt obliged to write up my review (or pics or whatever) right away, whereas now I can let it sit for as long as I want, or get a guest reviewer to do it, or just never post it.

      I think that sense of obligation may be an unappreciated part of why blogger-reviewers tend to get samples only of lines they're interested in. Why would I want to spend all my time writing up reviews of G.I. Joe or Transformers when I don't care about the product at all? If this were my job, then fine, but as this website is simply a way for me to enjoy my hobby, I don't want to waste my time on it.

  • Can I just comment how awesome it is that you're interviewing guys from all my favorite review sites?

    Collection DX, OAFE, ItsAllTrue, Michael Crawford…it's like an all-star cast in the "based on the action figures" film of my dreams.

  • There should be like an allstar softball tounament with all the different review sites here.
    and poe, you should pick up a joe for shits and giggles sometime. They're the best kid's figure at retail IMO even if you're not a fan of the property. In my case the figs actually have made me MORE interested in the shows,movies, and comics.

  • CollectionDX was a great site but cant be trusted anymore. There’s a few “staff” members who have are just so biased or condesending it’s impossible to respect them. Josh and Adam please ditch the pandering fanboys and go back to 2007 when it was just a few select friends, and not the over the top otaku-wanna bes.