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.