This is the second 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.
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?
It’s funny, I have never really thought of myself as a toy reviewer. In our First Looks, the only kind of format that I ever try to adhere to comes from the pictures, not the wordage. I suppose the one place I feel responsible for providing something to other collectors is in bright, clear pictures that focus on the toy itself and nothing more. That is why I make a conscious choice to provide neutral lighting and backgrounds (well that, and because I could never in a million years do what Matt K does, he is my action figure hero). More than anything I still believe that those that view our First Look articles make their preliminary judgments on any product from the pictures (if anything). Sometimes seeing a small action figure blown up many times its actual scale can be jarring, but pictures show what is there, warts and all, for everyone to see.
As far as written content goes, I don’t focus much on review receptions because my articles are usually 75% anecdotal/conversational. That is mainly because these are colloquial in nature, like I am just talking to a friends about toys. Often times, they are all over the place. I can talk about toys for hours and sometimes I realize that articles can feel just like me talking to myself about any given toy. Toy collecting is my hobby, and it is a hobby that I love very, very much. I am a glass half full guy by nature but I think just having a pragmatic approach to anything you present for public consumption is the best method. I have not really ever focused on reigning in enthusiasm, that is just not who I am. I have such a love for so many of the properties and characters, and nostalgia for the things I collect that composing First Look articles has just become an extension of that. I get more response from the personal stories or anecdotes in our First Looks than anything else. I feel fortunate because I only really know how to write for myself, but being able to strike a chord here and there with someone else is always a fun experience. There are a lot of places to read reviews out there, many of which are very concisely written with the most fine-toothed comb. That is good because the internet is a big place and it takes all kinds, but I present things as something that I would like to read myself. I think I am like most collectors out there in that I am going to be the one to form my opinion about an actual toy, not have someone else do it for me. So I am realistic about others coming to their own conclusions with toy in hand, not from reading on the internet. What I personally like to read is the history, attachment and stories people will share about their toys. The boom in nostalgia lines really fuels that and it can make for funny, endearing and engaging reading. That is pocket of the community I like play in the most, so I generally go in that direction.
There are a lot of sites out there that provide product previews. Some just take pictures, some go into painstaking review, some pose and play on video and some like to tell stories. I think that is great for everyone, including the companies. It makes for well-rounded reading and just about everyone can find a place to gravitate towards and ultimately, companies have the coverage saturation they want. In the end, I go with what pops into my head about any particular toy and I am always sincere, something that is aided by just not over thinking or over interpreting what may or may not be there. You simply cannot write for everyone but if you can relate to someone out there by doing what you do, then all the better. I just like to have fun it all and hopefully provide some enjoyment to my fellow geeks.
2.) Do you ever worry when writing a review that being too negative will hurt your chances for more free samples?
Fortunately no, I have never had any kind of concern about previewing a product with an article that might generate a negative response. There is not one company that we have worked with in all the time we have provided First Looks that has ever even eluded to such an expectation. From the outside, I think it is easy to automatically assume or form the conclusion that it may be implicit that companies want to dictate certain specifics, have an expectation of positivity or have some final approval of any preview, but that is not at all my personal experience. Nor would I EVER expect to be placed into that kind of situation. That is kind of a “point of no return” and, in my mind, defeats both sides’ purpose for the venture in the first place. If companies want a canned response and managed preview, we are certainly in an age where they can provide that kind of thing themselves. I think that most PR personnel are smart enough to realize that to want to dictate or control content with an independent site would be much more damaging than weathering a negative look at a product.
I have not ever really thought about “hurting chances”, and I suppose that comes from not having any kind of expectations about being provided samples in general. I think the moment you step into the realm of expecting to be provided something you muddle your thoughts and motivations with pretentions, be those to a reader, a company or yourself. I kind of write all of my previews as if they were my last and when it comes down to it, I have to make it personal. I suppose many look at reviewing/previewing figures as type of job, but I don’t spend my free time working so the “job” concept just doesn’t translate for me. I enjoy taking pictures and providing personal thoughts, it is about all I know how to do. I guess if that isn’t what is wanted or expected, there are a lot of outlets out there. Like I said above, I cannot take my love and passion out of the hobby I enjoy so much, but that is completely self-applied.
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?
I don’t really know how to determine or label when a review is “fair” because everyone that takes the time to do a preview or a review of a toy has their own personal situation and motivation. Toy reviews are subjective by their nature and at least a little bit of the reviewer comes out in the review. Or, the intent of the preview might not be to review the toy at all. There is so much to interpret that I usually just take things on their own merit. But in the end, I don’t think it matters one way or the other and I don’t think sample previewing has a negative effect on the hobby.
I can say that, for the most part, toy collectors that I have interacted with online or in person are very sharp, and all of them, ALL OF THEM, have their own opinions about just about everything. Now, if that is a “chicken or the egg” type of scenario in regards to being “told”, that is open to interpretation. I do absolutely believe that collectors are going to be the ones that ultimately make up their own minds about products in general and if there is one thing the Internet has taught me even more so than real life, is that it is very hard to get a person to change their mind, be it actively or passively. That can be a seen as a touch of frustration for some, but that fickle nature of the community at large does much more to exact change or dictate trends with toy companies than any individual review could ever hope to accomplish. I strongly believe that only comes from the experience of having an actual toy in hand at the individual level. To be cliché, the proof will always be in the pudding. Thank Grodd for that.