Friday, February 01, 2008

Transparency and Beauty Bloggers

Yesterday's New York Times had a very thought-provoking article on the lack of transparency among beauty bloggers, most of whom do not reveal when they've been given products for free from companies or refuse to review a product negatively, out of fear of harming their relationship with the brand. For those of us who've followed the beauty blogging world for a long time, this isn't new news, but it serves as a good reminder of why you have to always be skeptical when reading blogger reviews. I have written in the past about my own policy in regards to accepting gifts from companies and take the stance that it's dishonest not to tell readers how you acquired the products you're reviewing. Whether they still choose to trust your opinion is up to them, but at least you show that you respect them enough to tell the whole story.

Check out the article and my previous post on the subject and let me know what you think.

16 comments:

the addict said...

Meg,

I'm disappointed that you would believe what you read in the NY Times piece, especially the part about bloggers who "refuse to review a product negatively, out of fear of harming the relationship with the brand."

Kayleen Schaefer's angle was misrepresented to those interviewed for the story. She used portions of quotes, and her own editorializing, to imply some very unsavory things about bloggers, most of which which blatantly untrue.

I encourage you to read my response piece, or any of the responses posted on Shake Your Beauty, Bon Bons in the Bath, and Jolie in NYC.

We were all interviewed by Ms. Schaefer and all share the same opinion that she twisted everyone's words to serve her own agenda, which was apparently to make all beauty bloggers look like greedy swag fiends who live in fear of the beauty companies.

Personally, I DO post negative reviews even if a product was free - and I said this to the reporter in no uncertain terms - yet she used my words on the importance of being diplomatic and fair to make it look like I "refuse to bite the hand that gives [me] perfume." I was horrified when I read this.

The Times article was an outrage...look anywhere across the blogosphere and you'll see why.

In addition to the obvious bias in the story, there were several factual errors made. I've been working with someone with the Times on having a correction printed. So that's (1) no journalistic integrity, and (2) fabrication and poor fact checking.

Meg said...

Kristin,

I appreciate your comment but I still stand by my belief that it's unethical not to tell your readers when you've received gifts (whether it's free products, attendance at parties or trips) when you're reviewing something. I admire that you are willing to write some negative reviews, but I find it striking that it's so rare to see negative reviews of any of the major brands that you seem to have a close relationship with (Lancome, etc). I understand why you do or any blogger would do this, as it might mean that you wouldn't continue being given VIP access, but it shows a bias.

I believe that it's impossible not to have a bias when you're showered with attention and free gifts from a company, and while that doesn't mean you're not qualified to still review their products, you have an obligation to be upfront with your readers and let them know the whole story.

-Meg

the addict said...

Meg,

Sorry to nitpick, but I HAVE written negative reviews of Lancome products, including an entire post on a bad self tanner, and have said some negative things about some of their mascaras. It hasn't hurt my relationship with the brand at all. It doesn't mean that I'd lose my "VIP access." I've also written negative reviews of products from Smashbox and Chanel...and I have relationships with both those companies.

I think it is fair to say that I do not refuse to review a product negatively. You encourage your readers not to believe everything they read from the beaut bloggers, yet you believe everything you read from the Times?

I understand that you think it's unethical that I don't disclose free samples. That's fine. But my point is that the Times article perpetrated several lies about the motivations of bloggers.

Meg said...

Kristin,

I agree with your point about the Times making assumptions about people's motivations, clearly they were wrong to do that. I appreciate your pointing out that you're willing to review those brands negatively. I would never encourage anyone to believe everything they read in any media outlet, though I do tend to give more weight to what the New York Times says than any blogger. I think it's a positive thing that the New York Times is holding bloggers accountable and exposing the relationships between bloggers and brands that many readers are unaware of. I think we agree on more points than we disagree and I still really enjoy your blog and respect you in many ways for your accomplishments on it. I hope we can just agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

As soon as I read this article yesterday, I immediately thought of your blog, and couldn't wait to see if you posted about it. I really appreciate your stance on telling your readers when you get something for free. You can kind of infer it from other blogs, when they say things like "I had this sitting in my closet for months and just decided to try it." I mean, you know they get tons of stuff for free, most of us don't have so much beauty stuff lying around that we don't get to use it right away. I like to read those other blogs, but I look at it more like reading Allure. It's amusing, but I can't afford 90% of the things they review anyway. I don't have a fabulous life in the city with free stuff pouring in and fantastic parties to attend. I just like makeup, but I get most of it at the drugstore. People need to beware of all that they read, whether the Times or a blog. Use your common sense. I will miss your level headed take on things when you stop blogging for good.

Meg from The Bargain Queens & All About Appearances said...

Yes, there is an ethical issue, but I think the NY Times did a really bad job covering it.

I agree that bloggers should say when they get stuff for free, but I don't see a problem with getting samples since it does enable bloggers to write about stuff they probably couldn't afford (makeup and skincare really, really adds up). And let's remember, that's holding bloggers to a higher standard than magazine writers who tend to get paid way more for their writing.

I also don't find it surprising when I don't see a lot of negative reviews. Most products wouldn't be out there if they weren't pretty decent, and companies don't tend to send samples of horrible products. Plus, mediocre products are less likely to be reviewed because it does make for a rather boring read.

Do some products not do all the stuff they claim? Sure, but most of us bloggers don't have the resources to test them scientifically over time. So, sometimes all one can say is, "It smells good, feels good, doesn't turn my skin orange..."

And I definitely don't think that most bloggers write for the swag. As you know, writing a blog can take hours and hours of work each week. It's not worth it if you just want free makeup -- especially since, if you're like me, you have more than enough makeup already. Free gifts and trips sounds great, but those aren't given to just anybody, and I can't see those bloggers deciding years ago to write a blog and spend so much time and energy on it because one day blogging might get some respect and they'd get a free trip to Paris.

Based on my reading of the piece and the reactions of the bloggers interviewed, I think the NY Times article was despicable. I do not trust the NY Times at all. This is far from the first case of them sensationalizing something, and worse, twisting the truth.

If you want to see another fine example of their journalism, check out Drug Approved. Is Disease Real?. It would be laughable if it wasn't going to be read by so many people who may not look for the facts elsewhere. As is, it's insulting to all those with fibromyalgia, those of us who know and care for people with fibromyalgia, and to all those working to find a treatment for that horrible disease. Needless to say, the NY Times has lost all credibility in my eyes.

But back on the topic at hand...

I do occasionally get samples of products with the assumption that I'll review them. I always disclose that I got it as a free sample and I review the product honestly. So far, the products really been great, so I haven't had to give a predominantly negative review. However, I still try to find something negative to say, even if it is just something to improve like the cost or color.

Hmmm... I think I know what I'll be writing about later on All About Appearances.

Anonymous said...

I have dozens of beauty blogs on my RSS feed. While I still follow them to find out about the existence of new products, I won't buy anything based on a review in them anymore. I've spent too much money on products that were reviewed well on beauty blogs but were terrible and/or overpriced in reality - and I think lack of journalistic integrity when it comes to freebies is largely the reason. (The only reviews I take at face value without checking MUA is FGB and Paula Begoun)

I just don't understand how hard it is to put a single line at the bottom of a post mentioning where the blogger got a product. That's all I think anyone is really asking for.

Anonymous said...

My biggest criteria for beauty products is: Does the price justify the claims? I firmly believe that if a beauty blogger has not used their own cash to purchase the item, the bias supporting the product increases; perhaps the expectations/standards are diminished. After all, the product was free. That's why MUA is worth checking (for me), because the reviewers often comment on the price, whether it was worth it or not. I think this is an important part of the review and often, this is missing from reviews originating from blogs who are in bed with Lancome et al.

MizzJ said...

If blogs are to be held accountable for where they get their free samples, then so should magazines that get way more revenue from "sleeping" with the cosmetic companies than do any bloggers. This article seems very slanted to me, especially after reading the comments on this post by one of the interviewees! I think readers should take what they read anywhere with a pinch of salt. Big beauty blogs that get all this free swag and trips are just as "biased" as the fashion mags, so it's your own fault if you blindly believe their word is gospel. Don't trust anyone's opinion unless you've proven to yourself it can be believed in.

Karen said...

I am new to blogging and was surprised when I started reading about so many bloggers invited to Fashion Week, parties, etc. It does makes sense that cosmetic companies would want to use the blogging community as a mostly inexpensive means of promoting their products and creating a buzz.

It's pretty obvious that one of the beauty blogs I have been enjoying is involved in getting a lot of free samples and working with PR people from several cosmetics companies. (And the author openly addressed and announced these relationships after the NYT story.) It is sad though, because I had been hoping that this author's holy grail products and product reviews were a real look into a real person's makeup drawer. Knowing it's skewed by PR relationships I'm much less likely to rely on the advice given and seek out what's recommended there.

I will be looking around in search of well-written beauty blogs that are more "reality show" than "product placement".

Gaia, the non-blonde said...

Meg,
I'm rather amused by the reactions I see here: yours and those of some readers. It's been long established that all magazines and newspapers get the products for free. Only they have obligations to their advertisers and lots of other non-transparent relationship with PR and beauty companies, so the chances you'll read a real review in mainstream media is slim-to-none.

Furthermore, so many of them don't even bother coming up with a real overview or any new info and just quote the press release word by word. I know this because I get the same press kits, only you'll never find any of that in my blog. I wouldn't have any readers if I were a PR mouthpiece.

The same goes for any product review of any kind. Do you think reporters and bloggers who cover technology and gadgets pay for their toys? I don't see anyone getting up in arms about that.

I understand that a large part of your readers are of the young, broke and fabulous demographic, and this definitely creates a certain perspective. But it isn't true for all of us. A free mascara is nice, but it just joins the dozen others in my drawer and would never make me say or not say what I think.

One last thing: while I hate to nitpick, the Beauty Addict's first name is Kristen. She deserves at least the basic respect of having her name spelled right.

Meg said...

Gaia,

I have written before about my distrust of traditional media reviews (particularly beauty products reviewed in women's magazines) which you can read here:

http://fakinggoodbreeding.blogspot.com/2007/11/whose-beauty-reviews-do-you-trust.html

My issue is not that bloggers shouldn't receive free products, it's that they're obligated to make that aware to their readers and be upfront about it. Journalists must abide by a number of ethical standards and are held responsible by their publication, while bloggers lack that oversight. I think that blogging, as a new medium, needs to create ethical rules and guidelines to follow, and in my opinion, not revealing to your readers when you've been given free products or trips or invitations to events is not full disclosure.

I'm glad that a free mascara doesn't alter your views on a brand. But that certainly isn't true for most people, for whom a free $20 gift is something of note. And I find it hard to believe that anyone is not swayed by a free trip or invitation to fashion week or any of these larger perks that brands are now showering on bloggers.

I apologize to Kristen for misspelling your name, you're right that she deserves that respect.

Anonymous said...

I think this whole thing hit a bit close to home for lots of bloggers, and that's why they're getting so snitty (in the responses to this blog, and others, too).

I keep reading, again and again, that bloggers "can't be expected to shell out for the oh-so-many products" they review.

Funny. The rest of us do.

It's not about getting freebies. It's about labeling freebies. Why don't they want their readers to have that bit of information? And I am quite sure that the beauty companies are not demanding they keep this info from readers, so it's entirely a construct of the bloggers.

Miss Alexis said...

"I understand that a large part of your readers are of the young, broke and fabulous demographic"

Wow Gaia really? That was catty. Anywho, I truly agree with Meg wholeheartedly. Non-Disclosure/Omission is the same as lying. Period.

Negative product reviews are every it as important as positive product reviews. You need to know what to avoid out here also. I do not see nearly enough negative reviews, and for some time now I had surmised that it was because of the the bloggers getting preferential treatment (I mean who can forget Blogdorf Goodmans "I went to Paris and I Chanel is perfect" lovefest?)

I would hate for it to get to a point that I would stop trusting beauty bloggers cause I love reading SOME of them. I have a full list of the ones that have been full of crap for a long time :)

YES you need to tell how you acquired the product and let the readers decide, and you also need to tell what you DON'T like, not saying do it all the time, but it does need to serve as a warning.

And to Meg, this is a great blog, I even have my mom and BF reading it! Thanks for having the courage to have your own opinion.

trendinista said...

I'm certainly not in any position to take the moral high ground. (My fashion blog is a little tongue-in-cheek, and some people find it offensive because I call out the things I hate in addition to raving about things I love. So, not a lot of swag showing up on my doorstep!)

I think that blogging about things you don't believe in just to get free shit sucks. (People turn to blogs because they feel like they can't trust the larger media.) But, in the case of beauty bloggers, I think the only way to credibly recommend a product is to actually test it. (And it would get pretty expensive for this indie bloggers to buy the stuff themselves.)

It would be nice if they started off a blog with "Hard Candy sent me this crazy new polish, so I tried it out." I think it actually adds to bloggers credibility if they call it out.

I just don't want to read a recommendation from a blogger that was "bought" by the company they're blogging about. If you love it, great. If you hate it, say it. Or don't blog about it.

Anonymous said...

So Gaia, what you're saying is that because you are wealthier than you presume Meg's readership to be, your review of a costly product that came from a beauty company is to be trusted because you could have bought it yourself anyway? Uhm, okay. The leaps in logic are remarkable.

Meg, like other commenters, immediately thought of you when I read the article. I haven't read too many other beauty bloggers who give the ethics of swag as much thoughtful consideration as you do. I agree with your viewpoint, but what's more important is that you think these issues through with your readers. I get the sense that a lot of other bloggers haven't thought it through. When they get confronted with the possibility that they might be less than frank in their reviews, they get defensive.