The Line Between Marketing and Criticism is Shrinking
Be careful out there.
I’m not here to say that all reviews are bought and paid for. Far from it.
It’s a clear fact that reviews are some of the best marketing that PR departments don’t create themselves. And that the line between these things has never been shakier than it is today.
This applies across the board for any company that’s trying to sell you on a consumer product. It doesn’t matter. Books, music, movies, games, tech, headphones…they all have direct marketing campaigns, indirect marketing through word of mouth and social media, and Reviews.
They’re a place for discourse and analysis, sure…but their primary function in most cases is still to help consumers decide whether or not to buy something.
Reviewers spend their time (and sometimes money) on things so that you don’t have to.
I should know. I’ve worked as a reviewer for almost 15 years now, in all sorts of capacities. I’ve written tech reviews for a small regional computer magazine, and I’ve written reviews online of films, games, and audio products.
Sometimes I was in a position where I was funded by a company, or given products by PR departments. More recently, I’ve gone at it alone in a hobbyist/enthusiast capacity, funding myself entirely.
For decades, many cynics out there have said that reviews are a corrupt system. Some of these movements have been fair and rational. Others, not so much.
Ironically, in the old pre-internet print journalism days, it was easier to show how reviews weren’t explicitly “corrupt” or as directly manipulated by PR departments.
Now? It’s a bit more complex.
THE OLD DAYS
Separation of Church and State is the term most often used to describe journalistic integrity within big media companies. In the case of media, it means that the sales team and the editorial team are completely separate entities that have no direct influence on one another, and often don’t even share the same leadership.
This wall existed to assure consumers that the ad content in their TV programming/magazine/etc. didn’t directly influence whatever critical opinions might be contained therein.
The wall doesn’t always hold of course, but companies are usually severely called out for it.
It also doesn’t actually diminish the role that timely coverage and reviews play in product awareness and success. A swathe of good game reviews in the top magazines used to be a surefire path to big sales numbers. And magazine covers were always a big get for marketing departments.
In fact, the marketing strength of a cover image is the main reason that Game Informer manages to persist as a print entity inside Gamestop stores when other gaming magazines are struggling. Gamestop owns them, of course. And that cover is just another marketing tool for game companies inside those stores, where every inch of marketing space is really an ad buy.
So even though Game Informer has a generally well-respected staff and separates their ad department…they’re almost entirely a marketing tool at this point.
As the internet has pushed its way into old media spaces, some “Traditional” outlets have lost sight of the old separation that defined their trust. In recent years, Time Magazine and Sports Illustrated sold prominent ads right on or near their covers. Ten years ago this would have been unthinkable.
And I don’t think anyone could have seen the rise of Influencers coming, or how it would throw the old models under the bus.
THE NEW WAY
Influencers are the Streamers, YouTubers, and Bloggers that generate the vast majority of modern critical content. Internet reviews of all levels of quality are now the dominant force in product criticism, numbers-wise.
And these folks don’t usually have the backing of major corporations, large staffs, or ad departments. Often, they’re just one person in a gaming chair looking into a web cam.
Companies love this and are constantly trying to work directly with these people to get their new thing out there. In fact, they’ll often send more free review sample products out to this vast collection of content creators than they will to more established journalistic outlets.
This makes navigating the review landscape a lot harder for consumers. There’s more noise, and direct advertising is often smashed right up next to truly critical content, with naught to distinguish it but a small bit of text that says #ad or a brief mention of advertiser support.
Before any comprehensive reviews of the latest game/tech/thing come out, you’ll usually be able to access instant commentary on said item from many different voices on the internet.
And these community members and creators are often so excited about that new product launch that it’s easy to wonder how valuable those early impressions really are.
PR VS CRITICISM
Game companies have always handed out early copies to reviewers, and flown critics to press events to see games early. But now individual creators get these “perks” too.
These perks are really just attempts by the game’s PR/marketing department to generate buzz and coverage. And that’s the way it’s always worked. But somehow, it’s much weirder now that there’s often a direct one-to-one relationship between the PR department and the person offering criticism.
Let’s look at a couple of notable recent examples.
Arlo, a YouTube reviewer I generally love for his enthusiasm, fairness, and goofy puppet gag, recently got the chance to play an early copy of Ubisoft’s Starlink. But they also paid him to not review the game, and instead just provide early impressions and show how it works.
The result is a ten minute video that’s nothing but praise and excitement, right next to his more critical content in his feed.
I totally respect Arlo’s right to enter into this deal, and his excitement about the game seems genuine. And he’s very clear about this being an advertisement at the beginning.
But this video was timed for the day of the game’s release, and so far, he hasn’t done a more critical follow-up review video. Will he ever get the chance to do a full review? Will people who wanted to run out and buy the game care by that point? (Game sales are still heavily front-loaded).
If his review ends up being more critical than this first impressions piece, he’ll probably take flak from his user base for entering into this promo agreement.
And Ubisoft might choose not to work with him again. Or blacklist him from receiving review copies in the future.
Videos like the one above lay bare the always-weird connection between PR departments and critics. Here’s a critic doing a blatant ad. But we can go one deeper.
Steelseries likes to send prominent reviewers their new gaming gear, and often will directly sponsor their reviews…something that would have never happened in “The Old Days” mentioned above. It’s the very trap that suspicious consumers have freaked out about for years, and now it happens all the time.
I like Steelseries as a company, and I like JimsReviewRoom as a critical audio review outlet (even if his stress tests of headbands often make my stomach turn). But then when the Arctis Pro came out, Jim ran a video reviewing the headset… that was sponsored by Steelseries.
The actual review inside is fair and critical. But how weird is it that the review was literally paid for by the company that made the thing?
Also, many online reviewers use affiliate links to generate additional cash, giving you quick access to buy the product they’re talking about. That means they’re now directly tied in to the success of the product they’re criticizing.
The old “separation of church and state” concept that used to help lend enthusiast reviewers credibility has dramatically shrunk in the modern era, and the challenging job of making it as a small creator leaves the door open for more problematic content, from an ethical perspective
Then again, hold on, ethics? Aren’t we ultimately talking about entertainment products here, and deciding whether or not we want to buy them? Isn’t that already an inherently weighted system, where marketing departments have always taken any angle they can to get you to buy the latest thing, including co-opting criticism as a form of indirect advertising?
Yes. To all of the above.
What I’m saying is…be careful out there. The lines between advertising and critical coverage have never been blurrier, and a large percentage of content creators are out there to get paid, like we all are.
And that’s fine, honestly. But be aware how rampant it sometimes is.
The internet offers a place for long form criticism and some outlets still operate independently through separate ad departments, Patreon support, or other means. I particularly like recent efforts by Giant Bomb (pivoting to long video reviews), ACG, Jim Sterling, The Wirecutter, Gamesky, and a few others. If you really want in-depth thoughts about consumer products, you can still find them.
But if you just want as many PR-supported thoughts as you can get your hands on…there’s tons of those, too. Like the new Innerfidelity.
Game/Tech/Movie/Book criticism has always been a sort of “parasitic” industry, in a sense. Entertainment Criticism relies on the success of the industry that it criticises in order to keep functioning. And it’s much more sustainable when the companies making the content provide access for the reviewers. I get that.
I just never thought the line between reviewer and PR department would get quite this thin.