Monday, January 28, 2013

Rant: Reviewer Card, Douchebags & Ethics

By now, you probably have read at least one article about the new Reviewer Card, a plastic card that states "I Write Reviews." The Los Angeles Times was one of the first to bring this card to our attention and numerous others have written about it during the past week. A self-described "lifelong entrepreneur" essentially decided that if restaurants and other businesses were aware that he wrote online reviews then they would provide him special service. As he felt there were other online reviewers in a similar situation, who wanted special treatment, he created the Reviewer Card.

An online reviewer simply flashes this card at a business and the hope is that the business will fawn all over this person, providing them special service, far better than the average person receives. It can be used at almost any business, from a restaurant to a hotel, from a dentist to an auto service station. The catch is that there is absolutely no guarantee that use of the card will be successful, and based on the comments of some restaurant owners during the past week, it could actually get you kicked out of some places.

This entrepreneur charges $100 for the plastic Reviewer card and states he will only provide them to "highly active review site users," though there are no parameters for what that entails. It is the entrepreneur's sole discretion as to who can receive the card. Interestingly, their membership application has apparently changed during the past week, maybe due to all of the recent negative press. Previously, they listed specific online sites, such as Yelp and Trip Advisor, where you indicated your contributions. There was no place though to list if you wrote a blog. Now you simply list your "Top Reviewer Profiles" so it could also include a blog.

In addition, there appears to be a new question on the application: "Do you accept to use this card ethically and morally?" There is nothing on their website that indicates what constitutes an ethical and moral use of the card. Thus, it is a question with no real teeth. Based on comments made by the entrepreneur, his grasp of the ethics of restaurant reviewing seems questionable. For example, he apparently sees nothing wrong with failing to disclose any special treatment he receives, which many others would see as an ethical failure to be transparent, an ethical failure to disclose a potential conflict of interest. The question seems to be new, drafted in response to all of the negative publicity.

The entrepreneur claims that he has sold about 100 of the Reviewer Cards and has given away another 400 or so though we should probably take his claims with a grain of salt. If true, he has already earned about $10,000, which is fairly lucrative for selling a cheap plastic card which guarantees nothing. It makes little sense for anyone to purchase this card. Why pay $100 when any reviewer could spend $10 and buy a bunch of business cards that say the exact same thing? In fact, they could even get a bunch of business cards for free from a few different companies.

Those business cards possess the same potential as the Reviewer Card. Even without any card, some try to assert that they possess a privileged status as an online reviewer. There have always been stories of Yelpers and others who have just announced their status to a restaurant owner, demanding special service or comped meals. Use of the Reviewer Card only elevates the level of ignorance and arrogance of these people.

If you collect all of the various articles about the Reviewer Card during the past week, the most common pejorative you will find about the card and those who would use it is "douchebag." It is an apt description. Few have defended the practice and rightfully so. It raises a number of ethical issues which any restaurant reviewer should consider but which some unfortunately ignore. Despite the entrepreneur's denials, the Reviewer Card seems designed to violate these ethical considerations

Use of this card can be seen as a form of extortion, where the reviewer demands special service from a restaurant or other business with the unspoken threat that they will write a terrible review if the business does not comply. A threat does not need to be spoken to be intended or understood. With the spread of the Internet, and all of the consumer review sites, restaurants and other businesses fully understand that any customer can write a negative review that thousands will see. It is in their best interest to treat all customers equally as they never know who might or might not write a review.

Use of this card can also be considered a type of bribe, where the reviewer agrees to provide a top review if they receive special service. A pay for play situation. The entrepreneur behind this card sees nothing wrong with this practice, though responsible restaurant reviewers understand the ethical problem with that type of behavior. Transparency is required for any situation where there is a potential conflict of interest, such as receiving free samples or a comped meal. The FCC certainly sees this as a necessity for bloggers, though there are certainly a few bloggers who violate those disclosure requirements.

The Reviewer Card is for narcissistic, entitled douchebags who think they deserve special treatment just because they write snarky reviews on Yelp or Trip Advisor. They don't want to be treated like any average customer. They want to be special, to receive special treatment. They don't want to tell the truth but rather brag about the treatment they received, which the average patron might not ever receive. It is also for someone dumb enough to spend $100 for a card they could create on their own for a minimal cost, if not free.

I think that the example of the Reviewer Card should cause anyone who reviews restaurants, wines, and other businesses to do some soul searching, to review their own behavior and ensure that it is ethical. They should ask certain questions and honestly answer them. Are you always transparent in your reviews? Do you ever guarantee a review in exchange for some type of consideration? Do you threaten in any way, verbally or not, to write a negative review if you do not receive special consideration? Do you endeavor to be honest in your reviews, to share both the positive and negative?

For bloggers, I recommend that you post your own ethical policies on your sites, to indicate the standards you endeavor to follow. As an example, you can read my own Code of Ethics, Disclosure, Advertising and Sample Policies. If you wish to be taken seriously in any way, you should be an ethical reviewer. It will enhance your credibility and reputation.

Don't be a douchebag!


Frederick Wright said...

Wonderfully vehement article, Richard! I had seen this 'reviewer card' last week and honestly wasn't surprised at all, and I don't fault the entrepreneur, since he's merely taking advantage of a gap in the market. An entire generation of 20-something, ultra-entitled whiny centers of the universe who were escorted around in Maclaren strollers, fawned over and worshipped (materially) by their disconnected parents. A generation that has never lost a soccer game (we're all winners!) and who likely grew up having individual meals prepared for them rather than eat what the family was eating. I'm thinking of renting out fado singers to accompany particularly bad restaurant experiences for these douches.

Michael said...

You definitely make a valid argument against the reviewer card. I think it's a little outlandish - and pompous, personally. And it would only fly in large cities probably, not rural towns.

Jason Phelps said...

Spot on. I hope I never see one out in public!


Joe said...

Unfortunately, for a product that has only sold 100 units, this guy has gotten a hell of a lot of exposure. Perhaps that was the plan all along?

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