A Gray Area

The Discourse of Online Consumer Reviews was featured in this Sunday’s New York Times.   (I know: OMG, wow, amazing, so cool!!!   ALL of those things! But I digress…)  Writer Michael Erard chose to begin his article with a short narrative about the time that my husband and I were pressured to write a review for a car salesman this summer.  Besides using the narrative as a way to hook readers’ interest in the topic (a keen insight on his part and a very effective strategy, judging by the number of messages I received from people who mentioned they especially enjoyed that part of the story!), he later makes the point that such solicited reviews represent a “gray area” on the spectrum of real to fake reviews.  This raises some really interesting ethical and practical questions.  Are solicited reviews qualitatively different from unsolicited reviews?  Can we consider them to be truly “authentic” or “genuine”?  I believe the answers to those questions depend a lot on how, why, and from whom a review is solicited – and what, if anything, is offered to the reviewer in exchange.

Let me give some examples.  Earlier in the year, I wrote a post about a wonderful little yoga retreat center we visited in Guatemala that was completely off the beaten path.  As we were checking out, the owner of the business gently reminded us that, if we felt so compelled, leaving a review on TripAdvisor would be much appreciated. To me, this felt like a very different type of request than when our car dealer plopped down in front of us a binder filled with other customers’ reviews, with the goal of showing  us what we should write on 6 specific websites that rate car dealers and dealerships.  Rather than making a simple suggestion, his hard sell tactic made me feel like I was being tasked with a homework assignment.

And it turns out that I am not the only one who’s annoyed by this type of request.  A recent study published in Psychology and Marketing  reported that “Research participants who imagined a scenario in which salespeople asked them for positive evaluations reported lower satisfaction with the service encounter than those who imagined not being asked.”  To me, this means that businesses should think twice about directly soliciting reviews from customers – and if they chose to do so, to give even MORE thought to how they actually formulate their request! (Those of us who study pragmatics understand that the words we choose, our tone and demeanor, and the context in which a request is made can make all the difference in the world.)

But is it any different if the person asking you to write the review is someone you know really well?

Here’s another example.  A friend of a friend (who is also an academic) told me about how several of his disgruntled students trashed his book on Amazon a few years ago.  He responded by asking a handful of his friends, who had read his book, to post favorable reviews of it on the same site, in order to mitigate the effects of – what he felt were – unfair reviews.  His friends agreed.  When I checked out his reviews on Amazon, there were now an equal number of positive reviews to negative reviews for his book.

A different colleague (let’s call him “Ken”) used to own a restaurant, and reports that he had a similar experience.  After being fired, one of Ken’s very unhappy ex-employees retaliated by posting negative (and untruthful, according to Ken) reviews of Ken’s restaurant on a local website.  This was back in the early days of reviews, and that particular site did not offer businesses a “right of reply space” to tell their side of the story.  So Ken asked some of his friends who had recently eaten at his restaurant to post some positive reviews, in order to “dilute” the impact of those negative (and unfair, according to Ken) reviews.  It has been over a decade since that happened, and Ken is no longer a restaurant owner; yet every time he tells me this story, it’s evident how hurt and angry and frustrated he still feels about this experience.

When a large company pays another business to handle their “online reputation management” by posting fake reviews to boost their own ratings, we are quick to condemn those actions.  But should we consider the last two examples to be equally unethical…or are they simply attempts to “level the playing field,” in response to (what some may consider) an unjust public character assassination?   To me, it seems we are looking at many shades of gray here, and we may want to carefully consider some of the finer distinctions among them.

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