Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Review Rendezvous

Casey Weinfurtner 

A few months ago I checked the location of a restaurant on my search engine and stumbled upon a long list of reviews posted underneath the restaurant’s basic location. Considering this was my first visit to the restaurant, I figured I might as well check out what the food critics had to say. Only a few reviews in and I had myself convinced I was about to devour the best five-course meal of a lifetime.

Two hours later… I can assure you my taste buds were not satisfied to the least. Not only was the service horrendous, but also what I had thought was going to be a five-course meal fell miles short of its expectation. I couldn’t help but think to myself on my drive home, “How on earth did that restaurant get such raving reviews?”

The opposite scenario happened to me just a month after this one. I was playing a show at a pub that wasn’t quite in my local neighborhood. One of my good friends had arrived to the venue just as I was scarfing down my dinner prior to my performance. Instantly, he asked me how my food tasted. After I gave him a knowing look with half my sandwich shoved down my throat, he proceeded to share with me that when he went to search the pub’s location online, he too received reviews beneath the basic information. According to my friend, the pub was eaten alive (no pun intended) for it’s terrible food quality. This time, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How on earth could anyone give such a delicious menu poor ratings?”

Later when I went home, I took it upon myself to double check the site on which my friend had seen these terrible reviews. To my disbelief, there were countless comments testifying that, indeed, the food and service was terrible. But as my investigative tendencies kicked in, I found a common theme in all of the posts that struck my eye. Not only did it seem the poor reviews were coming from similar sources, the reviews were all posted within similar time slots as one another. I came to the logical conclusion that one angry customer must have bombarded the restaurant’s local listings with poor reviews and was set on a mission to portray the restaurant negatively through consumers' eyes. Needless to say, if it had worked on my friend, how many others had strayed away from this restaurant as well?

Who can we blame?

It seems we can’t use the term “good reviews” too loosely these days, nor can we consistently rely on the reviews we are given throughout media sources. So who’s the culprit? Well, in my own personal experience, it is certainly the guy tarnishing my favorite food venue because of his own bad experience. However, most cases of false reviews aren’t as lighthearted in today’s world. Some of the new culprits on the rise are defined by the term “astroturfing” – a form of advertising used in PR that pays celebrities or individuals to overtly express their positivity toward a company’s product of choice.

Astroturfers are certainly putting a spin on the way audiences receive and perceive the information they are given. Though paying a celebrity to endorse a certain product is strategically an intelligent move, astroturfing is taking a serious toll on larger media sources. Recently, nineteen companies were caught paying freelance writers to pose as consumers on sites such as Yelp and Google. Ironically, Google was my go-to when I had stumbled upon the poor restaurant reviews over this summer. All together the discovery of these companies unethical deals have created one of the largest astroturfing scandals yet to appear. The astroturfers were rightfully shut down and now have agreed to pay up to $350,000 in penalty for their actions. Not cheap.

How "real" are the people and reviews?

It hasn’t taken long for astroturfing to make its way into the world of Twitter either. More and more often our favorite celebrities are commenting on products they’ve used over social networks, undoubtedly drawing attention to a specific brand. It’s not a secret many stars are getting endorsed for tweeting on behalf of any big company. In fact, the promotion of certain brands and products by celebrities is becoming so common it’s more difficult to distinguish what is a genuine remark and what could possibly be an endorsement.

Social media sources continue to lose credibility the more their audiences are left to question if what they read is an actual reflection of a brand. Regardless of whether or not most audiences are learning to question the reviews they see online from celebrities or everyday bloggers, these reviews are working. Astroturfing still continues to fall under the radar, and its raises doubt for the credibility of information journalists need to find.

                                    Reality star Khloe Kardashian tweets about Old Navy brand

How do we make a Change?

As journalists and PR professionals, the credibility of our sources and information we send out to the general public is crucially dependent upon our representation of the truth. With the continuous growth of social media and access to vast forms of misinformation, it is becoming even more essential for those in the journalistic field to reflect upon ways we can dismiss ourselves from these types of behaviors.

Though it may be tempting to outreach those we know can make a profit increase for our product change, our ethical codes of conduct should remain a solid base for the decisions we do choose to make. We may not have the ability to entirely deface all astroturfers or false reviews floating around in our media sources, but we can make the decision to promote our clients in the most ethical way possible. Not only will an ethical platform justify our morals as a professional in the field, but assure our clients and audiences that their products/sources are reliable.

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