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Reviewing Amazon items for free: a free review

Many years ago, I decided to start trying to review items for free on Amazon. It seemed impossible, it seemed magical. It wasn’t impossible, but it was magical.

I systematically began writing reviews for everything I could imagine, and slowly, my rank as a reviewer rose. I added a throwaway e-mail to my profile, and after about a year of reviewing, people and companies started contacting me.

It was easy, it was fun. They would send me an e-mail and ask if I would review, say, an iPhone cord or Christmas lights. I would agree, they would send me a code to get it for free, I would order it using that code, get it in the mail, write a review. There was a protocol, Amazon required you to disclose that you got the item for free in your review, so that other shoppers would know that it wasn’t completely unbiased.

And it wasn’t completely unbiased. It couldn’t be. First, if somebody gave me a free literal pile of shit, I would like that pile of shit more than if I paid $400 for it, even if it were the same exact pile of shit. If I got a doorbell for free, and it was pretty okay, sure, I’ll give it a bunch of stars! If I had paid a lot of money for it, I would be much more picky about it. I tried not to let that influence my reviews, but…you can’t get around it.

Second, there was implicit pressure to rate things highly so you could get more stuff. The companies were after good reviews, so they liked to give stuff to people who typically were not very critical. I am a not-critical person by nature, but even if I were critical, my reviews would certainly be skewed in a positive direction. It’s like you got a bonus for being positive, and who doesn’t want a bonus?

Third, you agreed to review an item within a certain time. Let’s take those iPhone cords – do they work? Sure! Every iPhone cord I’ve ever gotten works! The good ones work for years. The shitty ones work for weeks. But by the time the shitty ones don’t work anymore, you’ve already long since written the review.

About two years ago, Amazon changed their terms of service, for good reason. It is a terrible policy to let people write reviews like this; it waters down the actual reviews, it gives companies a leg up not based on the quality of their items but on how good they are at finding people who are desperate for free shit, and the star system is inflated for those giving out free shit. I stopped doing it then.

I still get emails for free items, but the situation has changed. You have to buy the item first, then they’ll reimburse you, which seems inherently risky. You have to pretend to Amazon like you aren’t doing it, so you don’t get banned, and suddenly, with everything underground, why would there be any rules of engagement?

Now, there’s no way to tell if somebody is a regular consumer who bought an item or somebody who got paid in stuff to give a good review. Why does this matter?

Last year, I bought a Samsonite suitcase from Amazon. It was a bit cheaper than I expected because it was hot pink, but it matched my other Samsonite luggage, which I love. It had great reviews. When I got it, I noticed it was a bit different – maybe a different year? Is that how luggage works? It completely broke my first time using it – the wheels popped up into the suitcase, so not only couldn’t it wheel, there was a huge hole in the bottom. The first time using it. It was a fake. There was no way to know this from Amazon.

That’s the last time I have tried to buy something of quality on Amazon. You can’t tell definitively what you’re getting, and a lot of that is because of fake reviews. I’m moving away from Amazon in general, for this reason.

From the point of view of the person who might be doing the reviews: even when it was all on the up-and-up, I would occasionally get items that were shitty, or worse. There was a blue-tooth transmitter thing I had to plug into my iPod – the minute I did it, there was a spark, and from that moment, the speaker stopped working on the iPod. It’s still broken. “Free” isn’t always good. My brother Rob, who prefers the pseudonym Julio, told me yesterday that I should tell everybody that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free Amazon nightlight.

But now that doing these reviews means violating the terms of service, the potential for shitty, dangerous items is much worse. You are dealing with companies that are willing to buck the rules – to act unethically to increase their profits. Are these companies going to be paying a bit extra for safety and quality? Do you want to plug your phone into a cord from a company like this? Leave a lamp on in your living room? Taste test any food, ingest any vitamins? I don’t.

In short, even in its heyday, the review system was problematic from the point of view of consumers. Now, without disclosure, and against the terms of service, it’s much worse, and it’s worse for the consumers as well as the reviewers.

I don’t write reviews for free shit from Amazon anymore. Neither should you.

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