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Amazon Baits Top Reviewers With Free Crap (and Journalists Follow the Trail)

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We might just be naive, but this story destroyed everything we thought we knew about Amazon reviews.

Most of the site’s top reviewers are members of an elite “Vine” club called upon to “advocate” for brands that make everything from books to lightbulbs to cameras. Amazon encourages them to compete for the top spot by writing more, and partner companies looking for good reviews send them free crap while hoping for the best.

This isn’t nearly as far down the ethics scale as companies that churn out fake business and product write-ups, and it probably won’t be news to anyone in PR. But as consumers we have to say: the fact that these tastemakers get to choose free stuff from the super-secret list Amazon sends to its reigning critics every month makes us place even less value on a given product’s star rating.

A professor NPR contacted for comment said that these Vine reviewers might just be more likely to view a free product in a positive light, because “psychology”, man.

In what might be the most interesting part of the story, the very critics covered in the piece debated whether to go public with their Viner status in a forum that reads like a Reddit thread. In its best post, Viner “S. McGee”—who happens to be a journalist—schools others on why writers from BuzzFeed have been calling them. His “tips for fielding a media inquiry” are straight out of PR 101:

“I do think most reporters are looking for truth and honesty, but they also need to fit what they have into some kind of framework: a narrative arc, a story that is unusual or provocative (man bites dog, not the reverse), something new and different.”

“…ask how they got your name/why they are reaching out to you, and for details on what kind of a story they are doing. Who else have they talked to? Have they developed any thoughts about their topic yet? (Don’t ask if they have an angle: any savvy journalist will deny it and say they’re just gathering string.)”

We like this guy! Follow his advice.

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