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FRONTBURNR | August 27, 2014

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Ethics of Selling Review Games

| On 25, Apr 2013

I’ve been blogging since sometime in 2006 and “professionally” blogging since 2007. While doing this blogging thing, I’ve gotten lots of products in to review. The products have ranged from booze (I was a spirits blogger for a while.) to applesauce–not joking–to video games.

In 2009, the FTC cracked down on bloggers reviewing products and declared all bloggers must disclose any “material connections.” Side note: news outlets and magazines aren’t required to disclose any sort of “material connection.”

moneyFor bloggers, apart from the FTC guidelines, the IRS considers review products compensation and bloggers are supposed to pay taxes on any review items they receive.

If I have to pay taxes on something, it’s my property, right? I should be able to do anything with that property, right?

When a blogger receives review copies of games, is it OK for them to sell/trade in the games once their done? These games aren’t marked as “not for resale” and are almost always the final version of the game but is sent out prior to the release to give reviewers time to give the game a proper play.

Since the FTC and IRS consider that review copy a form of compensation, i.e., money, isn’t it up to that reviewer to decide what they do with the game once they’re done playing the game?

However, there’s always the whispered threat of blacklisting of bloggers who admit to selling review product…or even thinly veiled threats.

Example:

Hello [redacted] Bloggers,

It has been brought to our attention that some of our bloggers are reselling the [redacted] on sites such as Amazon, eBay etc after they have completed a blog post. It discredits the integrity of our bloggers when clients see that products they sent out and/or paid for are being resold. Please refrain from selling [redacted] via the internet at this time. Please note that we are taking these incidents into consideration while implementing a new policy in the [redacted] community regarding this matter.

If you have any current online listings of the sale of [redacted] please remove them immediately.

question
Please let me know if you have any questions.
Obviously some PR folks take exception to the practice of bloggers selling product the bloggers received for review. But, is it an unethical practice?

I asked Jake Baldino, who writes at Video Game Writers and makes videos for Pretty Much It, what he thought about the practice of reviewers selling back/trading in their review copies of games.

“I don’t think cashing in on review copies is the worst thing in the world; it’s almost expected that, as a blogger/writer/YouTuber, you don’t have a lot of money. It’s a small amount of cash. So there’s that. But on the other hand, it just gives me bad vibes. I’ve never actually sold a review copy for money, as it feels like there’s an unwritten rule between you and your PR representative. I’ve always thought my colleagues just had abnormally large video game collections.”

I can see where Baldino is coming from. By selling the product the PR person provided you, you’re breaking some implicit trust. However, if there aren’t explicit instructions from your PR person to NOT sell the item after review, are you wrong to do so? Granted, you could very well be biting the hand that feeds you, as it were.

David Binkowski, President & CEO of Large Media, seems to see things differently.

I don’t have a problem with it if they agree to review it and do so. Once the product leaves my hands it’s out of my control what happens to it and I think it’s unrealistic to think that someone should be forced to keep something around their house just because they agreed to do a review of it.

That said, the blogger should know that sale of such products is taxable income – but that’s not really my concern once they’re done with the product.

Binkowski is an award winning marketer who “[...] wrote WOMMA’s [Word of Mouth Marketing Association] best practices for blogger relations in 2005, served on the WOMMA Member Ethics Advisory Panel and in 2010 drafted the guidelines for compliance with FTC standards on behalf of WOMMA.” David isn’t a slouch when it comes to marketing and blogger relations.

If he doesn’t see an issue with the practice of selling review products, maybe this isn’t so much an ethics question as a personal preference issue?

Kelly Whalen, co-founder of Splash Creative Media and owner of The Centsible Life, has an interesting perspective since she’s on both sides of things: she’s a blogger and a marketer.

This is a tricky topic for several reasons, the main being that there are some people who will take advantage of the situation. While I think that it is ethical to sell review items under certain circumstances the challenge is that this can be somewhat of a gray area because of the people who take advantage of selling review items.

Personally I only accept review items that provide value to my life and my family life. As a business owner I pay taxes on those review items, and they are my property, so after I’ve reviewed something I think it’s a personal decision if I sell, donate, or give away an item.

I’m picking up a lot of what Kelly is putting down.grey area

I’m with her on the paying taxes equals property and therefore I can do with the product what I want. I also agree with her about people potentially taking advantage of “selling review items.” There’s also the “gray area” she talks about.

Looks like we’re back to personal choice.

The last quote I have for you is from my friend David Griner, VP/Director of Digital Content, Luckie & Co. and Contributing Editor at Adweek.com. It’s a long one but Griner sums everything up so nicely I had to include it in its entirety; he makes a nice distinction between traditional media and bloggers.

When I was an entertainment writer and editor for my college paper, I refused to sell anything I was sent to review. This was partly because most CDs and such I got were promotional and literally labeled as not for resale. But I also felt it was unethical to profit from what I was reviewing as a journalist.

Bloggers, however, have been forced into a slightly different ethical position. Primarily, there’s the fact that the FTC mandates all bloggers disclose free product as if it were compensation, or in government speak, a “material connection.” Newspapers never have to say that they received free product, but bloggers are required — unconstitutionally, I would argue — to disclose it as if it were a form of sponsorship payment.

So while I’m no lawyer or professional ethicist, I’d argue that if the FTC considers all review products to be a form of compensation, then bloggers are ethically free to do whatever they’d like with that product. Some will choose to give it away or use it. Others will choose to sell it. In summary, if the government insists on treating free products like money, then I’d argue that you should be able to do whatever you’d like with your “payment.”

Josh Deane, Founder & C.E.O. here at FrontBurnr, has a completely different view from Griner’s.

From an ethical perspective I find the FTC guidelines a non-starter. What the FTC declares as a reflection of what is ethical carries very little weight with me. The artificial distinction between “word-of-mouth” marketer or what is deemed a “material connection” does not make keeping a product or selling a review asset moral or not.

What should determine the morality of the decision is the intent in which the publisher relationship is engaged in. The relationship and actions between the parties carry with it their own internal moral understanding that can be unique per situation. If the company providing the sample is providing the article for informational or review purposes – the question can be asked if it ever crosses ownership. Providing the asset for an endorsement or from a promotional/marketing point of view, the item could be touted as form of compensation and thus crosses into a “do as you wish” type of relationship. Both issues can be overridden by clear consent from the provider.

The main point is that the intention between the provider and the curator must be clear and transparent to avoid confusion. I would always encourage an open discussion with the provider on what their intentions are with a sample, what they are in fact providing and if ownership has indeed transferred. The assumption of transference of assets can be very dangerous for any blogger and I do not recommend it.

As I said to Josh when we were discussing this is Skype: Assumptions will screw you over every time. That applies to both the folks sending out the product as well as the people doing the reviewing. The question of what to do with product once the review has been written isn’t one often brought up and obviously it needs to be talked about from the start.

taboo

I know, for a fact, there are counter opinions to these. I know because I’ve read the opinions, but other than Josh’s, I couldn’t get a quote from said folks.

What do you think? Is selling back review copies of games ethical? Unethical? Personal choice?

Note: It is FRONTBURNR’s policy that no retail or publishing assets will be resold, traded or used in anyway beyond the expressed consent from our partners.

Comments

  1. As a professional writer/critic, this has always been a ethical dilemma for me. While I have a massive stockpile of movies, books, hardware and games that I have, the question always lies in “What the hell do I do with this?”.

    Sending items to readers is nice, but earlier this month I spent, out of pocket, nearly $200 in shipping. What did I send? A keyboard to a reader, a game to another, a mouse and headset to another and a t-shirt to someone on twitter. I love readers, they make it all worthwhile, but that money could have been spent on improving my channel as well. Out of those 4 readers, 2 unfollowed and unliked after they received their gear. It’s an unfortunate practice with prize winners.

    I decided to trade in a few older review games recently, I felt bad about it as I didn’t have the money on hand to actually purchase a game I personally wanted. Should I feel bad that I am trading a couple few-month-old games in for a shiny new one? Probably not. The revenue I make doesn’t pay for additional expenses, it pays for upkeep and hosting. Every single time I spend money, it’s out of pocket. If my writers work for games, why can’t I use them rarely to my benefit as well?

    I follow FCC regulations. My tax person laughed when I showed him the tax claims.

  2. Red Blooded American Goy

    If someone you are in a professional relationship with tells you not to do something, you do not do it. That what is called being a professional, as opposed to some classless schmuck.

    This goes double with the PR industry. High level connections are based on trust and mutual understanding, and writing an article like this is a slap in the face to people who have put stock in you.

    There have been review materials handed out – CD’s, movies, clothing, lawnmowers – long before there was blogging or even personal computers, and the rules have never changed. Perhaps the only thing that has changed is the moral intelligence of the involved parties.

    So yeah, long story short, selling promotional items for money is immature, irresponsible, immoral, and wrong. You give it to friends and family gratis, and that’s as far as you go.

    • I definitely agree with you, however, I do believe the article itself is about gathering perspectives on the issue more than stating what choice is correct. Thus, not really a slap in the face. And I will reiterate, as FBR’s leader, we hold to your perspective as well.

    • The rules have changed, depending on who you work with and your intentions. That’s why blogging presents such ethical challenges, ones that are often ignored, and I think Amy does a great job of presenting different perspectives here.

      Some PR people I work with consider the review item ‘payment’ for work. As a small business those review items are taxable (per my CPA) so I consider them my property.

      I run a lifestyle site and occasionally review video games, and my practice is to accept games my family or I will use. We review them, but if after a period of time we’re not using the review item I will donate, give it away, or trade it in.

  3. I wouldn’t say I necessarily disagree with Josh. The FTC (which I think is laughably wrongheaded in this case) shouldn’t be seen as the final arbiter of professional ethics. (However, I wouldn’t advise a blogger to ignore them out of hand, either.)

    To me, as long as both sides of a review are transparent and the writer is consistent with his or her approach to used games, almost any approach could be considered valid. Short of destroying them, there’s no ethically pure answer. Giving them to readers is still benefiting from the value of the product, even if you’re not getting paid in dollars.

    If a game company is sending out review copies without clarifying how they want the used copies handled, then retroactively chastising bloggers for how they handled those copies is a prick move. My recommendation is that any blogger who reviews any kind of product should post a clearly stated policy on their site and stick with it.

  4. I cannot speak too heavily on this issue for the sheer fact that I have only ever received copies via digital download for review. Obviously, making it rather difficult to sell and/or give away, but overall I would have to lean towards not selling review copies. You were given these items on good faith, and if you are turning around and selling everything, one must begin to question your reasoning for reviewing in the first place.

    As mentioned though, there is a lot of gray area there. What if you’ve had the review game for 2 years, do those same ethics still apply? Or has that unspoken time stamp expired?

    • Binkowski said it best, “[...] I think it’s unrealistic to think that someone should be forced to keep something around their house just because they agreed to do a review of it.”

      Things get even more complicated when you have to not only take into your personal proclivities and the demands of the PR/Marketing people you’re working with but also the policies of your employer.

      The lack of discussion on this subject definitely isn’t helping matters.