It’s the time of year for saving money!
Many years ago, when I was writing for another
publication, the manufacturer of what (rumors had it) was the hot new high end
product at the time, submitted one of their latest units for review, saying to
the reviewer that, if what he wrote was good enough and if the product got
pictured on the front cover of the magazine, he could keep the product for his
Sound familiar? There’s been lots of talk on
the audiophile forums lately about what, if it’s true, amounts to nothing more
than good ole fashion’ payola: You know what I mean: the old “I give you
something; you give me something in return.” As the rumor goes, it’s usually a
manufacturer offering to buy advertising in return for a good review. But, as
just mentioned, it could also be a product that’s offered, or a bottle of wine,
a trip, or something else, entirely. It could even be the publication that’s
doing the offering, and the manufacturer that’s faced with signing the check or
maybe never getting his products reviewed at all.
The whole issue brings up lots of questions. I
can’t answer them all, but I’m going to try to answer some as well as I can.
For reasons I’m sure you’ll understand, I’m NOT going to name any names, but
please believe me when I tell you that everything I say here is absolutely true
and every incident actually happened.
Before going any further, though, to show you
that the issue of buying (or selling) good reviews is neither new nor confined
to the United States, here — exactly as they were actually published, with no
editing or addition at all — are a couple of excerpts on advertising policy
from a manual for foreign distributors that I first wrote nearly two decades
The first might seem to support the idea that
a manufacturer (or exclusive national distributor) might want to influence
publications to its own benefit. “The decision to print a review always lies
with the Editor of the publication, not the reviewer. Unless the Editor
approves it, and makes space for it in one of the issues of his magazine, no
review will ever be printed. For that reason, it’s obvious that you should make
the acquaintance of the Editor, as well as the reviewers at any publication.
That way, if the Editor needs some convincing to allow a review to be written
or printed, you can do the necessary convincing yourself, instead of having to
rely on your reviewer friends to do it for you. Remember that, because they
work for the Editor, the amount of influence the reviewers can exert for you
will always be limited.”
The very next paragraph, however, sets the
limits on just how far an attempt to influence a publication can go: “Never,
ever try to use the fact that you are an advertiser to influence the Editor in
any way. People in the publishing business are very much aware of the
possibility for conflict of interest between the sales and editorial
departments of any magazine, and they know that if their reputation for
unbiased reporting is compromised in any way, it can hurt them badly. For that
reason, every reputable magazine enforces a strict separation of powers and
responsibilities, with the editorial department having near total
independence. Any attempt to influence the Editor by referring to your
advertiser status will not only fail, it will also (by implying that he CAN be
influenced), insult the Editor and eliminate any possibility of friendly future
Is that still true? Was it ever? Stories
abound about the reviewer who bought his $35,000 speakers for an unusually
special price or the manufacturers who found that, unless they showed proper
obeisance (and possibly a dinner and a bottle of a suitable vintage) to a
reviewer or editor, reviews of their products might never be written or
published. There are also countless instances where products submitted for
review have never been returned, either because the manufacturer hoped they
might continue to be listed as part of the reviewer’s reference system, or
simply because neither party ever got around to asking for them or sending them
Is this an indication that the system is
corrupt? Does it mean that what you read about a product is not necessarily
true, but could be the result of somebody getting (or, if it’s negative, of
somebody NOT getting) “greased”? Maybe, but I strongly doubt it.
Just as I did when I wrote those earlier
paragraphs, I still believe that the overwhelming majority of the audiophile
press and the people who publish it, edit it, and write for it, are
The proof of that can be seen in what happened
as a result of the incident of attempted corruption I used to open this
article: As soon as the manufacturer approached the reviewer with his
offer, the reviewer reported it to his editor and publisher, and not only did the
manufacturer not get a good review from the magazine, it got NO review.
It also had to make a written apology to the magazine and to the specific
reviewer who had been approached. And, in order to keep the whole
attempted bribery incident from being printed as a feature article, the company
had to fire its marketing vice president and its national sales manager.
Offering bribes, advertising, or any other
kind of incentive – especially product – to buy a good review is just plain
crazy! If the product isn’t good, why would the reviewer or editor want
it, or be willing to sacrifice his integrity to get it? And if it IS
good, it’s going to get a good review, anyway, so why should the manufacturer
or distributor offer to pay for what it’s already going to get for free?
Corruption is not only dishonorable and bad business, it also
makes no sense! Don’t worry about it; most of the rumors really are just
I’m aware (as I’m sure are you) that access itself is something that can be influenced by a company’s willingness to contribute to the advertising coffers. 6Moons makes no bones about it, The Absolute Sound isn’t very public with that info but they seem to be fairly open about how access to reviews is tied to advertising dollars. Stereophile I’m not as informed about, but there’s no reason to assume that they behave differently (despite protests to the contrary). As well, it seems that there have been no small insider reports of an online magazine or two taking quite-expensive equipment in trade for advertising.
So you see, to influence a review itself is one thing. To have access to begin with is another. And to accept gear in trade for advertising is yet another. We don’t necessarily need to limit the query to “payola in exchange for positive influence” because payola, in some for or another, is being used in other ways.
That the audiophile press isn’t open about these practices isn’t surprising, but it is nevertheless a facet of this business that consumers aren’t necessarily aware of. Just as they aren’t necessarily aware that reviewers are often granted special privileges to buy gear at 1/2 to 1/3 of retail price (or even less, in some cases), but when all of this is weighed together one thing becomes rather obvious: audiophile review magazines, either print or in virtual space, are not there to protect the consumer at all – they are there to promote the industry, and especially those players within the industry that invest most heavily in advertising.
There is nothing evil about it, of course – but it is an aspect of the business that consumers seem somewhat blind to. If consumers only kept in mind that magazines are in business, and that they pay their bills with income derived from advertising – it becomes apparent to whom, generally, the publications are obliged.
That is one reason why I tend to value word of mouth far more than a reviewer’s blessing … real people spending real money in the real world have much more substantially important opinions than reviewers who have little exposure to risk and who depend upon ad revenues for sustenance.
>The Absolute Sound isn’t very public with that info but they seem to be
fairly open about how access to reviews is tied to advertising dollars.
Stereophile I’m not as informed about, but there’s no reason to assume
that they behave differently (despite protests to the contrary)< It is different at Stereophile. Less than 50% of the products we review are from advertisers, so your statement is just plain incorrect.
In my experience as a reviewer, any attempts at influence tend to be much more subtle than the examples given. Wining and dining was much more common 10-15 years ago, but seems to have dropped off dramatically as smaller companies struggle with a weak economy.
For me, the most common issue has been ‘abandoned’ gear. Sometimes, after a review is completed, the manufacturer will show no interest in collecting their review samples. I have cases where I have contacted manufacturers several times asking them to collect gear to no avail. This actually leaves the reviewer in a bit of a bind because you cannot ethically sell the gear, and it just ends up taking up storage space.
I use “dry cleaner rules” with gear. Three documented contacts to try to return gear, if no response after six months the gear goes to charity.
There’s another thing, Barnabus, that neither you nor I mentioned: The feect of sheer price. If a thing is expensive enough, a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome sets in and reviewers will give a just-adequate product a glowing review because they’re afraid that to do otherwise might seem to be an admission that they’re missing or incapable of hearing something that everybody else is hearing and liking. I have, for a good many years, told anyone who would listen that the value of any review is directly proportional to how well the system, taste, and standards of the reviewer conforms to your own. By my standards and according to my perception, there are a great many reviews out there that are simply dead wrong. I still continue to believe, however, that the proportion of those that are wilfully dishonest or thar are motivated by the hope or fact of some “quid pro quo” is minuscule
There’s another thing, Barnabus, that neither you nor I mentioned: The effect of sheer price. If a thing is expensive enough, a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome sets in and many reviewers will give a just-adequate product a glowing review only because they’re afraid that to do otherwise might seem to be an admission that they’re missing or incapable of hearing something that everybody else is hearing and liking. I have, for a good many years, told anyone who would listen that the value of any review is directly proportional to how well the system, taste, and standards of the reviewer conforms to your own. By my standards and according to my perception, there are a great many reviews out there that are simply dead wrong. I still continue to believe, however, that the proportion of those that are wilfully dishonest or thar are motivated by the hope or fact of some “quid pro quo” is minuscule
“I still continue to believe, however, that the proportion of those that
are willfully dishonest or thar are motivated by the hope or fact of some “quid pro quo” is minuscule”
I’m sure you do believe that, Roger. I’m just not sure that faith is good enough given what I’ve seen lo these several decades. It may be that a few bad apples spoil the barrel, but I’ve seen some shabby business behind the curtain and it has made me far too aware that your statement of belief doesn’t comport with what I’ve come to know.
Let’s take an example from a magazine we haven’t yet mentioned: HiFi+
As it happens, Roy Gregory was quite the fan of Nordost Cable, editorially, something of a champion for the brand while at the helm of the magazine. As I’ve heard (and perhaps you know something of this), it seems that during this tenure of his, Mrs. Gregory was also working for Nordost. Interesting, but not necessarily a smoking gun. However, upon his leaving the magazine Mr. Gregory apparently accepted a position as VP of Sales at Nordost.
I’ve been told by one of my mates somewhat near to that bubble that this happened to coincide with a fairly robust growth period for Nordost. It’s not to say that these, ipso facto, are directly related – but it does give one pause for concern.
What is your opinion of this bit of audio history?
And there was the alleged incident of a “infamous” reviewer for one of the major magazines…who sold a large amount of Nordost cable he was given for review…
Paul, The emphasis here should be on “Alleged” and disproved. The reviewer wasn’t the seller and the cable was sold without his knowledge.
I knew about this story some years ago by a Nordost Cable dealer´s word of mouth.
It was a shameful situation that could not be hidden.
I still believe the reviewer was certainly the seller.
But he cuts the cable in many shorter pieces…
Many years ago, after a really good review of a Gryphon amp, the reviewer asked to buy the sampler at discount (distribuitor cost). AAfter the manufacturer refusal, Stereophile published a review
denying the positive features published before. He never publucar one review of that brand I remember.
It happens many years ago, when the magazine has digest size. (Maybe I have the issues).
Excuse me if I´m wrong, but I nkew it about the same distribuitor and I read both reviews…
I am a top-tier manufacturer and
you have the wrong end of the stick. May
I remind you from your own manufacturing days. The manufacturing business model
does not include reviewers or advertising. Companies such as Ferrari have never
advertised- ever. Manufacturers can survive well without reviews and advertising. In the early days there was neither. Now ask the question if reviewers can survive without getting paid from manufacturers. Not only is the answer no, most reviewers get into the business to find a way of getting a piece of the pie and become middlemen between manufacturer and buyer.
So its not a manufacturer that
sticks his hand out, its umpteen publications standing on every street corner
asking us to roll our windows down. Worse they excercise authority, to which we are absolutely defenseless. Where can I express the authority that you just have, and share my experinces of publications sticking their cold hands in our
Let us not forget, reviewers are not public servants nor doing the Lord’s work, they are decidely in the business of making money from the manufacturers. What you are say is that the onus of how to creatively pass monies on to reviewers rests on the manufacturer.
Sorry, Pilgrim, but you’re dead wrong on at least two points. The first is that manufacturers can do without advertising or reviews. If that were really the case, why would anyone advertise? Even Ferrari, the example you cited, spends a FORTUNE every year on publicity and promotion. What do you think their racing program is,other than a way of gaining mention in the world press? Ferrari’s more than half-century of solid promotion is (of course in addition to its actual performance, styling, and technological innovation) a reason for much of its brand equity and high produvt desirability today.
The second is the idea that “most reviewers get into the business to find a way of getting a piece of the pie and become middlemen between manufacturer and buyer”. Nonsense. I didn’t; the overwhelming majority of the reviewers that I have known over the years didn’t; and those very few that I know of who did are long gone from the industry. Reviewing is seen by me and by almost every other reviewer that I have ever known as an honor and a public trust. We know that people may spend or not spend money based on what we write, so we make sure that, to the very best of our knowledge and ability, what we write is the truth.
Since most of the comments thus far seem to be from industry professionals, let me add a comment from the viewpoint of the consumer. First, I would tend to believe that reviews printed in major high end publications are the honest evaluations of the reviewers. I am in sales and I frequently take customers to lunch, an occasional dinner, and sporting events. Such actions are proper in a normal business setting. I would never, on the other hand, give away money or any such unscrupulous act.
So if a reviewer is taken to lunch I do not see that as any major problem. There is, of course, a boundary that should not be crossed. I would hope that every reviewer and editor knows what those boundaries are. I do rely on the reviewer’s commentary because if I read the review I am interested in the product on some level. I myself have become interested in a number of components solely on a positive review. And I always look to reviews for a quasi positive reassurance of something I have purchased.
The ultimate decision for me to purchase something, however, rests on the advice of my dealer whom I trust, and in my own auditioning of the product in question. Yes, hearing some components presents a challenge. But if I am planning on buying a $50,000 set of speakers what is a little travel money to go see a dealer for an audition?
At the end of the day I would tend to believe that a reviewer’s good name is far more important than a free meal or even a nice amplifier. Maybe it is a naive viewpoint but it seems to me that loosing one’s credibility and even perhaps their ability to make a living is worth far more than a lunch or some speaker cables.
On the whole, I don’t have a problem with the credibility of reviewer’s or their work.
I learned in the school of Harry Pearson. I’ve never sold ads, or had anything to do with them. As an audio journalist, I have never been offered the gear in exchange for a favorable review. Honestly, in 18 years in this industry.
I have however, after a few of my product reviews were published, and sales were linked to the review (meaning the audio companies told me the review was effective in that way) been offered to use the components as part of my reference system. But after a few months, I offer to either buy it or send it back. – and I ALWAYS indicate which components I own and which ones I DON’T in my Positive Feedback writers profile/systems breakdown!
No, I pay for my stuff. Do I get accommodation pricing? Yes.
But we used to have to prove we were current authors for a known entity before getting accommodations – remember that Roger??
but it IS true that some audio writers I know have had to sell ads for their magazines “Best of” Guides or something like that. I never did it – but what do you think about that for example?
When I worked for manufacturers (this happened when I worked for CEntrance and HRT) I ran into situations where the writer I was looking to get a review from also owned the blog, so they asked for advertising as well as the product. That’s another scenario. Thoughts about that?
No ad, no review; may not be a hard and fast rule, but one that is: If review, then ad.
I believe it.
There is one reviewer from TAS that I follow.
I understand his adherence to TAS being about the absolute best in sound (which he defined in his Q7 review) and I respect his candor.
The reviewer often states in his reviews, that what he’s reviewing, is something that he can’t afford.
So, do I find it curious, that for over 3 years ), he’s had two ultra high end turntable (the Walker Proscenium and the DaVinci Audio Labs Gabriel), that have been a constant in his “reference system”?
Certainly there are a number of ultra high end turntables and tone arms. that the likes of a Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge (now part of his reference system) can mate with.
It would seem that both companies must have some arrangement for him to not only hold onto their $95k and $80k (respectively) turntables for so long, but to also upgrade them (as in the case of Walker).
It does raise one’s eyebrows, when every review you read from every reviewer, is always stellar..
I remember 22 years ago, Harry Pearson knocking a component and when the manufacturer complained in the response section, HP banned his company from the magazine (only to reinstate them after the owner’s mia culpa).
I think that the majority of readers feel the same way about (“reviewers never met a piece of gear they didn’t like”) and suspect some sort of “arrangement” between the reviewer and the maker.
Does it mean that it’s some sort of “payola”?
Ultimately what does that matter?
Does it influence me?
For me the bottom line, is that I’m going to go and listen to the gear and compare it before I buy it anyways.
On another level, in the case of the reviewer that I mentioned, I can’t afford those turntables, but, because of the reviewer’s constant use of them, if I could afford them, they would be the first tt’s I would evaluate for purchase.
And the reason for that, is more influenced by the fact that I do respect his reviews (because of his candor) and don’t think that he would hold onto them, if he didn’t have a high regard for them.
I think that if the indicators point to some sort of arrangement ( keeping the gear or whatever) the people suspect that (which is everyone that I’m in contact with), those people are not going to believe the denials of the publisher.
I would like to finish with several questions:
What sort of impact is this (interesting) article expected to have?
Is it going to change anything?
Does anyone honestly think that publisher’s and reviewers are going to raise their hands and admit that “back scratching” takes place?