Review Rant

Having become the center of great scrutiny and controversy lately, it’s due time that I address the nature of my product reviews if they’re to continue any longer. Countless bloggers approach the same subject in countless different ways, so I can only speak for myself here, but a lot more goes into such a seemingly simple post than many people realize.

While it’s certainly nice to get new products and samples at no charge, it often costs way more than one little meal, snack, or even bite is worth when all is said and done. Factor in expenses like photography props, backgrounds, garnishes, and additional ingredients if cooking with the item or writing a recipe to use it in. Not to mention, the cost of time, which is quite frankly a very large check to write.

I’m not just snapping one photo, snarfing down some food, and cranking out a few half-digested sentences. Multiple tastings, on multiple occasions, are the norm. I take these reviews very seriously, and want to give every item a fair and unbiased palate. Perhaps something tastes better cold than it did hot; Maybe my taste buds were skewed because I just ate something with a lot of acid beforehand; What if it simply gets better with age? How terrible would it be for me to write off a fantastic new product just because I served it the wrong way? All through this journey, many notes are taken to preserve all of the details.

Then, there are the usual posting requirements- Processing, editing, and uploading photos, fleshing out those notes into comprehensive and perhaps even witty sentences if I get really lucky, formatting the text and adding links. No, not an overwhelming task at all, but it does take time.

And here’s what gets to me: When companies get pushy and start out-and-out harassing me because it’s been two weeks since they sent out their latest and greatest [fill in the blank] and they still haven’t seen it on the blog. In all likelihood, I loved it! But the sheer volume of review requests and subsequent backlog that I’ve accumulated prevents me from providing a speedy turnaround. Besides that, I don’t want to clog these cozy pages with nothing but one running advertisement; BitterSweet is so much more than a review blog. I really do prefer to focus on recipes and crafts, with just an occasional review thrown in. Besides, I’m more about making what you can, rather than buying it in the first place!

Frequently, I considered eliminating product reviews entirely, but at the end of the day, I really do want to share some of my favorite treats, give recommendations to those who might be hesitant of trying new things otherwise, and supporting small companies that you might have otherwise never heard about. Bottom line is, I do it because I love it, and I would continue writing reviews whether the food was handed to me on a silver platter or I bought it at full price just like everyone else. I just wish that everyone could understand that at the end of the day, it’s never actually free.

37 thoughts on “Review Rant

  1. Hannah … it never ceases to amaze me what the writers some of the vegan blogs I follow have to put up with!! I appreciate you sharing some of your frustrations, because it helps me, as a reader and non-blogger, better understand what is involved in this job of yours. And it most certainly is a job, as you well outlined … all the behind the scenes stuff that is required to make this blog as top-notch and professional as it is.

    Sharing how you evaluate products was also helpful. I don’t think I would have thought about trying a product several different times under different conditions … but once mentioned, it makes all the sense in the world.

    And I’m glad you are not going to eliminate product reviews …. the frequency of these in your blog is very small, and of the products you’ve reviewed that I have subsequently tried, I’ve found your evaluations to be spot on.

  2. I understand what you mean. I think they’re the lucky ones to get their product reviewed by you anyway. Patience is a virtue.

  3. Hannah, I empathise with your comments but still have a bit of concern about the sometimes-questionable place you and others may occupy by accepting free items in return for a review. Aside from not being even-handed (e.g., reviewing Vitamix but not its competitors), your posts *may* not always identify whether you have yourself decided to purchase, or whether you were given a discount or even free products (e.g., Vere chocolates). (Keep in mind that I am not saying this to accuse you of anything, but to offer another perspective on this issue.)

    The time spent by you in trying new products is really voluntary on your part, even though there’s no question that doing so is a service to the vegan community (UNLESS, as I said, the reviews are biased – which they are if only because you try one item and not another).

    I want to be careful here: PLEASE don’t read this as a condemnation of your practices, not at all. I am a follower and I love your recipes & blog posts!

    However, I do think there’s a lot of merit in concerns, more generally, about bloggers being the latest conduit for marketing, and that the concerns cannot be easily dismissed. It’s not an easy issue for me, because I also greatly admire true crowdsource marketing, such as what you and Isa and others have done. But there’s a line there for me, somewhere, and I think that attention must be paid to transparency if you intend to present your reviews as a public service – which is what you seem to be saying.

    1. I appreciate your honesty and absolutely understand your concerns- I wonder the exact same things when reading others’ glowing reviews.

      In the case of Vere chocolates, and many older reviews, it took me a long time to fully get the hang of how to fairly present a product, provide full dislosure, and still make sure the post didn’t sound like one giant disclaimer. I’m still often stumbling over that one, in fact. Moving forward, I’m hoping to always make the source of the products clear, because I do understand what a difference that could make. Regardless, I have no bias over something that was free or something that I paid for. I will always give my honest opinion no matter what, because otherwise my reviews would be altogether meaningless.

      As for not mentioning competitors, the thing is, I can only do so much. I’m only one person, with limited means. I simply can’t make every review and all-inclusive, end all, be all stamp of approval or disapproval. Just because I endorse one product doesn’t mean that it’s the only one for the job out there. That’s where the consumer must do their own research and decide for themselves what they want to buy.

      Thanks for adding your two cents, I really do appreciate your feedback, and hope my position makes a little more sense!

  4. whoa i didn’t realize that companies would actually harass you over reviewing their products, the only times i’ve received stuff to review they seemed so relaxed about its appearance on my blog (although of course they want the publicity!) it’s a shame to hear that. i’m glad you’re sticking up for yourself, and hope you get to continue to taste/share your good finds!

  5. I agree with Cara on transparency–I take *any* review with a grain of salt if it doesn’t mention how the reviewer acquired the product.

    That said, your reviews have always been thoughtful and full of gorgeous photos, so those companies *should* be patient! Perhaps you should have a templated response where you state that your review of a company’s product can take up to 3 weeks and will not necessarily be positive, but that you try your best to present an even opinion, blah blah blah. That should get them off your back! Good luck.

  6. dear hannah,
    i hope you do reviews that just work out for you and only you! delete the nast comments everyone hates anonymous, besides he/she are too scared to write their name! hope you are well,
    laci ;)

  7. Hannah,

    This was a great post and really opened my eyes. I started writing a comment, but I had so much to say that I ended up writing a blog post of my own.

    Cara states that her comment was not to condemn your practices but it did regardless of if it was or was not her intention. I feel it was rude and you are a very sweet and honest blogger and you shouldn’t be judged or put down for stating your honest opinions.

  8. For most bloggers, it is a labor of love as you have described, as well as an attempt to support the vegan or other community. Thank you for what you do; there are no requirements and you are certainly holding all the cards. I would drop the marketers who are harassing as they are not really all that vegan in behavior, in the final analysis. If they are just impatient, that is a different matter, but it is certainly on your timetable, not theirs. As a blogger, I well know of the investment in time and money to present a single article. Yours are appreciated.

  9. I have to be honest in the few reviews I do… I think it does put you in a tough position at times if there feels like there’s pressure! But I love reading reviews b my fave bloggers whose opinions and taste buds I trust!

  10. Here’s my take on it:

    (a)You are reviewing a product. You are not necessarily “comparing” that product to another similar one. I think if your readers want to check out your review against another review or do the comparison themselves, more power to them. You are merely giving your opinion on something.

    (b)I don’t know what kind of agreement you have with the companies who send you products to review but you’re good enough and busy enough that they need to either cut you some slack or maybe they should “apply” for your service…you could put them on a waiting list, so to speak.

    Stick to your guns…you’re doing just fine.

  11. Happy New Year Hannah
    Blogging is something is it? People do not understand what bloggers go through and sometimes never appreciate our efforts. To be honest only you and another blogger I actually trust their product reviews. Blogs are getting too commerical for my taste and for you to continue with good readership it is a good idea to space out product reviews. According to a saying we have in the Caribbean. Do not let them run your blood to water!

  12. Happy New Year to all!

    I have been vegan for exactly 10 days today and discovered your blog yesterday. I guess I don’t have to tell you, but just keep doing you. I frickin LOVE it! I adore the fact that you don’t adhere to any set rules because I’m the same way. Continue to follow your heart :) This is why you’ve been able to succeed in the ways that you have thus far. Can’t wait to get your book and catch up on earlier posts.

  13. This has turned into a very interesting discussion. I read with interest Cara’s points. But I don’t think a blogger has to review EVERY item in a given category to provide a “fair” review. When I read Hannah’s or others review of a given item, I am getting information on JUST that item … not how it compares to others.

    For example, the Vita-Mix review … I already know how other blenders function … I’ve gone thru several. But I found the Vita Mix review useful BECAUSE it focused just on that product … it told me WHAT THE VITA MIX does and how it does it.

    Same with food items … two that I recall … Terra Nostra’s Chocolate bars and Bountiful Vegan’s Intention Cookies were most helpful to me. They introduced me to 2 new products I was totally unaware of, and from Hannah’s descriptions, I figured I would like them. I did. Again, I did not need that particular chocolate compared to all the other vegan chocolates, or those cookies compared to all the others.

    Just my opinion.

    And Janelle’s comment (and subsequent blog post) is a very useful read. I think she hit the nail on the head when she said, “when the FTC updated these regulations, it was not with the intention of protecting consumers. I believe that it was to protect the multi-trillion dollar marketing industry that has been worried about losing revenue to these “non-traditional” marketing outlets.”

    Anyway, interesting discussion. Hannah, just put whatever “have-to” legal blurb somewhere on your blog to cover your you-know-what, and then just keep doing what you’ve been doing. From my perspective, you’re providing me exactly what I need in your reviews.

    1. Brenda, I agree with your comments – and I really appreciate Janelle’s blog entry, thanks for providing the link! I was unaware of the new regulations, and would be unsurprised to find that they were grey intentionally, perhaps as a result of lobbying pressure and compromises.

      As a librarian, I am concerned with quality consumer information, and frequently prepare instruction and review sites, helping people to learn about what warning signals they might need to be aware of. The blogosphere is an important source of information for people, and for us as vegans, it’s really a wonderful source of information.

      It is from that perspective that I mentioned the lack of even-handedness in reviewing one product only. I was not intending to imply that Hannah was intentionally biased (!), just to point out that even for the best, the perception of bias may be present (in the eyes of readers – and apparently, as others have said – the eyes of feds).

  14. wow, great post. I’ve often been surprised at how many free things the bigger bloggers seem to receive – i didn’t even realize the stress that goes along with it. it sounds like you are doing your best to be honest and up front about everything, and that seems like all anybody can ask. I’ll look forward to future product reviews from you! :)

  15. Whoa. You totally nailed it. Bravo, Hannah! For speaking out for us. I have to admit I once thought that getting freebies were soooo cool. But now, it can be so stressful sometimes, esp when you don’t really like the products, but don’t want to do a whole post about how it sucks. Also, trying to come up with creative ways to include it into your posts….it DOEs take a lot of time to eat through them, in different ways, and trying to taste it in objective and intelligent ways.

    That said, I’m really impressed at the gravity you approach freebies. I think from now on, readers will really, REALLY appreciate and trust your reviews!

  16. Regardless of the new regulations, I sometimes have problems with product reviews. It’s not whether or not the reviewer got the item for free or paid for it that I care about. I care about whether the blogger chose to review the item out of a genuine interaction with the product or if they were asked to. Neither invalidates the review completely, but it’s nice to know.

    For example, I’ve been considering whether or not to write a review of a relevant bit of software on my blog, but I don’t want to put off readers who might think I’m just selling something. In truth, I’ve come across the software on my own and have thoroughly enjoyed using it and don’t know anything else like it. Those are the kind of reviews I am comfortable reading – when a person is moved to review something just because they had a strong experience with it, not because a company asked them to.

    That said, I’ve generally found your reviews relevant enough to the vegan community that I was glad of the raised awareness in products I hadn’t known existed. Like others have said, I take all reviews with a grain of salt. Knowing your process helps me to better understand where your reviews are coming from. Thanks for sharing!

  17. I rather like these new rules and I think if the reviewer honestly tries not to be biased that they have nothing to worry about!

    Hannah, you sound like you’re defending yourself and you don’t need to. For the most part I think most people can tell when a review is severely biased and when it is not.

  18. Loved the post! Every single time I am approached by a company about a review i send them my disclosure letter. (my law professor helped me wrote it) Anyway, I let the company know that it’s my own opinion and if I really enjoyed the product I will say so, if not, I won’t and will return the unused remaining product. You’re right about the volume of reviews one should do. I like do one every couple of weeks or every other month because I want my blog to be about making your own [ ]. And yes, it’s not free. After one adds ingredients, bakes, photographs, and write a post it’s quite expensive. Thanks for sharing!

  19. What a shame that companies harrass busy bloggers about reviewing their products.
    Perhaps it is a good idea for those who want you to do a review to read this post…
    Thanks for sharing with us what product reviews really require, from the outside it doesnt look like that much work, which it obviously is from what you have described.


  20. Yikes, so sorry you are being bugged about this, Hannah! I can’t believe that. I look forward to your reviews because they are level headed and quite in depth. But I don’t look forward to anything as much as your new recipes, that is really where my heart is!

    I’m really casual about doing product reviews. Well, I’ve only ever done cookbook reviews, really, because no one wants to send food products all the way to Saudi Arabia only to have them sit in customs for several weeks. But, yeah, I’m really casual about it. I’m an enthusiastic person and if I like something I LIKE it, and I will rave about it. I’ve never given it a second thought, really. Hmmm…

  21. Great post, Hannah. You’ve covered so many important issues around reviews!

    In my case, I tell the company up front that I may or may not review the product, and they can then decide to sent it or not. I will only write a review if I actually like and would use the product myself. If not, I prefer not to clog my blog (hey! a rhyme!) with a negative review. That’s just the way I prefer to do it–I want my readers to feel confident that I actually do personally endorse everything I review.

    Do I feel bad about NOT mentioning those products that are less than stellar in my eyes? Absolutely not. Having had a (albeit very small) business of my own, I know that companies are constantly giving out free product for promotional purposes, and they fully understand (or they should) that they may sometimes give away products without getting something back; that’s the price of doing business. As a result, I may have had fewer reviews on the blog, but that’s okay.

    And as for companies bugging you about timing–well, as someone has already said, YOU are giving THEM free advertising, so they have absolutely no justification in behaving this way. You can tell them when you initially accept the product that you’ve got a backlog and may not get to it for a month or two. If they still want the review, they can decide at that point. I enjoy reading your reviews and hope that you’ll keep them up. I always learn something and love the detailed descriptions and luscious photos!

  22. Hannah,

    I can relate 100%!!!! I agree that it’s troubling to hear the negative comments coming from the suppliers as well as the readers. I personally have no qualms about receiving free merchandise in return for a review. I’d not even be opposed to putting a disclaimer that I received something for “free.”

    I agree, my time is valuable and when you factor that in, none of these things are ever free. In fact, it’s downright stressful when you’re backed up on reviews, or don’t want to review the product be it’s frankly not good.

    I enjoy your reviews and hope you keep doing them. At the end of the day, I think it’s good vegan advocacy to promote and introduce new vegan products at the expense of the supplier and the time donated by the blogger. Keep up the AMAZING work!!

  23. Hannah,

    I feel like I am a broken record, but you are wise beyond your years. This was an insightful post and articulated a lot of what I was thinking but couldn’t quite put into words. Thankfully my blog is just a blip on the radar so I don’t get offered too many products to try and when I do, they tend to fit well with the theme of my blog. (Some, for example, have been offered to me because I wrote an honest, unsolicited review never expecting to receive any free product.) It’s definitely a complicated issue. Like you, I really want to protect the content of my blog and would rather maintain my editorial standards and miss out on a few products. What’s sad to me is that there are some bloggers who make a bad name for the rest of us, who seem to becoming more fueled by the prospect of receiving free stuff. There are actually some blogs I stopped reading because every post became a laundry list of the freebies that blogger had received. Moreover, it makes me sad to see that some bloggers are starting to feel entitled and that everywhere they go they should be KNOWN and not have to pay for anything.

    It’s definitely a fine line and a complicated issue.

  24. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, right? Thanks for all the great reviews you’ve done so far and I look forward to more – but that’s not why I read your blog. I love that it’s so well rounded, including more than just food!

  25. You go, girl! I love how the FTC seems to think that they’re protecting readers by establishing these new rules for bloggers, but TV show hosts and goodness knows how many members of other professions are free to “review” or “recommend” items (whether genuine or ghostwritten) as they please.

  26. Oh Hannah, I hear you.

    I made it a policy back when I first started my blog that I wouldn’t take free products. I posted my policy on my blog and you’d think it’d end there…but no, it doesn’t. Most folks are kind who approach me (in spite of my policy) and are equally kind when I inform them that I don’t take free products. Then there are those who get “cranky” for lack of a better word, when I stick to my principles.

    I applaud you for hanging tough and sticking to your blog plan.

    Natalie @ Gluten A Go Go

  27. That is just wild. I’m a new reader to your blog…hell, I’m not even a vegan, but I do enjoy your blog (I do crochet, however). It sucks that you’re having to put up with such nonsense! You’re coming across as a very proficient and practically professional blogger/writer. If people can’t understand your own existing deadlines vs. their time constraints, then they don’t need you reviewing their whatever.

    Keep up with the good work. And if you loose out on any submitters or whatever, then you’re better off without them! :)

  28. This was a really interesting post! I’m glad to hear that you would prefer to focus on more for the food and craft, not that I don’t enjoy reading your reviews because they are very well done.

    It’s funny, because I come from the other side. I work at a company who get’s requests from blogs almost everyday, asking for free samples to review on their blogs. It gets really unbearable, and as far as I can tell many of the blogs look so carelessly made that it’s hard for me not to believe that they aren’t just looking for free stuff. I am excited about the FTC guidelines because I do hope it discourages that kind of blogging.

    Of course that is all different from your blog. I love visiting bittersweet and all of your work is beautiful! Thanks for all the time you spend on it :)

  29. I rather like these rules, because a lot of the time, I feel like the blogger is just reviewing it because they were sent a free product. If blogs were required to disclose more regarding the terms of the advertising, I think it be more ethical.

    What I disagree with regarding these rules, is the fact that bloggers are singled out. Product placement comes in all forms of media and I feel bloggers should be treated fairly. It used to be, that tv shows had to blur out logos of real products… not the case anymore. It frustrates me to no end that they are allowed to shove marketing down our throats during a non-commercial.

  30. I was laughing out loud as I read your post. I just started writing book reviews and know your pain exactly. Even though I don’t have to cook with the ingredient or photograph it, I do have to read the thing. People want to know within the week what I’ve done with the 500 page title they sent me. Ha! Not much. Stacked it on the bottom of the pile blocking my office door. ;) It can be a fun project, reviewing things. But there are added pressures that go with ‘free’ junk — plus the fact that some things are only junk, and then what do you say?

    So far, you seem to be handling the pressure with diplomacy. Good luck to you.

  31. Look at the up side – these companies must really appreciate your input or they wouldn’t be so assertive in wanting your review. They are relying on your talent and expertise to help them get the word across about their products. Keep up the great work!

  32. Yes, it does take time to write a review post, time that you could have spent making a different post or doing something else entirely. It’s a service to the community and its a favor to the company. I would think that those getting free marketing wouldn’t be in any position to harass, just offer and be thankful if they get a review and/or giveaway.

Leave a Reply