“Opinions in this post are 100% my own.”
That disclaimer and variations thereof, stamped at the bottom of blog posts in which a blogger writes about a product they received for free, is seeming more and more like a rabbit-hole to me – its possible meanings or interpretations are deceptively deep and convoluted. Given the number of bloggers getting free stuff and writing about it – even bloggers with relatively tiny readerships can get free stuff, because it’s still a pretty cheap way for a company to get their product message across to people with relatively little outlay – that little disclaimer has a lot wrapped up in it. I realised I’m not even sure what it means when I read it, and it could very well be the case that bloggers using it aren’t sure what it means when they write it (or copy and paste it).
My implicit understanding of the disclaimer that opinions are the blogger’s own was that the blogger felt that they had not been influenced by the item they had been given for free, and were therefore offering an unbiased, unmitigated opinion. I realise now that there are a lot of other potential interpretations, however – that the blogger’s opinions are in their own words and aren’t just copy that has been provided by the company, for example, or that the post isn’t sponsored. I’d be interested to know what you guys think the implicit terms of “Opinions in this post are 100% my own” are.
If we assume for the time being that intention of the disclaimer is that the blogger wants to say that they have not been biased or influenced by their free gift (which may or may not be what they actually want to say, for all I know), that’s something that could do with a bit of examination. Given the power of product recommendations in coaxing people into purchasing, is it really possible for someone to be totally impartial about something they’ve been given for free? If they try really hard to be unbiased, can they be unbiased? Well, I’d bet that anyone who’s familiar with cognitive biases would be shouting “hell, no” right now.
If you have been given something for free, it is very likely that your opinion is no longer what it would have been. As much as you swear blindly that you are being absolutely objective, that you have not been influenced by the fact that the item was a gift, that you are independently minded and won’t be biased by free stuff – you are now biased. That’s just how the brain works. To what extent are you biased? It’s pretty much impossible to tell. But you are biased.
One powerful driver of this bias is likely to be the reciprocity norm. This is a product of your socialisation as a human being participating in society, so I don’t think you’re special enough to be unaffected by it (unless you are literally a sociopath, but I’m not sure how many sociopaths are into reading blogs about thoughtful consumption). The reciprocity norm is the impulse, the pressure, the compulsion you feel to reciprocate when you have been given something. It is an incredibly powerful effect. I remember learning about it in undergraduate social psychology, my lecturer illustrating the phenomenon with a scenario he observed at an airport, involving a man encountering some Hare Krishnas.
The Hare Krishnas have a practice of handing out flowers for free. They put the flower into your hand and give it to you as a gift. Then, they invite you to make a donation to their cause. This particular man at the airport was given a flower. He tried to give it back, but the Hare Krishnas insisted that he keep it – it’s a gift. He kept protesting and trying to give the flower back, but they wouldn’t take it. The man was hugely frustrated and just wanted to get rid of the flower because he knew what was coming. And it comes – the Hare Krishnas proffer him a bucket, asking for a donation but telling the man he doesn’t have to donate anything if he doesn’t want to – it’s his choice. The man was visibly angry, still holding the flower in his hand. Eventually, with a look of exasperation on his face, he put his hand into his pocket, pulled out some coins, and threw them forcefully into the bucket. He then turned and stalked off, throwing the flower in the first bin he passes.
Knowing about the reciprocity effect doesn’t help you much either – I know full well about it and I still ended up paying money for a pamphlet I didn’t want when I was walking down the street in Toronto. I knew exactly what was happening but I just couldn’t summon the wherewithal to pull out of that social bargain, so I paid for the pamphlet then went straight back to my hotel, tore the pamphlet up and put it in the bin, since I was so annoyed with the situation.
I was also reading this New York Times article recently about how drug companies are changing their marketing tactics of ADHD medications in attempts to build a bigger market – to get more children and more adults onto these medications by saying that once a child has ADHD, they have it for life, or that 10% of adults have ADHD but most are undiagnosed and need help. My PhD actually involved testing some ADHD medications, so I know that the research says that the prevalence of ADHD in children is somewhere around 6%, and that only 30% of those kids go on to have ADHD symptoms during adulthood, so that’d be about 1.8% of adults who have ADHD, at a rough estimate. The advocates of this idea that 10% of adults have ADHD and might be going undiagnosed and untreated tend to be ones who have, at some point, received speakers fees or funding from pharmaceutical companies that manufacture ADHD medication. And those advocates offer a familiar disclaimer:
“He said that concern about abuse and side effects is ‘incredibly overblown,’ and that his longtime work for drug companies does not influence his opinions.”
“Those companies also paid him $1.6 million in speaking and consulting fees. He has denied that the payments influenced his research.”
“… said that he was paid several thousand dollars to oversee the course by Medscape, not Shire directly, and that such income did not influence his decisions with patients.”
Point being, it’s very easy to say your opinion is not influenced or biased, even in extreme situations where it simply must be patently untrue to some extent (come on, you are either a robot or maybe a billionaire if you aren’t influenced one iota by being given $1.6m). But if you stop and think about it for a minute, and think about the complexity of human psychology, and the fact that the brain is very, very good at coming to very, very convenient and self-serving conclusions – your opinions are always biased, even when you are trying your hardest to be objective. And I think it must be the case that a decent amount of product reviews of items gifted by companies are positive either because the blogger would like to encourage further freebies, or simply because of something like the reciprocity norm. I think people who do reviewing for a living and review huge numbers of products can achieve a higher level of objectivity because the influence isn’t the same (e.g. Christine at Temptalia is still going to have free stuff sent to her even if she gives things a C- rating), but most people writing reviews on their blogs aren’t anywhere near that level.
I think it’s sufficient for bloggers to simply declare that the item they’re reviewing was given to them for free (which, indeed, I believe is a legal requirement in the US, and possibly elsewhere). Any promises of impartiality beyond that are simply impossible for the reader (or even the blogger) to judge.
Random housekeeping note – if you’ve posted a comment in the past few months and it hasn’t been visible, it should be visible now. The blog got swamped with spam (the other day I got over 1000 spam comments in 24 hours, ugh) and I ended up missing a bunch of comments from new commenters that needed approval. All sorted now.