The Price of Being Bought

I recently stumbled into and out of a classic senile geezer situation, a high pressure, in-my-home sales pitch that, eventually, overwhelmed my resistance and stuck me, temporarily, with a lousy deal. Lucky for me, Minnesota has a 3-day cooling off period that allows consumers to bail out of bad deals after they’ve had a chance to review it. The thing that tripped my investigation trigger was something the salesman said about his company late in his pitch. He mentioned that his employer had been “was the 74th largest remodeling company in the nation and had been selected as one of the top 500 by Qualified Remodeler Magazine.” Having written for a variety of magazines in a variety of industries for 50 years, early the next morning I decided to check out that recommendation. As you might expect, Qualified Remodeler Magazine is an ad-rag containing no actual useful information, no critical reviews, and that magazine’s “recommendations” are purely for hire.

The whole world of media reviews is equally screwed up and, as a result, has about as much credibility as 1950’s used car salesmen. My daughter recently discovered that a book review magazine/website, Kirkus Reviews, charges over $400 to “review” a book. The book reviewing “process” is pretty disgusting and about as cynical as a current Supreme Court decision, “Standard (7-9 weeks) $425.00, Express (4-6 weeks) $575.00.” Once you have the review in hand, “If you choose to publish your review on our website, we will distribute it to our licensees, including Google, BN.com, Ingram, Baker & Taylor and more. On top of that, our editors will consider it for publication in Kirkus Reviews magazine, which is read by librarians, booksellers, publishers, agents, journalists and entertainment executives. Your review may also be selected to be featured in our email newsletter, which is distributed to more than 50,000 industry professionals and consumers.” That’s how book reviews work in the Brave New World of “opinions for hire.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise. At least five members of the highest court in the land made it clear they don’t believe that money and power corrupt. Of course, their personal levels of corruption makes a pretty good argument against that opinion. The Sticky-Fingered Five never met a conflict of interest they couldn’t profit from. Judge Kennedy summed up that level of crazy with his statement,”We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Not only is justice blind, she’s become pretty stupid and really corrupt.

If everything you read is a paid political/commercial announcement, where do you get information you can trust? That’s a tough call, but word-of-mouth is gaining a whole new level of clout. The Better Business Bureau was the first real information I got on my home improvement characters. Since they weren’t BBB “accredited,” there were limits to the information available by that route, but what was there was bad. Organizations like Angie’s List are where lots of consumers go for opinions from their neighbors. So far, the low fee ($10/year) for Angie’s List membership seems like a deal. There are pseudo-sites, like HomeAdvisor, that pretend to be a free version of Angie’s List but they are just paid referral services. In fact, HomeAdvisor.com is how I got hooked up with my latest snake oil salesmen. I’m not sure how much research goes into ensuring that their rules are obeyed, but when you submit a review you do have to pledge, “I confirm that the information contained in this Service Evaluation Form (i) is true and accurate and (ii) represents my actual first-hand experience, or experience which I am authorized to discuss.  I acknowledge and understand my responsibilities under the Angie’s List Membership Agreement, and that Angie’s List is relying upon the accuracy of the information in order to serve other members.  I confirm that I do not work for, am not in competition with, and am not in any way related to the service provider in this review.” That, of course, wouldn’t keep a “reviewer for hire” from writing a glowing review of a lousy service, but it would be expensive to try to overwhelm real reviews with that tactic. Likewise, a lot of products are well-covered in Amazon.com’s customer reviews. In fact, a lot of manufacturers, publishers, record labels, and importers use Amazon.com’s reviews as the bulk of their marketing. This pair of customer reviews for the WR250X skid plate from Moose Pro is pretty typical: short, sweet, and informative.

In short, consumers are all in this together, since the forces of media, power, money, and influence are against us. However, we have the numbers, the information outlets, and they won’t be rich if we don’t buy their shit.

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