There’s no such thing as a “sponsored review”


The growth of the internet has meant that anyone can be a critic or reviewer nowadays. This website is, in a way, testament to that. I never trained as a journalist or critic, and while I took classes both at school and university on subjects like literature and creative writing, and have been a writer in my career, I’m by no means a professional critic. Nor are most bloggers, YouTubers, and others in the digital world of media criticism. While some online criticism can be of a lower standard as a result, the broader picture is that there’s much more diversity in the way we approach and think about media, with reviewers now coming from many different backgrounds instead of all being journalism majors from a select few universities. This is a good thing.

But some online critics, especially when they start to get a following, can be tempted down a deeply unethical path by companies willing to pay for positive reviews and attention. This is especially prevalent on YouTube, but the reality is it can happen anywhere, and we must all be careful what we read or watch online.

YouTube is a great place to find independent media reviewers, but some videos are adverts disguised as criticism.

This article was prompted by a video I spotted on YouTube, and while I will spare the YouTuber’s blushes by not mentioning them by name, I feel that it encapsulates a wider issue that seems to plague discussion surrounding gaming and technology in particular. The video was titled: “Final Fantasy VII Review #ad” (or words to that effect) and was a paid promotion for the newly-released remake of Final Fantasy VII posing as a review. While, to his credit, the young man did put the “ad” hashtag, calling this piece of work a “review” is unacceptable. This is, sadly, something that I see regularly and there are many examples on YouTube and many other websites, apps, and social media platforms.

Let’s be clear: a piece of work can be a review or it can be an advertisement. It cannot be both.

I’ve written adverts and reviews in my career as a writer. I started out writing marketing content for a large games company, working primarily on their website. Later, while working as a freelancer, I wrote for many different companies, often with the intention of selling their products. I know how marketing works, the kind of language used, and how scripts and articles can be written specifically to sell products. I also know, thanks to this website, what it’s like to write from the other side and express a legitimate opinion as an independent critic.

No one pays me anything for writing here on Trekking with Dennis. I paid for this website, its hosting, and its domain name. This isn’t my job, it’s a side-project for fun and to give me a small creative outlet. Not only that, but if I were ever approached by someone and asked to promote a product or service, I’d tell them that if they wanted to hire me to write for their website I’d happily take it under consideration, but that no paid-for article will ever be published here. This website exists purely to express my thoughts and opinions on the subjects I’m interested in.

Trekking with Dennis will always be independent.

There is a solid line between a review and an advertisement, and crossing that line destroys any integrity a self-proclaimed critic may have. It also damages the brand that is paying for such a promotion, as it demonstrates that they have no faith in their product to receive positive reviews on its own merits. It’s a tacit admission that their product is sub-par and that a financial incentive is necessary for anyone to look upon it favourably.

Companies count on most people ignoring the small print and simply watching the video or reading the article and seeing the product receive unadulterated praise. And the truth is that it works – many people don’t recognise or understand the difference between something paid-for and a genuine review in which the critic is able to express his or her own thoughts. Companies get away with this because they nominally comply with the rules which state a critic must be up-front about paid-for “reviews”, but they can do it in very subtle ways that mean most people don’t even notice. On YouTube, this means using the “ad” hashtag. That alone is good enough for parent company Google – the video itself need not state anywhere that it’s a paid promotion. On a blog or website, it might be included somewhere in the small print underneath the main body of text, making it easy to overlook. This is duplicitous, sneaky advertising, and on a website like YouTube, whose audience is disproportionately comprised of young people, it’s deliberately designed to be as subtle as possible so that many of them will not even be aware that a video purporting to be a “review” is in fact an advertisement.

You may have recently heard of a mobile phone game called Raid: Shadow Legends. Many YouTube channels carry ads and sponsorships for this game, and while it has come in for criticism for the way the company behind the game handles its paid promotions, they are at least clear that the game is being advertised. They make no attempts to disguise the fact that video segments dedicated to discussing the game are sponsored, and while there may be legitimate criticisms of the stilted script or the dishonesty in some of these paid promotions, they are at least clearly paid promotions and not attempting to pass themselves off as genuine criticism.

This isn’t a dig at one specific YouTuber – though I am no longer subscribed to his channel – nor even at the platform in general. People want to make money, and I understand that – especially in the current economic climate. But we need to make sure that the line between advertisement and criticism remains solid and does not become blurred, lest people lose faith in any and all forms of online criticism. For a critic to pen an article or produce a video claiming to be a genuine review while receiving payment is unacceptable, no matter what hashtag or small print they use. No one is saying they cannot produce an advertisement for that company or that product, but it must be labelled as such and not lie and try to pass itself off as something that is is not and never can be. Integrity matters.

All properties mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studios and/or publishers. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.