[Pay to Play] Wirecutter CEO Accused of Selling Top Reviews for Kickbacks

Ryuzaki

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Source: https://www.xdesk.com/wirecutter-standing-desk-review-pay-to-play-model

It's pretty long so here's the TL;DR summary.

xdesk has dropped a monster of a post containing emails from the Wirecutter CEO Brian Lam to NextDesk from 2014 (before the New York Times acquisition), attempting to solicit kickbacks for rating and ranking their desks highly on their "Standing Desk Reviews" page.

"This is a story about deception and kickbacks. It’s a story about making advertisements look like journalism, known as commerce journalism."

At first as I read through it, I was thinking "The guy is asking for an affiliate program because he believes these desks are truly the best but he can't make any money off of them."

Then I tried to guess ahead that the xdesk guy was being salty and that later the NextDesk (a different company) products would then be removed from the page to make room for desks they could turn a profit on. That wouldn't be such a big deal. Turns out, that wasn't the case...

In the emails, the CEO is using the term "kickbacks" as a clear substitute for "commissions." I don't find this shady at all, though its unfortunate inclusion does help build the narrative that something shady is happening.

The NextDesk CEO Dan Lee emails back acting oblivious to the "kickback" talk and wants to know if WireCutter would like some products to review. He smartly doesn't acknowledge the rest of the conversation.

The speaker in the article seems to switch over to the NextDesk CEO instead of xdesk, or maybe it was always Dan Lee. Hard to tell, honestly. He says previous emails did flat out ask for an affiliate program and he didn't know what it was, had to look it up. A glowing review and "best" slot is given to their Terra desk.

There's 5 requests for some way of collecting commissions with no responses shown on the page. The article says they declined to pay each time.

Then WireCutter begins to "apply pressure" by saying things like: "Dan, we’re about to recommend our readers wait before buying any standing desks as we begin reevaluating the field this summer. just giving you a heads up before we do so" and they add a note to the standing desk page that says "WAIT: Setting this guide to wait status while we research new models. Our current pick is still decent with no major flaws, so if you need a new standing desk right away, this is still a good choice."

Then they ask if they can get commissions again for a 6th time. Payment declined again.

What ends up happening is the NextDesk review loses the top spot as "best standing desk" and is replaced by by Fully's Jarvis desks. No surprise. It's $1000 cheaper and has "95% of the polish" but it's "noisier and clunkier." And they can earn some money on it.

I don't see any problem here at all, other than they obviously thought the NextDesk was the better desk. But they have to eat, too.

If their glowing review of the NextDesk was left intact, I see no issue. But it wasn't.

This is going on too long. The short of it is that NextDesk fires back at them, saying they have proof of their true independent reviews including from the CEO's mouth, and they used the Wayback Machine to capture historical records. they're trying to create an illusion that their review team is independent from the business team but that's blatantly false.

WireCutter claimed to not be getting commissions from the new desk, blah blah, down-graded the old "best" and up-graded the new "best", the proof is all there.

Doesn't look like there will be any kind of lawsuit as of yet. I'm not sure it would win anyways, since you can't exactly prove someone's opinion didn't change, and the "pressure" was applied gracefully enough to provide an out.

DRAMA!

At the bottom xdesk tries to put the heat on the New York Times and also asks anyone else to provide info if The WireCutter has tried to solicit kickbacks from them.

Let's be real, they should have just set up an affiliate program and made extra money, and now they're mad they're not getting those free referrals. I don't promote anything I can't make money on either. I'll mention it and make sure readers know they exist and are reasonable choices, but then I use the rest of the time to promote the best of the products I can actually make money on. It can be done honestly, but TheWireCutter has backed themselves into a corner with their marketing angle.

How do you feel about this?
 

CCarter

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I feel like this is the most nerdy shit ever, where absolutely no consumers will know about or care. I mean, what are we here for folks? Try to get paid.
 

Boy

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Personally, I don't give a shit. If I'm curious I'll look at consumer 4 & 2-star reviews to get an accurate review.

Consumers won't care. Whatever the first page of Google says that's what they're going with.

But didn't some shit go down with Casper suing review sites changing their "top pick" based on commissions?

...then turn around and buy one of them hahah
 

bernard

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This kind of thing is on the radar in Europe by legislators. A lot of regulation has been introduced these last couple years.
 

eliquid

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I don't get the drama on this.

No one does anything for free. Consumer Reports and all the similar types weren't doing reviews for free back in the 80's and 90's and 00's.

To me, this is like any other transaction in this world.

You wan't something I have? I'm not going to give it away for free. What are you willing to trade to get it? Who ever has what I want gets what I have.

For some reason, lots of people believe that things have to be fair or suppose to work "this way or that" for XYZ reason. I use to be one of those people so I totally know and get it. But that ain't so in reality.

I would have done the same exact thing.

These Youtubers ain't pushing product for free you know because it's "the best makeup ever". They getting free product and payments + youtube money, and in return giving glowing ratings.

I remember back in the day when use to sell treadmills and gym equipment face to face.. The Aerobics dealer rep would come in and let me know, he'd give me $500 for every Aerobics treadmill I sold. 3 weeks later the True dealer rep would come in and offer me $700 for every True one I sold. This was on top of the commission I was already getting paid normally. It was a "bonus/kickback" from the dealer on top of my normal. An extra paycheck for free basically.

Guess which one I pushed to every single person? Yeah, it wasn't the Schwinn Treadmill....

This goes on all the time.
 
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This is just a poor attempt at scandal by people who don't understand business, right?

At least a hundred people will be completely outraged by this for the next 48 hours before they are distracted by the next big thing, like Kony or the 99% or some puppy meme.
 
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This is just a poor attempt at scandal by people who don't understand business, right?

At least a hundred people will be completely outraged by this for the next 48 hours before they are distracted by the next big thing, like Kony or the 99% or some puppy meme.
Yep, this accusation post actually happened several years ago so just proves the point it was a big nothingburger, lol.
 

bernard

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These Youtubers ain't pushing product for free you know because it's "the best makeup ever". They getting free product and payments + youtube money, and in return giving glowing ratings.
In most European countries, Youtubers have to tell you if they're sponsored anything. Like straight up say "this video is sponsored by".

It's the same with websites, if you have an economic interest in a link or review, you have to disclose it, and not in the footer, but visible and in the same font and size as the text of your review.

I don't care, I just label all my stuff with a big "AD CONTENT" and then some divider. Like, divide the info content from the review content. Doesn't hurt conversions in the least. I do use grey instead of black. We're all waiting for some of the bigger players to get hit by EU fines. Until then, some leeway is probably accepted.