False Positive: What To Do When You Can’t Trust The Review

By now you’ve probably heard of the sordid Sunday Riley scandal.

As with most things sordid, the entire scandal began on Reddit. A disgruntled ex-employee shared one of Sunday Riley’s corporate memos, wherein employees were required to post a minimum of three positive reviews each to “generate … confidence in the products”.

It’s not like we didn’t know reviews could be fake, of course.

What makes this entire Sunday Riley affair so scandal-worthy is the fact that (a) we now finally have confirmation; and (b) it’s a major beauty brand behind the deception.

The question now is not “who can you trust”, because honestly the answer to that is “no one”. Reviews — whether they be paid for or not — are inherently biased. Individual idiosyncrasies affect everything — from the products you choose to review all the way to the criteria you use to review. You’ll never get 100% objectivity, and that’s that.

(In case you were wondering, yes — that’s Max Weber’s theory of objectivity applied to beauty reviews, and I’m not going to apologize for it.)

I’m  not saying you should just stop reading beauty blogs and watching Youtube beauty gurus altogether, because that won’t bode well for me and the future of this website. I’m just saying you’ll need a bigger grain of salt, moving forward.

Some things to consider:

Know your source.

In another lifetime I was a college professor, and being in the social sciences, research work was one of our major requirements. Apart from no plagiarism — which was a given, clearly — I had two strict rules where sources are concerned:

  • No Wikipedia
  • Know your source

All sources are flawed, to a degree. State-sponsored media, for example, will toe the line and most likely not write anything detrimental to the state. American or European historians writing about Chinese history, on the other hand, may be saddled with unchecked Orientalism or cultural short-sightedness.

Point is, no source is 100% objective, but this doesn’t mean you should dismiss them outright. It just means you have to be aware of certain factors that could affect their output.

The same is true with bloggers and beauty gurus. Certain factors like genetics, climate, culture, social norms, personal experiences, and individual preference can affect how one reviews specific products.

I have my own biases. There are brands that I don’t patronize because I don’t like their public image. I have sensory issues so there are products I dismiss outright because they don’t feel “right”. I hate fragrance. I’m very susceptible to K-drama marketing. The list goes on.

All bloggers have their personal set of biases, and that’s unavoidable. You have your own set of biases. It doesn’t mean that everything you say is automatically untrustworthy, and the same is true for beauty bloggers and Youtube gurus.

As long as you’re aware of your source’s biases, you can read any review and get the information you need.

Weird phrasing is a red flag.

In another, other lifetime I was a freelance writer.

When you look through the writing jobs available on sites like Upwork, it’s very common to see things like “writer for product reviews wanted”.

If you think the company provides the writer with the products for testing prior to review, I have a couple of bridges to sell you.

Usually, the writers are given the product copy with specific talking points already highlighted. Companies want you to focus on certain keywords so the product will appear higher on Google search. That’s SEO 101.

In the Sunday Riley email, they wanted employees to highlight keywords like “radiance” and “non-drying”. Given that most reviews on online review platforms are kept relatively short, you’ll easily notice weird phrasing that attempts to repetitively shoehorn specific keywords in.

The result is  a very unnatural review that reads more like an extension of the official product copy than a genuine evaluation. You might not have noticed it before, but now that you’re aware, spotting these awkwardly worded reviews will be second nature.

Skip the positive reviews.

Most people are bastards, and the negative reviews on various e-commerce sites reflect this reality. Have you seen those weird one-star reviews that complain about shipping rather than talk about the actual product?

People are so dumb they’ll get a recipe, tweak it till it no longer resembles the original, then complain that it tastes like shit. They’ll even go back to the recipe site to complain and leave a one-star review, because they’re dumb.

So why read the negative reviews? Aside from those one-star dicks being infuriatingly funny, there’s also the reality that no company will pay for negative reviews.

Don’t waste your time reading the four or five star ones. They might be genuine, but that doesn’t matter. Instead, you want to look into the 2 or 3 star reviews, because these are bound to be more balanced and will offer both the pros and cons.

Of course, this being the Internet, it’s perfectly understandable if you opt to not believe anything I wrote here in this post. I’m just a 35-year-old highlighter-obsessed woman… or am I? For all you know, I might be a 50-year-old man from Wisconsin living with 90 cats, or a dolphin with particularly good wi-fi under the sea.

No one knows.


Featured image by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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