The comedies of the ’30s and ’40s were ripe with con men. Even the comics themselves, e.g., W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Hope, Crosby and the Bowery Boys, although endearing, were often in the act of screwing someone out of their dignity, their pocketbook, or their girl. Seventy years later, it’s not as if the swindlers and cons have disappeared along with those old-time black and white movies. If anything, there are more people out to screw you than ever before. Spammers, hackers, online scammers, and digital-data thieves are as plentiful as federal debt. What used to be rapscallion sport born of the Depression era has lost its Artful Dodger charm, degrading into the unadulterated theft of online personal information and shams masquerading as consumer-generated product reviews.
In a rather “telling” survey published on LinkedIn, some very bogus-sounding research titled “Local Consumer Review” ballyhooed that 72 percent of consumers consider consumer-generated product reviews on par with personal recommendations. Oh, you mean Yelp, Amazon, and Angie’s List are as credible for product or service recommendations as my own friends? People I respect? Notwithstanding the fact that I don’t know any of the people doing reviews online? No matter how easy and convenient or generationally and culturally reinforcing third-party endorsements are, I do not value them over the recommendations of my friends.
If it smells, it smells. So I took a deeper dive. The survey suspiciously did not include “experts” as an option for obtaining product review information, which is like asking, “What’s your favorite meal?”—but leaving “dinner” off the questionnaire. By experts I mean people in the know with no masters to serve, plus well-educated and/or experienced. It would seem as though experts would be anyone’s No. 1 go-to for product reviews. I know they’re mine.
The research was conducted in the U.K., Canada, and the United States, using only 2,800 responses. The findings are featured on a website whose business mission is to promote local search, and my skeptic’s eye looked askance at the trade show “opportunities” they offer for local search, which seemed a little too cozy alongside the research. I’m feeling a full disclosure may be missing.
Recalling recent investigations into companies that have been known to pay for positive reviews, as high up the ladder as Amazon, it has to make you wonder just how trustworthy this information is. Even venerated icon Apple has experienced fraudulent app reviews.
Consumer-generated content isn’t bogus in and of itself. However, it’s become as overrated as a social media phenomenon. The notion that like-minded reviewers are people you can trust is tantamount to saying people who respond to blogs all have something substantive to say. Consumer product reviews should require extremely heavy filters before being regarded as a valuable tool for product purchasing, a challenge for which Cornell University has been developing software. Jon Yates, author and consumer-protection columnist, insists, “No filters can keep them all out.” But then, why listen to “them” at all, when expert reviews are available for anyone to easily access?
As P.T. Barnum reminded us, there’s a sucker born every minute—why should it be you? If there’s an expert or two in the field of your interest, see what they have to say before you start seeking the opinion of an amorphous somebody who may or may not be the like-minded peer you hope they are.