Citizen-Kindled PR

This morning Saul Hansell, in the New York Times‘s “Bits” blog, draws our attention to Amazon’s “Holiday Customer Review Team,” or as Saul calls it, a “user-generated public relations” program.

In his post he describes how the online retailer has deployed ordinary citizens, i.e., prolific product reviewers on the Amazon site, as “third-party” company spokespersons. The retailer has offered up these gadget guru-wannabes for media interviews. From the company’s news release this week:

“The Amazon Holiday Customer Review Team will be available now through Dec. 25 to discuss Black Friday and other holiday deals, tips for cutting costs over the holidays, best holiday gift items, and specific products they have reviewed.”

Amazon claims that these are “real people giving unbiased advice to fellow consumers. They are not employed by, Inc. or its affiliates.” However, as Saul astutely notes, there is more to these citizen reviewers than meets the i…phone:

“Some team members have been flown to Seattle to conduct broadcast interviews on behalf of the company. Moreover, they have been given free products to review and keep. The freebies are part of the Amazon Vine program the company started last year. Top reviewers get free products if they promise to write about them.”

There’s the rub. The online retailer promotes these reviewers as real people with no inherent bias in their product reviews. And in fact, the product reviews tend to be mixed. Yet, leveraging for PR the citizen-like allure of its reviewers, which is nothing new, without fully explaining their in-kind ties to the retailer strikes me as a tad disingenuous.

I suppose it’s worse when a company pays a “third-party” expert or celebrity spokesperson to promote its wares without revealing the fee arrangement — an industry practice that’s seen celebrities promote remedies for irritable bowel syndrome, athletes with asthma, or retired generals advocating military policy. The media, on the other, has mostly caught on to the ruse of the so-called third party expert, and now demands full-disclosure, at least in the news equation.

Also, as a retailer with a myriad product lines, Amazon is less prone to allegations of product bias from its reviewers. In reality and in aggregate, these crowd-sourced reviews are invaluable. Personally, I’d prefer Saul’s colleague David Pogue whose nifty Pogue-o-matic bowed last week as a means to slice and dice this season’s must-have gadgets.

As for the reviewers’ “mediability,” the jury is out. So far Saul hasn’t “seen any print articles yet that quote the review team members.”