What's So Hard About Gear Reviews?

In this week’s “Fine Lines” segment, Phil Monahan answers the question What’s So Hard About Gear Reviews? The role of subjectivity combined with the expense of testing, the long-time magazine editor says, make gear reviews an enormous challenge.
“If you ask the cynical wing of the fly-fishing community, they’ll tell you that magazines don’t review products because they are afraid of losing advertisers. (Although the cynical wing of the magazine business may respond, ‘What advertisers?’) The fact is, none of the top four or five magazines operates this way. There’s no nefarious quid pro quo, in which editors agree to puff a product just to win advertising revenues.”

This entry was posted in Gear. Bookmark the permalink.
  • i think phil did a fair job of explaining some of the realities of going credible gear reviews. but he really glossed over the “cynicism” issue vis a vis alienation of potential advertisers (let alone real ones).
    if you check the editorial guidelines of those “top four” magazines, they don’t accept freelance gear review submissions, either. so cost to them is certainly not the primary issue in their decision not to publish them! they would pay the same for a gear review that they would for any other article they buy…which they do all the time. so the cost argument is nullified.
    but that doesn’t mean they are refusing them for fear of alienating advertisers, either. it could be because they fear ethical compromise of freelancers, because they are taking freelance articles pretty much “blind.” if a freelancer has a quid pro quo for free gear in exchange for a fluff review…or free gear/trips BECAUSE of a HISTORY of fluff reviews and/or focusing reviews on THEIR gear to the detriment of the competitors'(the “soft quid pro quo” that absolutely does exist and i would argue even dominates fly fishing media), the magazine would not have any way of knowing about it.
    phil is half right: a lot of fly anglers aren’t naive. but the fact of the matter is that this sort of saturation marketing rules our world and has a huge impact on our perceptions well beyond the fly fishing community. i used to be an ad sales agent for a major publisher for their outdoor publication. about 2/3 of all ads are placed by ad agencies working for manufacturers, associations, and well-heeled companies intent on buying popularity for their brands. they buy in bulk and negotiate discounted rates on behalf of their clients. so the majority of ad slots/space are filled by the same few companies over and over again. these same companies send out and give out tons of promotional product that paying customers pay for each year. they send it to guides, outfitters, retailers (not so much), and journalists (only the ones they know people pay attention to). these same companies require retailers to buy minimum orders each year that guarantee them a large % of shelf space in their stores and eats up the their ability to carry a wider selection of brands. IT IS DONE THIS WAY BY DESIGN for the purpose of effectively limiting consumer’s choices. this is salesmanship. it’s their job to sell everything they can for their shareholders, be they their own immediately family or the general public who have purchased them via a stock exchange.
    but what is the role of MEDIA in all of this? well, for entertainment media, their job is to make money off their ad space…plain and simple. they owe no one any sort of responsibility when it comes to social obligation. but for those who would like to be considered journalists…or those who PORTRAY themselves as journalists (this is my problem with a LOT of contemporary media)…they have a responsibility to truth and accuracy in reporting – to educating the public. and this is in direct conflict with what i’ve laid out above. it can be managed…and was for hundreds of years. but the “greed is good” culture of the 1980’s kicked our moral teeth down our collective throat. and the electronic media revolution of the 1990s has brought massive economic pressure to bear on print, tv, and radio journalism. their response has mostly been to cave without a fight. people are accustomed to eating and living indoors.
    as a journalist, we all know that editorial decisions are being made based IN PART on the potential impact on revenues in the short term. but it’s hard to explain it in a sentence or even a reasonable paragraph. and it’s not a conspiracy. it’s business! those of who didn’t want to put up with it anymore became bloggers.
    i think that just about covers it. lol

  • Tyler

    While few readers would believe that a stated quid pro quo exists (nefarious or otherwise), probably most of us have a sense that magazine gear reviewers lack true editorial freedom. Maybe I’m wrong, but for practical purposes perception trumps reality. Given this, maybe magazines should not devote space to gear reviews in the first place, especially since many online fly fishing messages boards are rife with reviews from people who actually purchased the products.
    Perhaps better still would be a blatant melding of product manufactures and magazine publishers. The true leaders in the fly fishing equipment industry could pull this off without resistance from readers. Would any of us balk at the Simms or Sage logo dominating the front cover? I doubt it. The manufacturer/advertiser/publisher gets exposure, the reader gets content they want, and a magazine gets relative financial security.
    A lack of perceived integrity, along with irrelevant content, are the biggest threats to magazines that depend on reader loyalty. Perceptions of disingenuous gear reviews are the canary in the coal mine. Much better for magazines to openly embrace gear manufacturers than to publish hints of backroom handshakes.

  • eek! that was one of the most hammered up things i’ve typed in quite some time! sorry folks. hopefully, the msg wasn’t diminished by the sloppy delivery.
    tyler, that was a very good post. i’m not sure your concept would actually improve anything where the rubber meets the road, but at least it would be transparent – a step in the right direction, a moral victory…but likely a pyrrhic one as well.

  • Harry Campbell

    Why are people so intent on discovering an evil conspiracy underlying what’s supposed to be a really fun sport? Sure manufacturers promote their products — that’s because they believe in them! And magazines give them a little more coverage because the bigger companies tend to make the better products (which is why the got big in the first place) — but they also cover the hot new upstart products and companies, too.
    But there ain’t nobody giving away a lot of free stuff — to anybody. Most companies have small budgets to give (or loan) free products to the press, but how else can writers write about a product if they don’t try it? And most of the smart companies offer legitimate guides, captains and outfitters special courtesy discounts because 1). it’s good publicity when professionals are seen using your stuff, 2). you get great free feedback on how to improve it, and 3). none of the recipients make enough money guiding to pay full retail for their gear. Like, not one. But the rumored flood of free product is an urban myth.
    Finally, what you cynics don’t get is that 95% of the people attending the recent Fly Fishing Retailer Show in Denver (and I was one of them) — from manufacturers, writers, publishers, reps and retailers — were there because they love fly fishing — and have been lucky enough to make a (low paying) career out of a sport they love.
    So, relax. There’s no conspiracy, there’s no plot to trick anybody, and there no evil empire lurking in the shadows. Just a bunch of mildly deranged fly fishers who love to design, manufacture, sell, promote, advertise, write about and use the best gear possible. And have a hell of a lot of fun at the same time.

  • aw#5

    Well said, Harry.
    Speaking as a consumer, well, sure – a small degree of skeptcism doesn’t hurt – but at least we have a wealth of material to consult before plonking down the bucks.
    I also like to think that we (consumers) are intelligent enough to spot the difference between a cleverly disguised ad and a legitimate gear review. So – as Harry puts it – relax, do a bit of research and get the gear that’ll put a smile on your face the next time to head out to the water… you only live once…
    aw#5

  • harry,
    i guess my hammered typing interfered after all.
    i was giving a general description of outdoors media marketing, not fly fishing in particular. i dealt with everything from the nfl and mlb to fly fishing, archery hunting, and hot air ballooning! lol
    and i specifically said it is not a conspiracy, it is simply smart marketing strategy and salesmanship. the whole goal of an effective sales strategy is to try to limit a prospective buyer’s choices to the point that they perceive the only logical choice is to buy YOURS. and this is how smart marketing campaigns are constructed by those big companies, which…by the way…usually get big because they originally offered a quality product at a competitive price, but then paired that up with a very successful marketing campaign. there is a world full of terrific products out there at great prices that few people know about for lack of effective marketing. and once you have great brand marketing and achieve critical mass vis a vis market share, you don’t really have to stay ahead of the curve in terms of product quality for several decades. just look to the us auto industry and american politics as prime examples! until very recently, most americans still swore we were the best at both. the truth is, we’ve been lagging behind many other countries since the late 1970’s and now countries like south korea, germany, and china…2 of the 3 we rebuilt after completely destroying and the 3rd was one of the poorest nation’s on earth per capita in the mid-1990’s…are selling US cutting edge technology. and our elected government is the laughing stock of the world and most americans are becoming more and more disgusted with it with each passing day. neither of these things happened overnight. but well-constructed saturation brand marketing campaigns kept the general public perception from seeing what was really happening for 30 years. i could name dozens of companies across the sporting goods industry that demonstrate the same thing. but let’s look at one: colt arms co. they haven’t invented a truly leading firearm since 1911. and they haven’t been a truly quality mfg of outside designs since ww2. but they’re still around and still have loyal customers and winning gov’t contracts. why? brand marketing that is still based on the peacemaker, the 45 long colt, and the 1911 .45 acp.

  • Harry Campbell

    OK, I’ll rise to the bait…errr, fly.
    I don’t know or want to know anything about professional football and baseball — or ballooning. But I’ve spent the last 20+ years writing marketing strategies and plans for some of the biggest brands in the hunting and fishing industry. Never has anyone discussed trying to “limit a prospective buyers choices” to increase sales. Never once. Not even over a beer after work.
    Why? Because even if it was a good idea, which it’s not, there’s no way to pull it off. That’s because the people who decide what you and I will look at in the big box stores, the catalogs, the websites and the fly shops are the people who own them – not the people who sell to them. And almost all successful retailers know that American consumers like choices – so they try to offer as rich a product selection as their open-to-buy budget will allow. It’s a simple formula: more cool stuff to buy = more sales.
    Oh, there’s another reason, too. Conspiring to restrain trade will quickly get you a Do Not Pass Go card — directly to jail. While you can rob and plunder on Wall Street without so much as a hand slap, try any monkey business about limiting consumers’ choices to get a competitive edge (or higher price), and you’ll send a Federal Trade Commission investigator to Disney World with the bonus he or she makes after putting you in the can.
    In reality, 90% of sound marketing is simply creating awareness for your product so prospective purchasers will look at it when they visit their local retailer. Some marketers do a better job at it than others, but that’s basically what everyone is trying to do. If you can build a cool brand image at the same time (like Simms, Orvis, St. Croix, Sage and other market leaders), you get extra credit! And more sales.
    And don’t for a minute think you can slack off on product quality and performance. A production run of leaky waders, defective rods, poorly machined reels, or cheaply constructed anything can result in devastating product returns from pissed off customers. Do it twice, and you may never get another order.
    Finally, poor old Colt hasn’t been a player in the firearms market since the Vietnam War ended (they manufactured most of the M16s). I think they’ve gone broke a few times since then, too. 90% of the Single Action Army / Peacemaker style revolvers sold today are made by Ruger, and almost none of the current production Model 1911 semi-auto pistols on the market are built by Colt.

  • well, one of the great things about this ole world is there’s room enough for guys like you and me to disagree about stuff like this and still have fun in the same river.
    i’ll leave you with this:
    the last time i spoke to the head fly fishing buyer from bass pro shops, he said to me that he was “too wide” and needed to narrow his product line offerings. and i know a lot of successful retailers who would disagree with your theory of carrying as many different options for the customer as possible. if i had taken that approach in my career in sales and marketing, i would have starved…like a lot of fly fishing retailers.