(Written By: GolfSpy T) You've been sandbagged (yes you) and you may not even know it. Think that review you just read from some other golf media outlet is truly honest, or did a golf company spend tens of thousands of dollars for the unspoken promise that every word you read would be positive?
Being a golf club reviewer sounds like an awesome job, doesn't it? I have access to nearly every golf club that hits the market each year, and sometimes I get clubs that haven't even been released yet. I get to take the clubs out on the golf course, test them on our simulators, and I have the privilege of writing reviews for our readers. Many of you might consider what I do as your dream job. I certainly did.
Step into my spikes for a minute.
Think about this. What if a single honest sentence in a review meant a golf company would never send you another piece of equipment? What if telling the truth meant a $50,000 pay cut? What if your integrity was called into question simply because you gave your honest opinion about a new driver or set of irons a golf company was trying to promote?
What would you do?
Do you think you could remain true to what you believe in no matter the cost, or would find yourself sugar coating every word you write? Would you allow your readers to speak their minds, or would you take the money and demand your readers keep their damn mouths shut?
Sadly, these aren't hypotheticals. These are the realities for any golf site with an audience the size of MyGolfSpy's. While great golf companies do exist in the industry, there are some who use advertising, access to equipment, and the threat of lawsuits to manipulate content. It's the ugly side of the industry. It's a side many of you are not aware of; where tens of thousands of dollars and sometimes millions are spent to influence what gets written, and where some golf equipment manufacturers will cut off anyone who doesn't play by their rules. Unfortunately, the average golfer has no idea what really goes on behind the scenes, but we've decided that needs to change.
In this 3-Part Series I'll expose how many golf companies buy influence with the media, show you what can happen when you don't play by their rules, and lift the curtain on the pay to play schemes that are slowly infecting the industry.
In many respects the golf industry represents the blending of cutting-edge technology and out-dated thinking. Take a step back from the forged composites and carbon nano-tube jargon, and one finds an industry still clinging to the idea that their message can be controlled, and where so-called unbiased reviews are only tolerated so long as they're positive.
Not surprisingly, however, the greatest of all expectations are those associated with the golf club review process. When I started writing reviews I was naive enough to believe that if I took a thorough look at a product, and gave an honest assessment, manufacturers would publicize the positive and take any criticism, no matter how direct, as an opportunity to improve their products for next year. I was, at best, half right.
While you'll probably never find a line item on an invoice that reads "Positive Driver Review - $1000", beyond simply providing a sample for testing there are several ways that OEMs can influence the outcome of a product review.
- Traditional Advertising (Print) - Look in any magazine and you'll find equipment ads, and lots of them. It's the way it has always been done, and it's beyond necessary for the way traditional print media operates. Magazines have huge overhead. They have material costs. They pay talent (writers, editors, photographers), revenue generators (sales and marketing), and CEO types who command huge salaries. It all adds up, and to keep the ship afloat they need money. Some of that money comes from subscriptions, but most of it comes from the advertisers. I'm one who has given the guys behind the Hot List the benefit of the doubt. I'm willing to accept that no major equipment manufacturer has ever come to them and said "give our new driver a gold medal or else", but I also believe those guys know how the game has to be played. My guess is you're never more than a couple of bronze medals away from losing a major advertiser (which is probably why they stopped giving bronze medals). With print media on the decline, the guys still writing on paper understand that they need the advertisers more than the advertisers need them, but as long as everybody stays happy, the money keeps rolling in.
- Traditional Advertising (Online) - Online, the simplest form of advertising is the banner ad. Placement is everything, and ads in more prominent spots command the most money. On a site the size of MyGolfSpy, big OEMs are willing to pay thousands of dollars every month for premium placement (WE WILL ALWAYS REFUSE TO ACCEPT ADS FROM LARGE GOLF COMPANIES). The problem is that it's easy to get comfortable with easy money. The income becomes expected. And once you're livelihood begins to depend on it, you have no choice but to try and protect it. Total dependence on big OEM ad dollars becomes a recipe for fluffy reviews and the golf companies trying to control your content. Your site quickly becomes a place where even the slightest criticism of their product or brand is sterilized to the the point where it becomes meaningless. Other media outlets do this to protect both the advertiser and the site owner's wallet. Problem is, this has led to the downfall of the honest review, and the silencing of the independent voice. Few things can compromise principles as quickly as a deep pocket, and often it means that the loyal readers of that site now get censored. At MyGolfSpy, we don't hide the fact that we accept advertising, however; what we don't accept is big OEM (Golf Company) advertising. You won't find any banners from major equipment manufactures here, and we're committed to keeping it that way. We're leaving a lot of money on the table by doing so, but we believe it's much more important to publish truthful and objective content for you readers. As soon as you start taking money from the big guys, no matter how good your intentions, the integrity of the process inevitably gets compromised. As we look at ways to not only sustain the site, but to grow it to match the vision we have for the readers, you may see banners from names you recognize, but you will never see a banner from a major club manufacturer on our site.
- Group Tests - Group testing is where a golf company agrees to send out equipment to a site which will then be given to their readers. Sounds great for the readers right? You guys get free equipment and all you have to do in return is write a review about your experience with the free stuff. But what the casual reader of that site (the ones that did not receive free equipment) gets though is a watered down version of MyGolfSpy's review system. On paper this sounds like a great way to get an unbiased, mutli-perspective review, and I certainly admire the simple brilliance behind it, but unfortunately it almost always leads to more useless information for the average reader, and here's why: What big OEM's understand is that the average golfer may never consider the psychology behind a campaign like this. The OEM's know that if you take an average Joe and give him as much as $500 worth of free gear, 99 out of 100 times you're going to get a very good review in return. Why? Because even if average Joe doesn't like your clubs, he likes getting free stuff. He knows that there's a good chance he might like the next thing you send him, and so whether consciously aware of it or not, most people will do what they need to do to keep the free stuff coming. Almost no one has the stones to risk that opportunity by saying anything negative about their free gear. This leads to not only more universally positive reviews, but also an almost rabid loyalty to the OEM that provided it. It's a win-win for everybody...or at least for everybody not looking for a truly honest review. Some might be shocked to learn that our testers never get to keep the clubs we test. Given how much other sites give away it seems almost cruel really. We don't give anything away because we believe that as soon as the "what's in it for me" mentality kicks in, objectivity is compromised. We do everything we can to keep our reviews as unbiased, and unfiltered as possible. The integrity of the process is everything.
- Giveaways - Who doesn't love a giveaway? They're great for readers because it means somebody (or somebody's) is going to get something for free with absolutely no expectations attached. They're great for us because they increase interest and drive traffic to the site. They're great for OEMs too because we're not only showcasing their products, we're building desire for them. Heck, some of the guys who don't win may very well go out and buy whatever it was we just gave away. Every site, including this one, does them. And every site (including this one) relies on OEMs to provide product for that giveaway. If giveaways are good for everybody, what's the problem? The influence here is definitely more subtle, but the reality is that a company is only going to provide product for a giveaway when you've got a history of saying nice things about them or at a minimum if you've never said anything negative about them. When traffic volume is tied to, or worse yet, dependent on giveaways, each and every word must be scrutinized, because each and every word written has consequences.
What you've read so far is barely the tip of the iceberg. In PART 2 of this series I'll explain why so many of the other golf media outlets are willing to play along, what can happen when you don't, and I'll expose a couple of common tricks product reviewers use to give the false appearance of being unbiased.