Perfume blogging & ethics

Flower by KenzoAnyone who is a habitual reader of the various perfume forums and blogs already knows that a little scandal erupted over the past few days. To make a terribly long story short, the idea has been floated that one or more perfume bloggers possibly a) accepted payment for writing favorable reviews and/or b) reviewed perfumes favorably because they had been gifted with free bottles from fragrance companies.

The issue has already been adequately covered elsewhere, so I will just quickly state my own experience and policies:

No company has ever offered me payment to review their products. Unless every other perfume blogger I've read is lying through their teeth, the practice does not appear to be widespread, in fact, only one blogger has indicated that she has received such an offer.

I do not disclose when a company has provided me with a small sample of a fragrance to review, because it strikes me as unnecessary. Nobody is likely to sell their soul for a few ml of free perfume.

Very early on, I more than once accepted free bottles of perfume from fragrance companies or their distributors. In some cases these were provided for review, in others, they were offered as a "thank you" after a review. At the time, I saw this blog as a personal hobby and did not give any serious thought to the propriety of accepting such gifts. As the blog grew, I gave it more thought, and decided it was a bad idea. My policy now is to give away any bottles I receive for any reason. But if you're imagining bounteous swag, you are way off base. Most fragrance companies don't even respond to my emails, much less send me product.

I do not accept advertising directly from perfume companies or manufacturers, only from perfume retailers.

Note: the ad image is for Flower by Kenzo, Artist's Edition, and it has no relationship to the post whatsoever. Just pretty.

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50 Comments

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Well, I feel better now. I see that for the most part I do the things the way you do them. And that makes me feel at peace, because what you do will be the right thing to do. It's not a cheesy compliment or whatever, for one, you have been doing it for that much longer.
    Trying to think whether there is a perfume for 2ml of which I'd sell a little of my soul. But can't think of one :-)

  2. Anonymous says:

    I was concerned about a half a year ago, when on another fragrance talk website, I pointed out that in the directory listing that there was a frequent (and supposedly highly praised by others) reviewer who had made a positive review of a fragrance, that was the exact wording as the advertisement for said fragrance on a commercial website. Being that said reviewer in question had so many previous reviews on the website, s/he complained to the board's operators, who followed up by editing out my “expose”.

    So it goes on . . . .

  3. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for posting this, R. Of course, venality isn't always about money or goods; often it's about preserving relationships and/or maximizing status. When you say, “Thanks for the bottle of perfume… I'd be happy to review it, but you need to understand that the review may be positive OR negative, and my accepting this bottle in no way guarantees that the review will be positive,” you have gone a long way toward maintaining your impartiality and credibility. And when you post a summary of your practices for public scrutiny, as you did above, well, that also underscores your credibility.

    I (and others) have been posting on various blogs about this issue. Our concern about sketchy blogging practices is driven chiefly by our love of bloggers who want to do right by their profession/hobby. Our concern comes much more out of loyalty to the excellent bloggers who follow some code of conduct than antipathy for the ones who don't.

    There are lots of ways to be a lousy blogger. Accepting bribes, plagiarizing, slandering people — these are the three biggies. A big part of being a responsible adult is responding to questions about one's credibility not with hostility and defensiveness but with an honest admission of one's practices. Yours has always been my favorite fragrance blog, and by sharing your practices with your readers, you have boosted my opinion of you even more. Thanks.

  4. Anonymous says:

    That's a beautifully serene ad image. Perfect, I think. :-) Hopefully, all this can subside now and the focus can shift back to real scandals, like this trend of multiple simultaneous releases by high end lines. I'm sure it's all part of some nefarious plot to send me into bankruptcy.

  5. Anonymous says:

    i've been quiet while I digest all the information and dismay …

    If I believed that you were unethical, i would have said as much.

    Perhaps, it's a good reminder to us all.

    There are a LOT of slippery slopes out there.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Well, it is a nice compliment even if its cheesy :-)

  7. Anonymous says:

    K, the “preserving relationships” issue is a whole 'nother kettle of fish, and is the main reason I've given up doing interviews. I personally find that knowing the people whose products you are reviewing is bound to have some effect, no matter how small, in how you treat their products.

    One of the things that I've realized after watching these scandals play out in other blogging arenas, most recently the Microsoft Vista scandal (in which Microsoft's PR company sent free laptops to bloggers so they could review the Vista operating system) is that no matter what we bloggers think of accepting bottles and our own abilities to stay objective regardless, the simple fact is that most readers do not think it is ok to accept gifts, and they would prefer not to be reading reviews written by people who have done so and not disclosed the fact.

    And thank you for your very kind words :-)

  8. Anonymous says:

    LOL — totally agree. I'd like to get back to kvetching about Tom Ford :-)

  9. Anonymous says:

    It may be cheesy, but it's true:) You are highly respected by everyone in the perfume community. . . . Trying to think of something funny to say to soften the soppiness, but I'm afraid I can't.

  10. Anonymous says:

    As much as I think this whole issue grew out of malice and turned into something of a tempest in a teapot, I don't think it is at all a bad thing for all of us to examine our own practices — because you are so right about slippery slopes.

  11. Anonymous says:

    You guys are VERY kind, thank you.

  12. Anonymous says:

    I've been in publishing more than 30 years and sensed from the moment I began reading NST that your journalistic instincts and ethics came from either professional print experience or just a topnotch upbringing and excellent schooling. (Some of us can intuit much about an author we read virtually daily.)

    I and other readers don't say it often enough, Robin, but “just love what you've done with this place.”

  13. Anonymous says:

    Everyone is so nice today that I think I should post about scandals more often, LOL! Seriously, I do thank you for your very kind words. My ethics are not by any means above reproach. All I can say is that I try to do the right thing, and again, I don't think it is a bad idea for all bloggers to give some thought to how they interact with perfume companies & PR agencies, etc.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I never even occurred to me that you would do otherwise- I've always thought of you as the gold standard.

    I never thought that any of the blogs that I've read were anything but above-board. The plus side of this is whole mess is that I have been introduced to some new blogs.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Can I just say I only read this blog and I didn't know anything about this. In reality I can see why it is an issue but even after reading a positive review of a perfume I still have to smell it myself before I make up my mind.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I feel sorry for all the bloggers whose honesty has been impugned…by the fact that K named no names but implied that 'one other' had roused her suspicions. Frankly, I'm often thrilled by how robustly critical reviews have been, even of hot new products where payola would presumably be most effective. I'm also rather cross that Cognoscented has this tendency to cast mysterious aspersions; cross, because she doesn't allow comments to be posted, and thus avoids having to answer to anyone via rational discussion. Honestly, at times that blog thinks it's Deep Throat, when in reality it's the sneaky kid that snitches to teacher in the break… However, I agree that it's healthy to raise the issue and encourage bloggers to think about their standards and responsibilities.

  17. Anonymous says:

    And I should add that NST is my gold standard too!

  18. Anonymous says:

    You know, I've done things here that I wouldn't have if I knew then what I know now — so I'm not perfect, and would rather not be anybody's gold standard. But again must thank you & everyone else for all the nice words, and if you found new blogs, that is a good outcome!

  19. Anonymous says:

    And hopefully, everyone does the same!

  20. Anonymous says:

    Woman, I love you!

    That is all.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I must admit I hadn't heard about this latest scandal, but it doesn't surprise me that stuff like this is going on. I once had the misfortune of working for a somewhat shady publishing house that made a practice of slanting editorial copy in favor of big advertisers, and I really don't think that is is all that uncommon in the industry (though it should be, of course!).

    It's something I really struggled with on my blog when I started accepting products for review, and it's one of the reasons why I haven't yet started selling ads there — I want to make sure I do it in a way that I feel comfortable. I still have a bad taste in my mouth from that old job!

    I did make my policy on reviewing “free” products clear when I first started doing it, but it wouldn't hurt to repost that info now and then, so thanks for the reminder on that!

    And this SHOULD go without saying, but I would never in a million years think that you were anything but completely ethical in your reviews. Yours is pretty much the only fragrance blog I read on a regular basis, and it's as much for your candor and no-nonsense approach to reviews as it is for your wealth of info on the subject!

  22. Anonymous says:

    N, it was a nasty accusation to make in a forum where nobody could reply to it, and I'm sure she has enjoyed watching the ensuing fuss. But you're right that it is good to raise the issue.

  23. Anonymous says:

    R, you are sweet as always :-)

  24. Anonymous says:

    Well see, if you had a policy right from the start, you did much better than I did! Honestly, I don't think I gave these considerations much thought either way.

    And I can completely understand that bad taste in your mouth. Most of the articles on perfume in magazines leave me rolling my eyes.

    Kris mentions above that “venality isn't always about money or goods; often it's about preserving relationships and/or maximizing status”, and I would add, sometimes it is also about not hurting the feelings of people you know. So, while I would never “slant” anything towards advertisers or praise a perfume I didn't like, I do wish now that I had never started doing interviews or developing even what very minimal contacts I have with perfumers. All of which is to say that I am not entirely comfortable with being called “the gold standard” or “completely ethical”. There are probably people out there who are “completely ethical”, but I think most of us just do our best, LOL…

  25. Anonymous says:

    Drat, just as I was thinking I should have been blogging about a particular product, like – I don't know – diamonds, for instance.

    Blogging is all a bit of fun, isn't it? Although, I suppose, when it leads to book deals and jobs in the industry, it has to be taken seriously. It's never even occurred to me that *anyone* might be taking bribes. (I want to stress that the last two sentences are not linked in any way.)

  26. Anonymous says:

    OK, if you didn't do interviews with perfumers do you think your readers would be richer or poorer? There's a temptation to respond to nasty insinuations by ducking below the parapet. That would be such a shame.

    For me perfect objectivity isn't the gold standard, especially when talking about something as personal as perfume. Transparency is a much better measure of integrity and you pass that test with flying colours.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Huh…missed all the excitement I guess. I'll be the devils advocate here and wonder really, how it is any concern of mine whether someone is taking bribes or not? Reading a perfume blog, or any blog for that matter, is not compulsory. It is quite easy to thoroughly enjoy perfume without the reading of a single perfume blog, in fact, it was the only way to enjoy it just mere years ago. Everyone has to live with their decisions, always. If something is no longer in line with my own integrity, I simply move on, end of story. I guess it might be a problem if you were really influenced by the bloggers opinion, in which case, the problem is really within you – but therefore able to be fixed by you – so no problem! I joke of course, but I am also serious. There is no real harm done except the harm you allow yourself to believe is being done to you.

  28. Anonymous says:

    I probably wasn't clear, I stopped doing interviews in 2005 because of my own feelings on the subject, not because of any nasty insinuations.

  29. Anonymous says:

    LOL — yes, why didn't I write about precious jewels?

    Yes, all a bit of fun, but the reason I think standards are important is because for some scents, blogs are the main source of online information. We're in the search results — in some cases, we make up half or more of the first page of results for a fragrance name — and strangers wander by looking for information about something they may want to buy. It does seem to me that if I'm going to allow bots to spider my page (e.g., if I'm going to make my page “public”), I ought to follow at least some minimum standards.

  30. Anonymous says:

    I have to disagree, at least for myself. I also read reviews on lots of other blogs, and I *am* influenced by what I read. If there are going to be 800 new scents this year, I'm not going to be able to try them all. If someone else raves about something, that is going to move it up on my list of things I want to try. If 5 people rave about it, that will move it up even more. It would make a difference to me to know that all 5 people accepted a free bottle from a PR firm.

  31. Anonymous says:

    Fair enough. Would you agree perhaps that a bride is the same as a bias? I have found that each review is objective (biased) anyways. A lot of people are very influenced by the house, the price, the advertising, etc. I feel that the “paid for” bias is just one of many bias you have to see through in the blogging – or reviewing of any kind – of perfumes. Truthfully, if you cannot rely on other people's reviews to be accurate due to bribery, is it anything more than an inconvenience to you, making it slightly more difficult to make a top “must try” list? Besides, if everyone stopped reading “said” blogs, the bribery would naturally come to an end as there was no market for the advertising.

  32. Anonymous says:

    I'm sorry, R, I was being a bit facetious and 'faussement naïve': I do realize you have a responsibility to your readers, and I admire the stand you have taken and the standards you are upholding. .

  33. Anonymous says:

    Oh, completely true. No reviews are entirely objective. I for one am influenced by the context (advertising, price, everything) and I don't even try not to be, because I think all of that is important.

    And yes, you can argue that it isn't more than an inconvenience. But to my mind, the main reason we've got so many perfume blogs is that the mainstream media doesn't even try to cover perfume in an any kind of unbiased way. We all know we're not going to hear from Allure that such-and-such is crap. The only mainstream publication right now that will print that something is crap is the NYT, which has Chandler Burr writing on a limited basis (only in the T Style magazine, which appears I think 14 times a year). So, even if it is nothing more than an inconvenience to me, I'd rather know that the people whose opinions I'm taking the time to read are not taking swag. And the issue, at least for me, is that I don't know who is and who isn't. And my guess is that (regardless of what we see in the comments on this issue on all of the various blogs) most readers would rather know too.

  34. Anonymous says:

    LOL — I knew you were J, and I'm sorry for giving such a serious answer to your quip!

  35. Anonymous says:

    In a blinding flash of clarity, I have realized where I've gone wrong. I need to blog about Ormonde Jayne. OJ all the time, all the way, get it right here YOUR ALL-POSITIVE ORMONDE woops I mean Ormonde Jayne reviews . . . and I can be had for a bottle. Just one. Of Ormonde. There.

    Oh wait, I forgot Iris Silver Mist. And Parfum de Therese. Mr. Lutens, Mr. Malle, take note.

  36. Anonymous says:

    LOL! Tried that — haven't managed to cadge a single bottle out of OJ, SL or FM. OJ does send samples though, usually, if I ask. SL & FM, not even that.

  37. Anonymous says:

    PBI. Like Robin, I don't think that subjectivity (bias) due to personal tastes, etc. is the same as 'paid-for' bias at all. Complete objectivity is impossible because perfume is subjective by definition, but there are degrees of subjectivity and reasons for it, some of which are not acceptable.

  38. Anonymous says:

    :-)

  39. Anonymous says:

    That reminds me of the time when I was chucked out of MUA because a couple of trolls said I was shilling for SL. Ha, as if!

  40. Anonymous says:

    Wha-a-at? You mean you will turn down an interview with JC? No, not Jesus, the other JC. Maybe you can ask him about the pink juice. :)

    This is the only perfume blog I read, so I'm not tuned into that little tempest. It never once crossed my mind that anything I read here might be written with a marketing bias. Can the blogs carry that much weight with the fragrance industry, given that bloggers and commenters do collective facepalms every time another fruity floral come to market, and yet the industry continues to churn them out.

    Anyway, {{{hugs}}}.

  41. Anonymous says:

    LOL — weeeelllll, never say never! I can state that so far, it has not been an issue, as JC(E) has not deigned to offer himself up as an interviewee. And if he did, I might have a very hard time refusing. Note that I did not include the statement “I do not do interviews with perfumers” in my blurb above :-)

    But the problem is this. Let's just say that in some dream world, JCE says sure, I'll do an interview, let's time it for the release of Kelly Caleche. And then I try Kelly Caleche, and I not only don't like it, but I actually think it is utter crap. Am I going to print an interview with JCE one day, post that KC is utter crap the next? That would be *very* hard to do, maybe not for others, but certainly for me. So, for the most part, I think its best that I not do interviews, or at the very least, not do what I did in the beginning, which was to follow interviews with reviews of the person's scents.

    And HA — clearly, blogs do NOT influence marketing & development decisions!

  42. Anonymous says:

    I can see exactly where you're coming from, really. Not everyone is going to want to take it to the next level, and that is fine. I really and truly like perfumes for their smell. Any boost achieved via the psychological value of a perfume, due to it's house or cost, or even the advertising, is short-lived and unsatisfying. The drive to attain it again and again (due to its fleeting nature), is exactly the type of thing that makes us vulnerable to the materialistic drive of this society. I enjoy reading your blog, or else I wouldn't be here reading! But, I take what you say, along with everyone else, with a grain of salt; another facet of possible perspectives. To make decisions or to be influenced by others is our prerogative, but to blame these people, well that is just plain insane and makes one a victim rather than responsible for their own opinions – which in truth we are.

    But…I see your point, I just disagree with it from a larger perspective :)

  43. Anonymous says:

    I do find the context matters. If Hermes releases a crappy fruity floral, it is going to upset me. If Paris Hilton releases one, I will probably find it mildly amusing. That isn't to say that I'll like the one better than the other, but my reactions to them will be quite different. Same goes with cost. I enjoy wearing Body Time's Egyptian Musk, but if it cost $100, well, hey, it isn't all that.

    But I certainly hope everyone takes everything I say with a very large grain of salt. I know I do!

  44. Anonymous says:

    Well you see, that is the difference there. It is the conflict between your expectations and reality. If Hermes puts out a stinker, it is a stinker – to you. Any reaction is yours to choose. It's all about not giving our power away to others. If I have determined I know best how other bloggers should conduct their reviews, then I am going to get upset when they do otherwise. Since I can't control what other people do, I set myself up to have my buttons pushed when things don't go as I think they should.

    Why can't Hermes put out whatever they want? They can put out a crappy fruity floral (which about 1/2 the population would probably love) and you can just simply decide not buy it while still appreciating all the releases you have previously enjoyed. It is the assault on your “idea” of what Hermes is, rather than the assault on your senses, of this potential fruity floral, that would bother you the most I am guessing.

    If you decide to completely change the format of your blog or take it in a whole new direction, what in the world has that got to do with me? except if I have these “ideas” of what you should be doing or producing or reviewing, and then I might say you are wrong, but it is really my problem.

    It's been fun chatting with you about this. I know I stand alone with most of my views, but I wouldn't trade them for the world because they are very peaceful views – peaceful to me that is :)

  45. Anonymous says:

    Your way of looking at it is no doubt more sensible than mine, and certainly less likely to lead to disappointment.

  46. Anonymous says:

    I know this thread is fairly cold now, but I've only just read this – by Luca Turin:

    'Tania Sanchez (my co-author) and I have started work on a perfume guide to come out next year in the US. [...] It’s early days yet, but in six weeks the size of my perfume collection has doubled to about 1400, and the postman rings almost every day with a wry look, hands me a parcel and says wearily “More perfumes for you” as if praying I will soon find an aftershave to my liking. A few days ago came a big parcel from the small but fiercely dedicated Omani firm of Amouage. They make the fabulous Gold, once the most expensive fragrance in the world, for what has now become a reasonable price. The bottles are lead crystal, and the box was almost too heavy to lift. Was there ever a better job?'

    Are gods and goddesses less prone to being influenced by freebies than mere mortal bloggers? Or is it sacrilegious to even ask?

  47. Anonymous says:

    For me, the difference is simple. I am not an expert on fragrances by any means, and I do not pretend to give any kind of expert advice. This is a “consumer” blog in every sense of that word, and I would like it to stay that way, so my ethical considerations must be different than someone publishing a guide to perfumes.

    Second, if I had the means to compel every fragrance company to send me a bottle of every single one of their products, then I suppose I'd have little reason to favor one over another, right? But accepting gifts from only those who offered them would perhaps leave me inclined to favor some over others.

  48. Anonymous says:

    I'm not sure I agree with your first point: both of you are just giving a subjective opinion. To the question, 'Is this perfume worth bothering with?, no one has *the* answer. If you tell me that a particular perfume is rubbish I believe you just as much as LT or any of his 'co-authors'.

    Your second point is compelling, however, and you've convinced me. :-)

  49. Anonymous says:

    So, we just have to think of a way to compel every fragrance company on earth to send me all their product, LOL!

  50. Anonymous says:

    That's it! LOL!

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