Gear Reviews On Youtube: “Sponsorships,” Brand Awareness and How Not All Payments Are in Cash and They All Lie to You About It

So, if you’re anything like me, you’ve adapted to using Youtube as a resource. Not limited to just videos full of inaccurate information to poison your knowledge and credibility or to learn what this week’s “5 top tips for becoming a better photographer” are, but you’ll hopefully read the terrain and begin to identify credible from incredulous. Inevitably, you’ll begin to lean on these clowns to help you choose your next tripod, lens, or even camera body. Even more perilous, you may choose to rely on their reviews, unboxings and reaction vids to help you find your first interchangeable lens camera.

If so, then you’re familiar with how they all begin: “this video is sponsored by Squarespace.” Ok, well, after that, they then feed you the next line, almost all of it verbatim, “I am not sponsored by (insert brand here). They have not paid me to do this review or told me what to say about it. This review is entirely my own and they don’t know I’m making this video. I was/was not provided a sample for the purposes of this review. I am not biased in any way so you can trust what I’m about to say about this product.”

What they don’t mention, obviously, is if they had to return that “review unit.” But if you pay close attention, you may catch them using the product in later videos, especially if they were especially laudatory in their review. At least they weren’t paid, right? Wrong.

Payment is simply one form of compensation. That “review unit” usually comes along with an email that says, “you don’t need to send this back to us.” Simply put, the item itself is payment. Just because you didn’t get to choose the item, the form of compensation or were given a special title associating you with their brand doesn’t mean you weren’t paid. They paid you with product and exclaiming otherwise is a flat out lie by Youtubers who persistently try to claim otherwise. Rarely are these items cameras and lenses; they’re usually “soft goods” or accessories, like bags, lens filter kits, etc. that would likely get damaged during a thorough review period or whose cost of manufacture and/or retail price is so low that the cost of return, reconditioning and resale would consume all or more of the potential profit.

Keep in mind that there’s a fundamental difference between these independent Youtube “influencers,” “personalities,” “vloggers,” or whatever you want to label them, and the outlets for actual businesses, specifically retail camera shops in this case. The former are attempting to masquerade as consumers while functioning as shills, either knowingly or unknowingly. They’re selling while pretending not to be. Businesses on Youtube are promoting their actual business and products offered with no attempts to disguise their motive.

Take Shimoda Designs for example. There’s a prominent photographer on Youtube who fell in love with their bags upon receiving one as a “permanent review unit.” He began his review video with the standard, “I am not biased and I was not paid” disclaimer I printed above and very forcefully exclaimed he bought one with his own money because he liked it so much… but only because he didn’t like the color of the review unit. A review unit he he didn’t have to return, by his own admission, encoded and tucked discreetly into the review video. His response? Because he didn’t get to choose the item, it’s not considered “compensation” and then some “whataboutism” referring to some Youtube series called “Unbox Therapy.” Sorry, but you received an item in return for making a video about it and at that time, that company didn’t really care if your review was positive or negative, as long as you didn’t call it a flaming pile of shit. Of course, they knew you wouldn’t since you received one as a gift. What they paid you for was not for a review, but brand awareness. They were a virtual unknown at the time and simply needed to get their name out. Giving away free bags to “influencers” was their marketing strategy and telling your viewers that you weren’t compensated for that is simply a lie.

And of course, as they recently released a new product, this same person got another “review unit,” this time before their Kickstarter sale had begun. The goal clearly was to get the word out once they were ready to announce it. They followed their previous marketing strategy of providing free bags to “influencers” for review. And months later, that person is still using the bag despite prefacing that review video with, “I am not sponsored by them, I was not paid to do this video, I just love their bags.” Again, that’s a lie.

Full disclosure: I own 2 Shimoda Designs bags. The review in my example is one of a few that turned me on to them when I was shopping for a camera bag designed for backpacking. But I paid for mine, in full.

Another company who does this is Peak Design. Last summer, they announced a new tripod to be pre-sold on Kickstarter (what is it with Kickstarter companies?). They sent out a number of “preproduction review units” to Youtubers who specialize in camera reviews to drum up awareness before their campaign was to begin. I thought it was slightly suspicious when every review on it was glowing, despite being a preproduction sample with quite a few issues baked into the design. However, months later, as the Kickstarter gifts have all been sent out and production begins for retail sale in March 2020, it’s obvious now why everyone gave it such a glowing review despite some serious shortcomings in the product and despite everyone prefacing their reviews with, “I was not paid to do this review, blah blah blah, etc.” because if you look carefully, some of these reviewers are still using that tripod. They never sent it back and clearly they were used as compensation for doing a review and releasing it on a specific date to ensure maximum fanfare for the announcement. Mind you, reviewers received the carbon fiber version, with a retail price of $650. And yet reviewer after reviewer lied openly about not being compensated despite the obvious conspiracy.

A certain popular couple who claim to educate viewers on Youtube have commented repeatedly on this specific topic, about various forms of compensation and how receiving a “review unit,” or even buying an item with one’s own money, can taint a review. They’re quick to make comments like this right before claiming that they’re different, that they don’t receive payment for their reviews or sponsorships from companies within the camera industry to ensure the integrity of the opinions expressed in their gear reviews.

They also received a Peak Design carbon fiber tripod for review, and their review was also uploaded to Youtube on the day of the announcement.

It also shows up in their videos, here and there, since then, proving it hasn’t been returned.

Very few people read my blog and that’s by design… while I keep a personal journal, I also keep this as a public journal. Knowing it’s public helps me to further hone my writing skills, a passion I’ve had since college, and it’s something I’ve been doing as a freelancer for nearly two decades. Despite this, I’m sure a few who do will come away from it with the impression of sour grapes on my part, that as a hobbyist photographer I harbor some sort of jealousy toward them.

All I can do is deny it; I am proud to say that I can afford my own gear without having to lie about it. Whatever unrecognized envy that may exist is far outweighed by integrity that’s beyond reproach. Credibility is far more valuable than Chinese crap and if you disagree, maybe this blog is not for you.

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