Op-Ed: Are negative reviews as important as positive reviews?
Imagine for a moment that you’ve heard a lot of social buzz about a new fragrance, and after Googling and scouring the Web and scrolling through pages of positive press, you’re unable to find even one negative review or comment on the scent. People are so complimentary toward the fragrance that they even suggest “buying it blind”. So as a result, you order a bottle from an available retailer, receive it and try it out only to find…
…it’s absolutely horrible. And you’re confused since all you’ve seen are glowing reviews of the product and no one is providing another perspective.
Welcome to the topic of negative reviews, which can sometimes be controversial when considering that some review sites and bloggers have stated their intent to only focus on positive reviews. When the topic of negative reviews has been mentioned in multiple forums — be they discussion communities, Facebook groups, or just open dialogue around the Internet — it often seems a plurality of reviewers have committed to only posting positive commentary on a fragrance. But all things being equal, and all reviews being positive, where does the consumer find another perspective?
My frequent readers will already recognize this as an opportunity for my personal context on negative reviews. However, let’s look at some background and determine how a negative review might provide a constructive context.
The context of the counterpoint
One of the major arguments against the time invested in negative reviews is that some writers have only enough time available to do positive evaluations. They’d prefer to devote that time to focusing on only the scents they like, not those that they wouldn’t recommend, and they view their work as an endorsement of a product more than a review — i.e. I’ve worn it and liked it, therefore you probably will feel the same. While that may hold true in some instances, it doesn’t present a balance on par, a point which I’ll expand momentarily.
One or two have commented that they don’t want to expend energy on negative reviews, even if that might in fact be honest or helpful in considering the opinion. Again, something I’ll touch on in the context of engagement, especially given some controversy over a prior Op-Ed on how some in the fragrance community believe that sharing a Scent of the Day is a way of “engaging” with others, despite the lack of additional detail.
Seen through the lens of books such as ”Perfumes: The A-Z Guide” by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, many have commented that their negative reviews of certain boutique or niche perfumers may have been damaging to business, or construed as being unfair. It’s a fair criticism, since the Turin publication has gotten mileage and wider publication. It remains the only encyclopedic reference of its kind, even as flawed as it is. I would suggest, however, that’s not the right example for this conversation since it compares a very static medium — that of a once-written, non-interactive, single-source.
The world of the Internet and blogosphere is a different and more immediate medium, far more current far richer, and far more diverse. Rather than one point of view, you can choose from several. Much like television — if you don’t like Fox News or CNN, there are MSNBC or Bloomberg and other sources for information. You can select the method that most appeals to your perspective.
But what do negative reviews say about both the writer and the topic? Perhaps much more than the purely positive point-of-view. If we continue to read a reviewer and only come to understand “what they like” and cannot gain the perspective of “what they dislike”, we only see an incomplete picture of the reviewer. We are left with a notion that the reviewer “likes everything he/she tries”, which at best is painting an incomplete picture, or at worst can seem disingenuous to the reader.
In some ways, it comes across as the movie reviewer who consistently proclaims something positive about every box-office-bomb that’s released by calling it the “feel good hit of the summer”. After a while, we recognize the reviewer and potentially discredit any opinion they may express.
Let’s view this from a reader’s perspective, the surface of both we’ve begun to scratch, as to why negative reviews are as important (if not more so) as the positive:
1. Credibility. Over time, as our engagement with a source increases, we begin to ‘trust’ the information provided by that source, or we believe that it’s either reliable or that we generally agree with it. When a reviewer gives an opinion on a scent, he’s asking for the consideration of the reader. That reviewer has their own established preferences, and over time the regular reader will gain some familiarity or trust with their opinions once they can see if they agree or disagree with the reviewer. This is establishing a credibility with the audience.
2. Biases or objectivity. Part of establishing that credibility is understanding if the reviewer can try something and be fair and unbiased about the scent. He should care less about the “who” behind it — what perfumer or manufacturer created it — and more about the content and overall qualities of the fragrance. If we know, for instance, that a certain reviewer has an overwhelming preference toward say Guerlain or Hermes, or has expressed continual disdain for Bond No 9, that should serve to highlight that reviewer’s biases. Or that perhaps he’s not truly a subjective source or treating that house as agnostically as possible.
So how does this factor into positive and negative reviews?
Let’s begin with one assertion: All reviews are an opinion. Some opinions might be more fully formed than others. Some opinions may have stronger substantiation to support their assertions. Some may be simply a glance at a topic without the need to elaborate. In the case of a fragrance, I assert that the opinion takes the form of a feeling. Feelings simply are another expression of one’s reaction or perception. There isn’t one universal reaction or agreement to the same thing. Even the science of taste tells us that our taste receptors are partly controlled in our DNA, which is why broccoli tastes bitter to some people and not others. Smell has yet to be broken out in the same way.
Ergo, we have opinions about fragrance, but I contend that we do not have absolutes. It helps the reader to know that not everyone is in agreement about a scent. Too often, we see the glowing reviews about a specific scent and a reader may easily conclude that the vast majority of people at least like a scent since all they see are the positives.
Negative reviews offer a counter-point to the cacophony of positive spin that may be created about a scent, and helps provide a balance provided the reviewer gives detail on why he dislikes the fragrance. It’s being candid and not misleading, even if by omission. It’s letting the reader know that “it’s ok not to like something.”