Probing for facts in a fog of online marketing: Neil Macdonald

A Google search for almost any consumer item will turn up a raft of review sites, most of which are clearly for-profit operations offering to rank companies’ products in return for payment, or want to solicit customer complaints as a profitable means of developing leads for lawyers.

Manufacturers have seized discussion forums. Corporations are buying reviews

We've never had much of a consumer movement here. We certainly could use one. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

About three years ago, Costco hired a fellow named Chris Wheatley to pick up a faulty hot tub being returned by one of its customers in Nova Scotia. Costco would come to regret having done that.

Wheatley, who runs a small business in Halifax selling and servicing tubs, had, out of disgust at what he calls the confidence game of the hot tub industry, established a website meant to educate consumers.

When the tub's exterior panels began falling off during the ride back to the Costco warehouse, Wheatley abruptly pulled into a parking lot, took out his smartphone, and launched into an impromptu technical review.

It was savage. Wheatley took the viewer into the guts of the $10,000 tub, pointing out its skimpy insulation, a design defect that caused its pumps to overheat, the inferior quality of its fiberglass shell, which appeared to be propped up internally by Styrofoam, and the cheap plumbing of its hoses and connections. He then posted the video on his website, hottubuniversity.com, where it remains to this day.

"It went viral. I got, like, 200,000 hits in a very short period."

Costco, says Wheatley, was in touch pronto.

"They told me to take the video down or they'd take legal action. I told them every message from them, every statement, would be put up on my website for public inspection. After that, they went away."

Wheatley didn't know it at the time, but he was on his way to becoming probably the North American hot tub industry's most influential influencer. He says his website now attracts nearly 100,000 unique hits a year, mostly from people about to spend somewhere between $7,000 and $20,000.

Influencers are the big thing in marketing nowadays. Some are celebrities, some are Instagram stars who make big money promoting makeup, but most are just independent operators who found a niche. What they all seem to have in common is the ability to engender trust. Wheatley is a perfect example. His reviews are blunt, his language sometimes rough, and he answers all his emails – 4,500 last year – personally.

Manufacturing reviews

He reckons he influences, directly or indirectly, hundreds of millions worth of purchases from consumers who want to buy, but are gasping in the fog of the internet, most of it put there by the marketing departments of the unregulated hot tub industry.

"The online discussion forums are all controlled by the manufacturers," he says. "People are getting lied to. This is a crappy world where companies trick customers with marketing for their crappy products."

They do it because it works, of course. Research in the U.S. indicates that more than 80 per cent of buyers sometimes check a review before purchasing, and 40 per cent read them every time they buy. Younger buyers are especially reliant on reviews.

The hot tub game, says Wheatley, is being taken over by private equity firms that buy up manufacturers, cheapen the product by using cut-rate components (for which replacements can only be purchased from them), then package it with glossy, misleading marketing.

"You're buying a product that's designed to fail."

So Wheatley doggedly plugs a small group of manufacturers that still use standard parts you can buy anywhere. He endorses brands that produce strong hand-rolled shells, glued-and-clamped plumbing, and proper insulation. He refuses advertising.

But he also lives in the world, and has to make a living. The website costs money. He has employees. He has to procure tubs to dissect and review. So, like most influencers, he's begun taking money from manufacturers he recommends. Enough to break even, he says. He will disclose, if asked, which ones they are.

And he turns down all offers from manufacturers that don't meet his standards.

Does taking the money make Wheatley less credible? Maybe, a bit. But where, nowadays, does a consumer turn? As Ira Rheingold at the National Association of Consumer Advocates in Washington puts it, never has more information been available, and never has so much of it been fake.

Now, a disclosure here: When a physiotherapist prescribed a hot tub after some surgeries two years ago, I found myself poking around the internet, seeking some reliable advice, and finally found Wheatley. I am certain the information on his site prevented me from making some awfully costly mistakes.

Controlling consumer information

But the more I researched, the more I realized how completely corporate interests, open or veiled, control consumer information online.

A Google search for almost any consumer item will turn up a raft of review sites, most of which are clearly for-profit operations offering to rank companies' products in return for payment, or want to solicit customer complaints as a profitable means of developing leads for lawyers.

Sales and review sites routinely offer sellers more visible billing in exchange for a premium. It's the online equivalent of fees companies pay to ensure their products are placed prominently in store aisles.

Consumer review sites, where individuals testify about the quality of a purchase or sales experience, are equally sketchy. Reports abound of shills driving up five-star rankings.

In fact, says Rheingold, companies are taking steps to stifle negative reviews.

"When you buy something online you might be unknowingly agreeing to a non-disparagement clause buried in the fine print. We've seen a number of companies turn around and sue over a bad review on a site like Yelp. The idea is to scare people."

Enabling consumers, says Rheingold, is not a priority in the United States nowadays. Quite the opposite, where the Trump administration is concerned. In Canada, we just seem indifferent. We've never had much of a consumer movement here. We certainly could use one.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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