Apr. 21, 1999 Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: Steven Shugan -- (352) 392-0161, firstname.lastname@example.org
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- If buyers don't see a critic's thumbs up or down, number of stars or colored circles when looking for the latest movie or gadget, they would be wise to avoid the product altogether, a new University of Florida study finds.
Critics tend to shy away from reviews of turkeys, lemons and losers because they are under tremendous pressure to praise the product or film, while a deceptive or false review could cost them credibility, said Steven Shugan, a UF marketing professor who did the study.
"The principle is sort of like what your mother taught you: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all," Shugan said. "So if you don't find any information about the product you're interested in, odds are it's probably not very good."
Conflicts of interest are apparent, for example, in magazines that rate cars for consumers. Reviewers are in a bind to say something nice because auto manufacturers advertise in these publications and might withdraw their business if publicity is negative, Shugan said.
The conflict for movie reviewers is that the parent company owning the magazine in which the reviewer's column is published or the television program on which his comments are aired often also produces the movie being reviewed, he said.
In research involving both cars and movies, Shugan and UF graduate student Lawrence Winner found that in order to strike a balance between satisfying corporate pressures to say something nice and retaining the reader's credibility, reviewers generally don't critique what they can't rave about.
One reason for the popularity of movie critics Gene Siskel and Rogert Ebert, whose "thumbs up or down" show is a Disney-owned syndicated TV program, is they had credibility in the movie business, Shugan said. "If they really felt some Disney movie stunk, they might have just chosen not to review that film on their program. Of course, for big-budget films, reviews are usually necessary."
The results contradict the traditional image of the critic as harsh, Shugan said.
"The popular idea is that critics trash everything," he said. "But what we found in our study is that most reviews are positive, and even when it's a negative review, the critics usually manage to say something positive about it.
"If they're pressured to review a car they don't like, for example, they might say, ‘It's good for certain driving conditions, assuming you stay on the road and travel at moderate speeds,' or something," he said.
UF researchers examined how 132 cars rated in the April 1996 issue of Consumer Reports, considered an unbiased source because it accepts no advertising, fared in Car and Driver, which does accept advertising. Cars receiving favorable write-ups in Consumer Reports, which rates by using colored circles, were much more likely to be reviewed in Car and Driver, Shugan said.
"If there was no truth to our idea, you would expect to see Car and Driver review just as many cars in the bottom half of Consumer Reports' ratings as the top half," he said. "But we find there are considerably more reviews of those in the top half."
For movies, the researchers studied issues of Variety, the motion picture industry's trade publication, during the past four years to determine the relationship between the number of times a film is reviewed and the number of positive reviews. For each movie, they tallied the positive, negative and mixed reviews, as classified by Variety, and found that movies with the most reviews from critics also had the greatest number of positive ratings.
Shugan believes reviewers' credibility will become even more important as people rely increasingly on the Internet for product information. "All reviewers really have is their credibility, and once it's destroyed, it's not something they can get back easily," he said.
Like reviewers, he said, Web sites are likely to accentuate the positive.
"Rather than reviewing 100 products and listing both positive and negative reviews, they'll just say something like, ‘These are the five best hair dryers or the five best washing machines,'" he said. "And if it's not listed, it's probably not worth buying."
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