Conflict of Interests

July 07, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Ethics are a curious thing, since they define how we live our lives. Consider for a moment the importance of ethics across a wide span of life, from big business to politics to religion. Everyone has to develop their own personal code. I'm not going to claim that my ethics are stronger than anyone else's, but they are skewed in a different way.

The topic I have been thinking about is advertising on a website (specifically this website). The concept is straightforward - put up a few text links and banners to subsidize what can otherwise be an expensive proposition. What's the harm in a little extra cash? But a nagging question arises: how to determine which ads are appropriate and which ones are not. Some categories are obvious. I define ReelViews as being "PG-13," so porn and other adult-oriented advertisements are out. That's a no-brainer. Now let's travel into the gray area.

First, two comments. First, web advertisers like what is known as "target advertising." That means you sell vacation packages on a travel website, dating services on a romance/sex site, and movies on a movie website. Second, advertisement is the art of promotion. In fact, my handy thesaurus lists "promote" as a synonym for "advertise."

A lot of movie review websites advertise movies. This is a line I feel uncomfortable about crossing. There's no doubt that movie advertisers like this, since it fits the "target advertising" strategy. But it raises ethical questions. If I, as a website owner/operator, take money from a studio to promote their movie, could it impact how I review a movie? (Hopefully not.)Or, more cogently, could it impact how I am perceived to review a movie?

Let's take a hypothetical case. It is established that I liked The Phantom Menace, a movie that was widely reviled in fan circles. A lot of people can't understand why I favor the film, but they chalk it up to bad taste. How different would things have been had I advertised TPM before seeing and reviewing it? How many people would have dismissed the review as the words of a shill? When you advertise a movie, then write a positive review, your words are discounted in many circles, even if the review is a legitimate reflection of your feelings.

Then there's the flip side. If a studio is paying you hundreds or thousands of dollars to promote something, is it biting the hand that feeds you to write a negative review? Or perhaps there's an incentive to "tone down the negativity." After all, it's possible to assign a two-star rating but not be nasty in the write-up. I have personal experience with something like this. In 1998, I was hired by Playboy to write a review of Blade. In good conscience, I saw the movie and wrote my thoughts. It was a mildly negative piece but, unbeknownst to me, Playboy was being paid big money by New Line Cinema to promote the movie. When my editor got the review, he was horrified. I was asked to go back and do some "touch-ups" to make it more positive. With misgivings, I did so. The "touch-ups" were insufficient; the review never ran, although I was paid for it. Thus ended my relationship with Playboy. (Two versions of the Blade review are available on this website: the one I wrote for ReelViews and the one I wrote for Playboy. Both can be accessed via the link above.)

There are two possible solutions, as I see it. The first is for a reviewer to recuse himself/herself from writing about any movie that is advertised on his/her site. In simpler terms, if I choose to advertise Pirates of the Caribbean, I wouldn't post a review. Then there's no conflict or interests or the appearance of a conflict of interests. Of course, that doesn't solve the question of whether there's an issue about taking money from a studio to advertise one of their movies while reviewing another...

The second option is not to accept any advertising from movie studios. That's the route I have taken. I have turned down several lucrative offers from studios to promote the summer's would-be blockbusters. It's tough to turn down thousands of dollars, but tougher to contribute to the immolation of my integrity. So my stance is to advertise only "information related" sites, services, and products.

Ethics are a bitch.