When I saw that Sephora had added a new product that promised to smooth out otherwise unfixable acne scars in eight weeks, I was intrigued but not entirely convinced. When I saw it had already racked up close to 200 five-star reviews, I grabbed my credit card.
But my excitement was tempered — nearly all of those reviews had a small disclaimer beside them: “Received free product.”
The reviews were not written by those who spent their own money on the product, but rather by those who had been given the product in exchange for a review.
The value of a good review has not gone unnoticed by beauty brands, and to boost their ratings, they’ve effectively infiltrated the system. In 2018, for example, the brand Sunday Riley asked employees to write fake reviews, and as I saw, companies often give away products in hopes of getting a positive review.
“Reviews have a huge impact on the success of a product,” said Natalie Silverstein, the vice president of brand, marketing and culture at Collectively, a PR agency that specializes in influencer marketing. “Smart marketers see positive reviews as a critical part of their brand’s broader digital footprint. They take steps to ensure that there are authentic reviews online as part of their launch strategy and ongoing marketing.”
Those positive reviews can even turn into entire marketing campaigns. Lindsay McNamara, founder of the beauty and health PR firm LM Publicity, told HuffPost in an email that “many PR professionals are utilizing good product reviews in their communication to the media to drive home a product’s effectiveness.” Furthermore, “for products that have been on the market for years, you can make the product relevant/newsworthy again by creating buzz surrounding a ratings milestone (i.e. 5,000 5 star ratings),” she said.
Companies like Influenster work as the middleman, existing as both a review platform — think Yelp or TripAdvisor but for beauty products — and also by sending users free products in turn for reviews.
Some users aren’t happy with the way these reviews can seem to “take over” a product’s ratings, as evidenced by a thread on Sephora’s own messaging board titled “Influenster, please go away!”
“Only 2% of the reviews on our platform are the result of our sampling programs,” Laura Brinker, Influenster’s senior vice president of marketing, told HuffPost in an email. “Ninety-eight percent are non-solicited and un-incentivized, written after product purchase.”
Sephora, through a spokesperson, declined to answer any of HuffPost’s questions.
YouTuber Roxette Arisa demonstrates an “INSANE amount of new makeup” that she was given by PR firms.
Ultimately, the accuracy of ratings depends on the honesty of the influencers who receive these gifts.
Alexa Johnson, who runs the beauty Instagram @glowopedia, receives free products from companies like Influencer, Octoly and the brands themselves. “I never feel swayed to review more positively than the product deserves,” she said. “When I accept PR/gifts, I always make sure that the brand knows that I only give honest reviews. I have no desire to suck up to anyone or be told what to do.”
Neither does Sarah Elizabeth Mills, another beauty blogger. She said that she has always had an “overall positive” experience with Influenster, the brand that sends her the most products. “I love the idea of being able to freely review products without any pressure to be anything but honest,” Mills told HuffPost. “I wish there were a more open dialogue in the beauty community in regards to PR and ‘gifted’ items. I can see how others may feel the pressure to leave a more positive review for ‘gifted’ items, as it is very kind of companies to send these products to us.”
Even from Johnson’s point of view as an influencer, she sees the problems. “You can tell who is genuinely here because they love skincare and just want to talk about it, compared to people who are looking to get ‘insta-famous’ and make money,” she said.
YouTuber Katerina Williams shows off a huge beauty haul she received from Sephora.
But back to that acne scar-smoothing product, which should have left me with the best skin of my life — if those reviews were to be believed. Murad InvisiScar Resurfacing Treatment claims to visibly smooth scars in eight weeks, and as of this writing, 155 out of 231 reviews give it five stars. Another 60 give it four stars. This sort of ratio would normally indicate a stellar product, but almost the entirety of those reviews were written based on gifted products. (You probably won’t be surprised that the few one- and two-star reviews were all written by those who purchased the product themselves.)
We asked Lady Baltazar, a beauty and lifestyle blogger who left a glowing review for the product, whether it really helped her — did she feel swayed because she received it for free? “No way,” she said, “I do indeed have a minor scar I managed to get earlier this year, and yes, I did notice after using the product for a couple months that it had a beneficial effect on the area to which I applied it.”
(I spent $35 on the half-ounce treatment, and while I’m not here to review it, I will say that I was left less than impressed — and with clogged pores.)
Fortunately, most products have an even mix of paid-for and gifted product reviews, allowing the buyer to read through and form their own opinion. But when that isn’t the case, pay careful attention to the content of those reviews. Look for overly positive reviews that are light on actual critique, and overall trends in the comments.