Friday, June 20, 2014

Trolling For Hate: Shill Sites Suck

When the Internet was new, folks marveled over the technology and told us that all of this bandwidth would soon be filled with content. They had this idea that the Internet was like a cup and that it was built before there was a lot to drink. In the fifteen year since, the content has come and the cup has filled up. We now can get movies delivered to our TVs at the click of a button. Music is just a hop, skip, and click away. So much of the content out there is not content, but "content."

Ads are the fuel of the Internet. Without them everything we peruse for free would either not exist or be prohibitively expensive. But the effectiveness of ads of all forms has been dropping for a long time now. But once with money, always with money and the ad agencies and marketers are clever. In place of the old form of advertising, companies have found that product placements work better. Things that seem like "news" but are actually ads are more successful and influential than regular ads. In this space, especially in the gear world, has risen the Shill Site.

Shill Sites aren't evil. Many are quite well done. In particular, I enjoy Uncrate and I like Gear Patrol, which is still, at heart, a Shill Site, though they are moving away from that model. We all go to these sites and read them. They follow a formula: gear picture, "sale-itorial" paragraph, and link. They cover a wide range of products, not just gear. You can learn about new stinky jeans (apparently your not supposed to wash "premium" denim) and see a beer frother all in the same place. Generally they have good web designs and high quality pictures, some of which are original, but many of which are press pictures. While they do occasionally cover true boutique stuff, its mainly a parade of goods that merely look nice.

The big problem I have with these sites is threefold: 1) they do not provide any actual new information; 2) they are all covering the same stuff; and 3) they are not up front about what they are doing. There are so many of these sites with more springing up everyday. In the "content era" of the Internet, we are getting a heaping ton of these Shill Sites. This is no more "content" than infomercials are television shows. They are just more crafty about their informercialing than Billy Mays ever was.

The first big issue I have is that these sites write about a lot of stuff without saying much at all. They have staff or freelance writers that produce a huge volume of "product blurbs" every day. These blurbs usually take the product description, render it in a narrative form, and say something mildly (very mildly) amusing or pithy about the product. In some cases, the writer may have even Googled the product. In very rare instances, the writer has some experience and knowledge of the product and industry. Either way, the product blurb contains only the most superficial information. There is nothing new, nothing insightful, or even interesting. Picture, useless blurb, link. Don't be fooled. Uncrate isn't "bringing you the latest in stuff you like" or whatever the slogan is of the Shill Site. They aren't a news agency. They sometimes don't even know what they are talking about (watch for claims of things like "high performance" or "surgical" steel when a knife runs 420HC).

A few weeks ago when the Gerber 39 Series knife was released, every single Shill Site I visited was "covering" it. They all had the same picture with basically the same text. Not one of them mentioned the fact that the knife was WAY overpriced. None of them referenced Gerber's embarrassing streak of product recalls. None of them wrote about the fact that the Gerber product text implied American production but carefully avoided using the federally regulated term "Made in the USA". It goes like this all of the time. At least two or three times a week I will see the same product pop up on multiple Shill Sites, sometimes even on the same day. Its embarrassing when magazines have the same celebrity on the cover (a few months ago Jamie Foxx was on the cover of two magazines promoting the same thing in the same pose on both publications). But Shill Sites do this almost as a matter of course.

My biggest complaint is simple--they aren't up front about what they are doing. I could tolerate the useless text and the same-same coverage, if they were clear about what they are doing. Tell us "we are advertising products." I like infomercials, not only for their slick talking sales people, but also for their up front, we are selling stuff approach. I could watch Ron Popiel sell just about anything. But a Shill Site tells you its about covering things you like. Its about finding authentic goods that speak to you. Its about...blah, blah, blah....Cut it out. Uncrate's not on a mission to make you a better man. Stinky hipster jeans won't help you get your target in the sack. A watch will not make a you a person of distinction. This is hucksterism at its most clever.

Don't be sucked in. Being a decent person will make you a man of distinction and it seems to me that unwashed jeans might have the exact opposite effect of getting someone in the sack. Its all sales bullshit masked as some burgeoning men's movement. Remember Transformers the cartoon? Its job was to sell you toys. The idea that there were commercials during Transformers blows my mind. Shill Sites are the modern equivalent of the Transformers cartoon and you should approach them with all of the respect that deserves, which is to say, very little.

I have no illusions. I understand that this site, in a round about way, is a Shill Site too. But here is the difference--I don't do this for a profit. I have two motives: 1) have fun; and 2) raise the level of discourse about gear to a point where the conversation is befitting the quality of goods we are seeing now. Sure a review is, in a certain way, an ad. Heck, I even insert a link for you to buy stuff. But unlike the Shill Sites I have total editorial independence. If I think my readers would want to hear something is substandard, I will say so. The comments bloodbath in the Cryo review and the hammering Thomas gave me on the podcast prove that much. Even review samples sent to me still get hammered, if they deserve it. The Armytek C1 Partner was a ho hum light and that's exactly what its review said. The Viking, on the other hand, was damn good and the review reflected that as well. My singular goal in writing is keeping the faith of my readers, not selling them stuff. The ads and the links are there solely as a means to provide funds to get more products to review. This is not my job and having a stream of income lets me go out and buy products without any strings attached. A manufacturer can't buy a good review because there is nothing to buy. Since I don't run the site for profit there is nothing for money to buy. With Shill Sites its basically product placements paid for, directly or indirectly, by the manufacturer with very little editorial independence or insight.

The reality is we don't need more Shill Sites. Really one or two is more than enough. Its heartening to see Gear Patrol moving away from the Uncrate model. They have folks that have real talent and real information. Hopefully they kick the ladder away very soon and drop the product shilling entirely. Once they do, they will be better off for it. Another model I like that seems successful is the Huckberry model, which is essentially what TV networks do--you have two sides: content and ads and never the twain shall meet. I could happily read the Huckberry Journal every day, its that good (if you don't get their email newsletter you are really missing out; nothing makes a better post workday lunch read than that email). But there is a new Shill Site almost every day and that does nothing but muddy the waters with crass salesmanship pretending to be insightful and funny.  

Then there are enthusiast sites like this one. In my opinion these sites are where the real content promise from 15 years ago is being fulfilled. The democratization of access to the Internet has meant that a guy or gal with a passion, a camera, and a passable ability to write (though in my case passable means an unacceptably high number of typos) can become a content provider.  Every gear geek should be a member of the Knife Thursday community.  This is the promise of the internet realized. 

Look at Edge Observer. He is not simply providing content, he is providing content so good that no one else, even the big marketing companies, can match what he is doing. The Pen Addict is doing much the same thing--the website and the podcast create a focal point for pen fans that simply didn't exist before. Then there are the master of Instagram. Justin Laffer's good nature from the forums carries over into a compelling feed everyone must follow. The mix of cutting edge customs and shamelessly cute dog pictures is a mix that is hard to ignore.

But these places, aside from not being disguised ads, have an authenticity, voice, and expertise that is missing from Shill Sites. These aren't written failed English major freelancers getting paid by the word to say something quippy about a $80,000 jetpack then a beer frother then a handkerchief (can we all agree that handkerchiefs used as intended are disgusting?). The Edge Observers and Pen Addicts of the world are love letters written by a person and shared with everyone else.

We do not need more Shill Sites. They spread like a contagious disease. That age of "content" needs to be abandoned in favor of REAL content. Advertainment is scores worse than informercial as it lacks the clear and humorous absurdity of the "set it and forget it" crowd. They also confuse the consumer. The Series 39 might be a darn good knife, but it is horrendous value. The materials do not justify the $80 or so price tag even if it is actually made in the US. For $10 more you can get a Spyderco Manix LW that is vastly moore capable and a significantly better design and is definitely and for sure Made in the USA. And this is the heart of the critique of the Shill Site--it pretends to be something its not. There is no information there, no content, just a sales pitch in wolf's clothing. And I am fairly certain that like me, you have had enough sales pitches to last you a lifetime.


  1. Jim Skelton is quite the shill. He will breathlessly praise a knife you know he doesn't enjoy (see his new Strider video for proof) and apologize for any issues it may have. It's strange that according to him, any custom knife over $700 should have 3d milled pocket clip but the $1200 Strider's spring clip is perfectly acceptable.

    I know he doesn't do it for money, he just does it to protect his bros and maintain his power and influence in the space.

    1. Ok, but Jim hosts what is basically QVC for customs. You know that going in. I have no problem with him promoting up a product he may be selling or hosting the sale of; in fact, I expect him to

  2. Let's not bring up Jim's history with selling questionable quality watches on tv.

    This is not for his 'knife show'. This is a knife he bought with his own money that he CLEARLY does not like and yet on the video review he is falling over himself about how great the knife and Strider are.

  3. Wait, the Gerber 39 series *isn't* made in America? BladeHQ lists their country of origin as the United States.

    1. "Made in the USA" is a federally regulated term and it requires that the item be both made of parts produced in the USA and assembled in the USA. No where does Gerber use this phrase. They do state that the Gerber 39 is "built in America" which is something that manufacturers say when they have parts made overseas assembled in to the US. It seems obvious to me that if the 39 was actually a Made in the USA product they would use that phrase and since they didn't, I think it is fair to say it is merely assembled here.

    2. I will send Gerber an email and see what they say, but I am virtually certain this is correct.

    3. I called Gerber today and spoke with someone. They informed me that the parts are made for them by a US company and they are assembled by Gerber in Portland. I asked them if that was the case why they didn't use the Made in the USA designation and they had no answer. I then asked them if they would give me the name of the company that made the parts and they said no.

      I would note that they told me the parts were made by a US company, but they did not say the parts were made in the US. It may be that I am parsing things to carefully, but the federal law is pretty specific.

      Bottom line, according to Gerber the Gerber 39 is Made in the USA. I could not confirm this other than them telling me it was. I will see if I can track down some FTC paperwork on the issue.

  4. LOL. "Made by a US company" does not mean that something is actually manufactured in the US. Otherwise Gerber would write in on the packaging in huge block letters.
    That answer is marketing BS, nothing more.
    On the other hand, it is totally understandable that they don't want to reveal the name of their subcontractor.

  5. Interesting article. I wonder how you view Everyday-carry ? I know you contribute to it every so often. It seems to me that its grown away from its original design into a more 'shill site' style. Even the third or fourth post down on every page is a Gear Patrol ad thats disguised like a post on it. I get that Bernard wants to monetize the site, and he has every right too, but it just feels like I'm seeing more and more ads and links to kickstarter instead of actual gear reviews (although I am a fan of the Carry Smarter series).

    I suppose on the other end of things thats why I enjoy coming here - the reviews are very well done and I find that I can appreciate your taste in the gear. I dont find this to be a shill site at all. I appreciate that you are honest up front in all of your reviews and appreciate the insight you bring in.

    1. I did the writing and photos for the Carry Better series up through the multitool piece. Bernard did the formatting and editing. He took over at the multitool article and did everything for the remainder of the series. They are great.

  6. Andrew @ 555 GearJune 24, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    I enjoyed this article as a polemic, but it seems to me that unambiguously categorizing gear reporting website as shills is too hostile and one-dimensional. Just as there are shills and sellouts in every level of journalism, there are journalists working for both the big and small gear sites who are the real deal. So also with these sites, sometimes the coverage is really on point, sometimes it is terrible. Meanwhile, independent reviewers have the problem of being limited to their own frame of reference which also leads to reporting bias.

    Also, the content/ads distinction is hard. Andrew at e/o does beautiful videos and has outstanding commentary, but he's been open that some of the knives featured are gifts from companies clearly foreseeing that his vids are cheap advertising. Does this diminish his credibility? Not in my eyes, but it has for other content creators who can't remain objective given the opportunity.

    1. I was trying (and apparently failed) to create a three-part test for shill sites. GP does some really great work and they do have knowledgeable writers (especially their watch and car writers).

      As for Andrew, I don't think there is any question as to what he is doing. Lots and lots of folks keep their review samples, but given Andrew's experience, the size of his collection, and the notoriety he has, I don't think its the same thing as a shill site.

      I don't keep review samples, but that doesn't make me any better than someone who does. There are plenty of folks that do an amazing job and keep their review samples. I have always thought that it clouded the issue. Its also hard to decide who to give review samples to if you are a company. There are hundreds of folks looking for free gear. If they know I don't keep anything, they may understand that I am not doing this for the comped piece. The information is much more important to me than the free sample.

    2. Andrew @ 555 GearJune 24, 2014 at 9:37 PM

      Right, I understand your criteria I think, but wouldn't they be better applied to specific articles/posts/whatever? I guess that was the distinction I was trying to make. I've found uncrate is sometimes good and sometimes shilling, but always attempting to report new gear to the market. I would agree that they are clearly heavily influenced by trends and therefore marketing propaganda.

      Agreed 100% about your comments about yours and Andrew's work. My (perhaps obvious) point is that well-made content does have a advertising effect even if it isn't intended to be such; that is just the nature of reviewing and causing interest in marketed goods. I guess, in spite of this, what it comes down to is transparency and authenticity as you say.

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