Digital

ReviewerCard is wrong and unfair on so many levels

Jan 27, 2013 10:04 am

Skift Take

There is no middle ground here: either you think this is douchebaggery taken to new level or you’re one.

— Rafat Ali

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Brad Newman thinks that people who post lots of reviews on websites such as Yelp or TripAdvisor don’t get enough respect from the businesses they write about.

So he’s come up with his own business, a Manhattan Beach company called ReviewerCard that issues IDs to prolific online reviewers to help them get better service than the rest of us.

Granted, that’s not how Newman, 35, would put it. He sees ReviewerCard as a way to enhance the relationship between amateur reviewers and the hotels or restaurants they visit.

“I’m going to review them anyway,” Newman said, “so why not let them know in advance? It’s not hurting anyone.”

No one, that is, except businesses that face the implicit threat of a negative review if they don’t lavish special attention on the ReviewerCard holder.

No one except review sites like Yelp that find themselves being used as leverage for an unaffiliated reviewer’s personal gain.

No one except readers of ReviewerCard holder reviews who may not know that the reviewer received preferential treatment to ensure a glowing write-up.

No one except other customers who may have had to wait longer for a table or couldn’t get a room because they didn’t have the temerity to make the upfront threat of a scathing online takedown.

“It’s not a threat,” Newman insisted. “It’s a way to get the service you deserve.”

OK, let’s back up a bit.

Newman describes himself as a lifelong entrepreneur. He said he started his first business, a carwash, at age 14. He later established hockey camps. In the 1990s, he launched a social-networking site.

“I don’t want to say it was the first Facebook, but it was,” Newman said. “Even though it bombed.”

He now primarily does marketing for dental offices.

It was during a trip to France last year that he had the brainstorm for ReviewerCard. As Newman tells it, he was at a restaurant ordering breakfast and was treated rudely by the waiter when he asked for green tea with his meal instead of ordinary tea.

Newman expressed his displeasure. He told the waiter that he planned to post a negative review on TripAdvisor.

“The next thing I knew, the waiter was back with the manager, who apologized and offered to pay for my breakfast,” Newman recalled.

Thus came his epiphany: “Why can’t waiters, hotel workers, concierges know that people are reviewers? If that French waiter had known at the beginning that I write a lot of reviews, he’d have treated me like Brad Pitt.”

To boost one’s chances of Pittness, ReviewerCard charges $100 for a black card that says, “ReviewerCard: I write reviews.” Flash your card, and the world’s your oyster.

At least that’s the idea. Newman said he carefully screens online card applicants. They have to demonstrate that they’ve posted numerous reviews on a variety of digital destinations. So far, Newman said, he’s issued about 100 cards to worthy seekers.

He’s also passed out about 400 more to travelers, bloggers, marketers and journalists who he thinks merit ReviewerCard status. I got one a couple of weeks ago. It’s sitting unused on my desk, where it will remain.

Newman provided examples of the ReviewerCard in action. He told me about the time he visited a hotel in Geneva where a room typically costs about 400 euros a night, or roughly $500 at the time.

“I took out my card and asked if I could pay 200 euros,” Newman said. “In return, I would write a great review on TripAdvisor. The woman at the hotel immediately said yes. It was a win-win for both of us.”

Yeah, but wasn’t he actually saying that he’d write a crappy review if he didn’t get that 50% discount?

“That’s one way of looking at it,” Newman replied. “But the threat would have been that if I didn’t get the rate, I’d write a one-star review. I was offering a five-star review.”

He also told me about the time he was among numerous people waiting for a table at a busy Chicago restaurant. He flashed his ReviewerCard and jumped to the head of the line.

Wasn’t that unfair to everyone else?

“That’s one way of looking at it,” Newman said. “I see it as letting the restaurant know that they should treat me good because I’m going to be writing a review.”

I asked if he discloses in his reviews that he seeks and receives special treatment from the businesses he writes about.

“No,” Newman acknowledged. “But that doesn’t change things. If the hotel is close to the train station or has a comfy bed, that’s why it’s getting a good review.”

This is, of course, wrong on many levels and is an example of how the culture of amateurism that was once one of the Internet’s more endearing qualities has become a free-for-all unburdened by any thought of ethics or moral integrity.

But it’s apparently legal, lawyers tell me. As long as a reviewer isn’t making explicit threats to harm a business, the implied shakedown of presenting a ReviewerCard probably won’t get anyone in trouble with authorities.

Newman hopes his ReviewerCard will become as influential as the American Express black card — a totem of the bearer’s clout and achievement.

I can only hope that businesses see it for what it is: a shameless bid to extract personal favors under threat of Internet ruin. I can only hope they politely inform ReviewerCard holders that they’re entitled to the same treatment as all other customers.

“I don’t know,” Newman said. “If a restaurant brings me free quesadillas and gets a good review for it, what’s the harm?”

That’s one way of looking at it.

David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com. ___

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