Behind the Scenes

The How and Why of Product Reviews

In today’s Behind the Scenes...

... let’s talk about the product review process. So — how do products end up being reviewed in the pages of GUNS Magazine or on our website?

Starting off, as a major national shooting magazine, we get lots of products to review. My home office has grown so cluttered with “stuff,” much of it still in the original shipping containers, that my highly competent and exceptionally attractive domestic assistant (also known as “wife”) is threatening to commit the ultimate act of spousal abuse: taking up professional yodeling.

One shelf in my “return box storage” closet at our Little Estate on the Prairie.

Many of our reviews take shape after a staff writer inquires if we are interested in coverage of product. Alternately, an editor has a cool new piece of kit or a gun he’ll want to review. With some new products, especially a big release from a major manufacturer, the PR folks will also reach out to writers and editors. In any case, the wordsmith receives his ‘care package,’ messes around with the gun or goodie for a while then writes the story. Shortly thereafter, the story package arrives and goes through the editing process before publication. I’m omitting many boring but necessary administrative steps in that process.

In nearly all cases, the review takes shape as the result of an existing relationship between the writer and manufacturer. Therein lies today’s “insider tip” for budding gun writers: work to build your network and forge personal bonds before begging for “free toys!’

Manufacturers get bombarded with folks wanting freebies. Before shipping anything, they look at who is making the request, their track record and that of the publication. To answer another common question: I can only think of a few times in my writing experience of 30+ years when coverage was overtly demanded. In nearly all cases, it is a “gentleman’s understanding” the publication will make a good faith effort to write a fair review of the product, but no guarantees.

How do you write a product review? One complaint I occasionally hear is, “All you do is talk up the nice stuff…tell us all the negatives!” It’s a legitimate question but there is some nuance involved.

First off, if a product is really terrible, you’ll probably never see a review. Trust me: it does happen. The whole project dies a quiet death after the writer realizes a gun or gadget is really just fecal material wrapped in gold foil. If you realize you’ve seen few or no reviews of the hot new Megablaster XL Pistol (with optional Laserphonic front sight, stereo Bluetooth speaker and integral can opener) in any publication or website, there is probably a reason. In a print magazine, why would we use (expensive) dead trees just to trash something when there are plenty of other good things available to talk about?

Most product reviews focus on highlighting the positives because people want to know why they should buy something rather than hear a laundry list of pet peeves from the writer. I do believe our reviews are reasonably objective if you read with a discerning eye rather than waiting for the writer to make an in-your-face statement such as, “this is overall a pretty good gun but the grip angle SUCKS!” There is too much of that type of click-bait opinion polluting our world today and I expect a trained, experienced writer to use bigger words and more finely honed rationale in crafting a review.

If the writer does say such things, he’d better have objective basis for the claim or enough literal ‘expert status’ that his mere opinion is gold. Fortunately, GUNS has such folks on staff — if John Taffin (and many others) makes such a statement, I can take him at his word!

But generally, they don’t.

Truthfully, there are very few utterly rotten products in the marketplace and simple capitalism will quickly bring those to an unceremonious end. For the rest we may agree or disagree on the merits but in the end, these judgments are mostly based on subjective opinion formed by life experiences. I also believe that “going negative” is low-hanging fruit; anyone can find fault based on their own prejudices but it’s more difficult to find legitimate positives.

I basically want to see honest opinion, not puffery, or alternately a vicious hatchet job, but it takes a good writer to wade coherently through the murky waters between those two extremes.

Do we get to keep stuff? Sometimes. In most cases, especially involving expensive items such as guns or scopes, the manufacturer expects to see the item returned in like-new shape. We do get discounts and occasionally a manufacturer will specifically gift something to the writer as a goodwill gesture but it happens less than you think. Plus, once you’ve been writing for years and reach the level of “playing in the big leagues,” free stuff loses some of its luster.

It’s kinda like offering a barber a new pair of scissors: the gesture is absolutely appreciated but he already has lots of good haircutting gear.

With that I’ll conclude our short explanation of the How and Why of product reviews. Now I have to go work — heading to the range to shoot somebody else’s gun and ammunition.

Yes, I use the term “work” pretty loosely!