Confessions of a (Prior) Sponsored Hiker

There was a time when I sought out discounts from cottage manufacturers and outright sponsorships. I had some experience in the outdoors so why not capitalize on this? I essentially thought it was cool to get gear at a discount or outright free. Perhaps I felt validated in some way that a gear manufacturer would offer me items for use. But at what cost? I had no obligation to provide positive reviews in any way, but let's be real. If I am getting free gear then there is an inherent pressure to provide positive feedback; otherwise, the free gear pipeline would probably get cut off. What company would continually sponsor a representative if that representative pointed out flaws in this same gear? Reality check: if one is getting free gear, a review of that gear is inherently biased, despite the good intentions of the user.

A recent brouhaha on a certain forum concerning a review of a certain item highlighted this conundrum. The reviewer in question had no problem advertising their affiliations with companies, to the extent that their forum avatar was a conglomeration of company logos listed as sponsors. 10 years ago I thought this was cool, but now I'm looking at this from a different angle. I no longer want, nor would accept, sponsorship from any outdoor gear manufacturer (besides, why would anyone seek to sponsor an aged average dude who hikes a little?). I carefully research gear that might fit my needs, then purchase an item based on this research, then use it. If it lives up to my expectations, falls short, or exceeds them, then I may choose to write about it so that another person doing internet research can gather more information before they decide on a purchase. In my research I am seeking user experience, not "unboxing videos",  from people who paid for this item with their hard earned cash and have actually used the item for a period of time, enough to validate their opinions. Even then, people have a propensity to justify their purchase. Who wants to admit that they spent $X on something that failed real world use? Human nature pressures a reviewer to justify their purchase. It takes a well adjusted, down to earth individual to admit that they spent money on something that failed them.

There is an exception: people who do extraordinary things, who are at the top of their class, who through their very actions stand out in a crowd. These people may accept sponsorships from companies because it allows them to continue pushing boundaries and generally standing out in their fields of endeavors. They draw attention because of their actions, and for this companies will sponsor them because just wearing their clothing or using their gear will benefit the company from the exposure.  Generally speaking, this outstanding athlete will not usually write a review of this gear; it's enough that they are using it. I would consider this a mutually beneficial arrangement: the athlete can continue their endeavors with less worry of expenditure, and the company gets exposure from the public endeavors of the athlete.

The "Pack Pose"....back to camera, cool overlook or background

The "Pack Pose"....back to camera, cool overlook or background

Maybe not so in the less lofty blogging world. I recently visited a website of a representative of a certain company and checked their gear reviews, many of which were of their sponsor(s). The photos incorporated in these reviews were transparent: Here I am at this cool overlook, take a picture of me so this pack will be prominent in the photo, preferably with my back turned to the camera as I contemplate the wonder before me. And again. And again. Plus this blogger did not make the association with the sponsor evident in each post, unless the reader clicked for expanded information. The FCC has laid out guidelines that are available to anyone searching online, but here is one example:

A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or “blog” where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. Because his review is disseminated via a form of consumer-generated media in which his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious, readers are unlikely to know that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact likely would materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge.

So, if a blogger is given an item free or charge, or even discounted, the blogger is required by the FCC to make this relationship known in each instance, clearly and conspicuously. Therein lies the aforementioned brouhaha about a gear review....this relationship was not made evident in the review, despite the company being listed as one of their sponsors in a side bar. Perhaps the blogger paid full price? Perhaps a discount? How can the reader know, if the blogger does not offer up the information?

When I received free or discounted gear from a company, I felt an inherent pressure to somehow showcase this gear.  Luckily for me, in retrospect I can say that I didn't skew my review(s) toward the positive. The gear worked, and worked well. In fact, to this day I still use some of this gear that is towards 10 years old. In one post I actually said "I don't use gear that sucks", after my disclaimer of course. But I have to say, the relief of just buying gear at market prices, or at advertised discounts available to everyone, is palpable. I no longer think about pix or video when I'm on a hike, bike or ski, that might showcase the free gear I got. Now, if I like it I write about it, but only because I want to help on line researchers in their purchasing decision making. And I really like to promote US based manufacturers of quality outdoor gear. I'll spend more to buy Beyond Clothing, because it's stitched in the US and it's damn good gear. I'm a fan of Zimmerbuilt, ZPacks, Enlightened Equipment and Borah Gear. Mountain Laurel Designs has an excellent reputation. There's some great stuff out there and people should know about it that take the time to research. If I post about gear now, I have no sponsorship bias. I gladly pay full price (or advertised discounts) for quality gear, especially if it's made in the US. And if it works for my usage, then I'll write about it with the intent of helping people in their gear decisions. When I research, I consider if the reviewer is sponsored by a company and decide for myself if the review is biased because of this association. And when I come across the "Pack Pose" I can't help but chuckle.