Death of the Critic

Some background on this might be helpful. There was an incident a couple years ago in which a video game reviewer was fired for lambasting a game that was heavily advertised on the same site that published him. Evidently, it came down to this powerful (and monied) advertiser walking, or the reviewer losing his job. As a business decision, you can see how it makes sense, but it makes the actual review site look like they have zero credibility.

With that in mind, I wrote this piece on December 7, 2007. Entitled “Death of the Critic,” it is a somewhat facetious take on the issue, using toilet paper as a metaphor for video games. Some might argue the comparison isn’t far off! Someone besides me, that is. I like video games just fine! It would just be nice to see more integrity in the field of video game reviews. Unfortunately, impartial reviews are becoming a thing of the past.

Anyway, I’ll spare you the lamentation. On with the actual writing!

Death of the Critic

Joe stood anxiously in his supervisor’s office. Joe, you see, was a consumer product reviewer at a major magazine. He’d been reviewing household products for five years. He had five criteria with ten-point scales: reliability, ease of use, quality, eco-friendliness, and value. He’d never been questioned by his superiors on his material before. Not until today.

Rick, his boss, let out a sigh. He was holding the latest issue which had, by all accounts, passed editorial review. Already on newsstands. Joe didn’t know why he was standing here, but he knew it wouldn’t be good.

“Joe, what product did you review this month?”

The words were difficult to choke out with a dry throat. “Eigen’s Weaved Toilet Paper,” he managed.

Rick opened the magazine to the page containing Joe’s review. “This is it, right?”

Joe nodded.

Rick flipped to the next page. “And what’s this?”

Joe started to go a little pale. “A full-page ad for Eigen’s Weaved Toilet Paper.”

“Exactly.” Rick leaned back in his Aeron and folded his arms. “Joe, we have certain obligations around here. Who do you think pays your salary?”

“The subscribers?” Joe guessed.

Rick smirked. “No, Joe. Not the subscribers. The advertisers. Subscription revenue is a drop in the bucket compared to what our sponsors pay. Now, how do you suppose our sponsors feel to see their products savaged in the magazine they paid good money to advertise in?”

“I wouldn’t exactly say ‘savaged.’”

Rick flipped back to Joe’s review and quoted a passage. “‘Using Eigen’s Weaved Toilet Paper was an ordeal, to say the least. I have no empirical research to back this up, but I imagine wiping my ass with a petrified pine cone would be a less painful experience. After three uses of this poor excuse for toilet paper, I went through an entire container of Tuck’s pads. If this tripe is ‘weaved,’ then it must have been weaved out of bamboo. I’ve never chafed so much in my life.’ That’s one paragraph, Joe. You have a serious tone problem here.”

“I was just trying to give an honest review.”

“People don’t want honesty, Joe, they want comfort. They want consistency. You know what’s not consistent? Seeing your extremely derogatory review, then turning the page and seeing a contradictory full-page spread. It’s confusion. It’s madness.”

“I think our readers are smart enough to distinguish magazine content from advertising.”

“What are you talking about? The advertising is the content! The articles, the crap you and the rest of the writing team insert every other page, it’s filler. We’d fill the pages with nothing but ‘lorem ipsum’ if we thought it’d sell copy.”

“You don’t understand, Rick. That toilet paper was vile! I couldn’t give a good review of it. My ass still hurts from it. It was awful.”

“It’s toilet paper, Joe. You know what people do with toilet paper? They wipe their asses with it. Do you think they care what they’re wiping their asses with? No, they don’t. They want it cheap, they want it made of something resembling paper, and as long as it doesn’t clog up the toilet, everybody’s happy.”

“But more discerning customers would want–”

”‘Discerning customers?’ We’re not talking about Wall Street stock brokers, here. We’re talking about soccer moms with their brats in tow, looking for a bargain. What’re they going to remember when they see Eigen’s Weaved Toilet Paper? They’re going to remember your review. They won’t buy it. Sales will plummet. Eigen will consider their ad a failure. They will pull their advertising, and the sales department will have to spend weeks sweet-talking some other corporation into buying full-page ads. And what will you do then, Joe? Tear their product into pieces, too? Ninety-nine percent of everything is crap. That holy one percent is not being advertised between these covers. I expect my reviewers to pay extra attention to our triple-A products–the products advertised in here.”

“But by ‘extra attention’ you just mean we should softball them because they’re paying us, right?”

“Dammit, Joe, you just don’t get it. That’s why I’m in charge, and you’re not. You don’t understand business.”

“I would think people want an honest–”

“Fuck honesty, Joe. You know what’s honest? You’re fired. Clean out your desk.”

Joe didn’t say another word.

Commentary: Overall, I’m not too dissatisfied with this. The ending is kind of abrupt but that’s because I didn’t want to belabor the point. It’s not a very long piece of writing, just long enough to communicate the two points of view involved. I think both are valid, to a point. A business exists to make money, a critic exists to provide a more or less objective view of a given artifact. Sometimes, the two can’t easily coexist due to conflicts of interest. Nevertheless, I would rather see a business take it in the pocketbook than sacrifice their integrity–an intangible which is often worth a lot more than any money an advertiser would be throwing at them.

In general, I don’t have too many problems with how I wrote this, except that Joe’s boss isn’t the least bit sympathetic. Given that this was intended as a satire, it’s not the worst thing in the world, but I’m concerned his POV might be overselling it.