Separating propaganda from reality.

One of the first things I learned in graduate school was that when conducting an investigation, one had to consider the possibility that a person who seemed to be a kind of “objective observer” was really a propagandist, whether he or she realized it or not! In the FromPyrgos post entitled, “The Future, and An Apology,” the author, Mr. Ross, begins with this quotation from a spokesperson for Estee Lauder:

In the beginning we were nervous about the blogs. As with any new media, there were mixed emotions . . . Now we could never think of launching a fragrance without contacting the bloggers.

In this New York Times article Mr. Ross quoted, we are also told that:

[Estee Lauder] engages in dialogues with critics, she said, and advertises some of its fragrances on sites like Now Smell This.

You can read the entire article here:

Doesn’t this sound like these companies simply don’t want to “get on the bad side” of the blogs? In any case, this was published in April, 2008, so an obvious question (though perhaps not to Mr. Ross) is, where can we see the “major influence” of the blogs? What has occurred since then that demonstrates clearly the power that fragrance blogs supposedly possess? Mr. Ross has also claimed that not all fragrance blogs are “powerful,” but he doesn’t specify which ones he thinks are! Presumably, he thinks he has a lot of “power,” or else there wouldn’t be a need for an apology, would there? Fortunately, the spokesperson provided a clue in this statement:

…critics like Robin Krug of Now Smell This, who said she has around 10,000 hits a day…

This isn’t exactly a fine example of research skills, that is, assuming that what a blogger claims about his or her readership is accurate, but to me what’s most interesting is what we can conclude if true. I once wrote a post about the different kinds of reviews one might encounter on the internet, and I mentioned the NST blog. In particular, I pointed out that their reviews are often rather “middle or the road” (don’t remember the exact terminology) and that rarely do they compare the scent in question to others, ones that many if not most of their readers might have already tried. In short, being a reader of NST for years now, I can’t say anything I’ve read there has been especially compelling, in terms of prompting me to be willing to pay a few dollars for a sample, let alone buy a bottle, but if anyone has evidence of what he or she thinks is a major “NST effect,” please let us know! In general, shouldn’t everyone be asking, where is the evidence that any blog can have a major effect in this context?

The amusing thing is that I have seen some limited effects first hand, apparently. For example, I once posted on about new bottles of Patou Pour Homme on ebay (I think they were selling for a bit more than $300 each, for 90 ml), because the seller had a large stock, and not long after that post the bottles had sold out. Thus, I am certainly not arguing against this kind kind of possibility, which strikes me as clearly “minor,” but instead I am arguing that the “industry giants” are not likely paying much attention to blogs or sites like Fragrantica or Basenotes in a specific way. How could they? What would they conclude? That at least a small number of people really like Creed, for instance, and at least a small number of people really hate them?

I could have addressed this NYT article in my last post but I decided that it was “complete” as it was, and also long enough for a blog post. However, the same questions are worth asking. And perhaps the most “common sense” point to be made here is that there seem to be two possibilities: either a small number of blogs are very influential, in which case we need to see evidence of it as well as to have those blogs named (which Mr. Ross did not do), or that there are many with some influence. In the latter case, I would argue that the industry couldn’t do much about the situation because there is so much diversity of opinion. The differences in opinion just in terms or Mr. Ross and myself are vast, and certainly not just on this topic !

Instead, the most a company could do, it seems, is to “bash” particular blogs that contain negative reviews of scents they are trying to sell, in an attempt to discredit the site. However, as probably everyone knows by now, if you speak about a blog (in any way) you are likely generating more readers for it. Only if the blog was “major” would it possibly make sense to bash it, and if this has occurred, where is the evidence for it? Instead, this NYT article does what Mr. Ross has done, which is to blur the lines between books by Luca Turin and Chandler Burr (as well as his NYT column) and blogs. Unless the claimant can distinguish between these two possible sources of influence, there is no reason to argue that: “Fragrance blogs have always been a force in the industry,” as Mr. Ross does! Sure, a small number of sales are made (or aren’t made that would have been) by some reviews, or even comments to log posts, but why does Mr. Ross think there is much more involved?

In fact, the Estee Lauder spokesperson herself said:

A perfume like Poison, from Dior, is especially polarizing to bloggers…

Need one say more? My guess is that people like this want more than anything else for a scent to be “polarizing” (in terms of internet discussion) because it means a whole lot of people are going to want to try it, and that’s all they can really hope for, in terms of “internet buzz.” I have seen this with Kouros on Basenotes in the past, that is, because of the divergent reviews, many people will create a new posts with a title such as, “Finally got around to trying Kouros!” However, considering the huge number of bottles sold each year, we are back to the question I asked in my last post, which is, where is the evidence that this is something more than a tiny ripple in a vast ocean? By contrast, we have seen the industry create countless “flankers” of many popular scents (Chanel’s Allure line, Cool Water this, that, and the other, a bunch of CK Ones, the several Dior Homme variations, etc.), which suggests strongly that establishing a “big name” can is very profitable, presumably because less “informed” consumers have a “herd mentality.”

To get a better sense of what is more likely driving the industry and how the industry is trying to “ride the wave,” I suggest watching this documentary:

Lastly, the Now Smell This blog is worth examining specifically. There seem to be many more scent “introductions” than actual reviews there, for example, but readers are not told who chose to announce the release and why. For example, if I were to be contacted by a major company and asked if I would announce the release of a scent, I would ask bluntly, “why should I waste space here on that information? If I did, wouldn’t I be obliged to announce 1000+ other releases? Surely, you can’t expect me to bloat my blog with such ‘fluff,’ can you?” Moreover, I find that the comment section to NST’s reviews are usually more helpful than the reviews themselves, and of course there is often quite a bit of diversity of opinion. Overall, the idea that an online venue like NST can do the fragrance industry version of “herding cats” is not one I can take seriously, but again, if someone would like to actually present evidence I’d be happy to read it.

NOTE: To be clear, I am not suggesting that anyone is deliberately trying to be a propagandist. Rather, it seems that there is usually a strong desire to “put positive spin” on anything that could “go negative.” Where this sort of “spin” ends and propaganda proper begins is not a question I would even attempt to answer. However, to me the important thing to do is to always ask questions that seem to beg asking, such as why does a blog like NST choose to review certain scents but not others? In my case, I come across new scents in a variety of ways, sometimes, for instance, a person includes a sample in a swap. I then write up a blog post if I think there is something more to say than just a “basic” review, which you can find at Basenotes or Fragrantica – you certainly don’t need me or another blogger to do this, and in fact you can read hundreds of reviews I’ve written on those two sites alone. In the case of Estee Lauder scents specifically, I own several large bottles (Aramis, JHL, Devin, Mustang, Havana, Herbal 900, Lauder for Men, Metropolis, Cinnabar, White Linen) and hold this company in high regard, both in terms of quality and price.

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Filed under Criticizing the critics.

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