Got a package today from Other World Computing (www.macsales.com) with an external hard drive adapter for me to test. It'll likely figure prominently in (probably) my next column. Accompanying it was a letter suggesting I keep the adapter after I tested it. I looked at the invoice and it was only a $40 item, so I said to myself, "Cool!"
Different realms of the review business have different customs about this. The two I'm familiar with are (personal) computer stuff and photography stuff. The former went from one extreme to the other. In the very early days of computer magazines pretty much anything went. Partly that was because it was a very casual, cozy group and gigabucks were not yet involved; partly because probably less than 100 people were responsible for 90% of the important stuff that was happening. You couldn't swing a cat at a gathering of journalists without hitting three people who were involved in important startups.
Eventually the bucks got much bigger, and serious conflicts of interest surfaced. Some very, very bad reviews got published. The magazines realized they needed to get their act in order and so it became total hands off, no business connection of any sort between writers and the products they review, past or present, and definitely no freebies (beyond innumerable coffee mugs).
The $100 rule
For at least 30 years in the photography writing business, stuff under $100 you got to keep. Stuff over $100 you sent back. Partly moral, partly practical. Few people were likely to compromise their reputation, ethics, and future income for <$100. Few manufacturers wanted <$100 items back; they told us explicitly that for what it would cost them to restock they'd rather we threw them out. It's still a pretty good rule of thumb. It's also kept the business pretty honest (there are exceptional individuals, both saints and sinners).
Hardly any publications purchase the products we test. Contrary to some readers' fears, manufacturers do not try to game the system; we don't get cherry-picked goods. Believe me, with all the quality control problems I've seen over the years, I can assure you of that! Kodak one sent me a scanner with a cracked filter (in all fairness, it'd been to a lot of trade shows). Beseler once sent me an electronic enlarger whose power supply caught fire in my darkroom!
A standard perk is that most manufacturers will sell you a product that you tested at the dealer or internal company price if you want it. This does not incline anyone to write more favorable reviews (there's no incentive to buying a product you don't really like) but it's induced many of us to keep an eye out for products that we think we might like.
Online reviewing practices seem a little different. An unusual percentage of the reviewers are wealthy enough to be able to purchase any products they test (back in the days of just paper publications, the phrase "wealthy reviewer" was an oxymoron). Some of them won't even accept products directly from the manufacturer to be reviewed; they insist on buying on the street. Good for them. No harm done, but in my opinion not usually necessary either.
On occasion there are real slipups, though. We narrowly avoided one at Camera & Darkroom in the early '90s. I got an excited call from my editor:
Dan (not the real name): Ctein, how would you like a studio strobe setup?
Me: Sure, what's up?
Dan: StrobEx (also not a real name) just called me and offered to provide all our senior reviewers with studio strobe kits.
Me: I could definitely use one. What's it going to cost?
Dan: That's the great part; they're free. All they ask in return is that when we write articles and we include any studio shots, we mention that we used their strobe unit.
(Modest pause at my end while I think of a delicate way to respond, because Dan is really, innocently excited about this.)
Me: We can't accept them.
Dan: Why not?! (Slightly plaintive note in his voice)
Me: (with great gentleness) Dan, have you ever heard the word "payola?"
I could hear Dan's face falling across several hundred miles of phone line.
Of course, we didn't accept the strobe units.
Scruples are such a burden.