During my recent car-shopping odyssey I discovered an entertaining BBC television program called "Top Gear" that really has no American equivalent. I can't claim to be an expert on the show, having watched a motley of video clips on YouTube, downloaded a number of complete shows from iTunes, and read the show's entry in Wikipedia. But I think I notice in the evolution of the show a general phenomenon that's familiar: reviewer creep. In the early days of the show, the main presenter (an "everyman" stand-in—he's originally meant to represent you, that is, the viewer, only with special access to cars and plenty of time to evaluate them) is to be found presenting sober evaluations of ordinary road cars of the sort most people buy. Along the way he tosses in some bon mots and good jokes in an appealing way. By the mid-2000s the number of presenters had increased to three, and on one episode the three can be found arguing heatedly over which £90,000 car is the best; the main presenter, having become a rich television star whose personality has become the point of most of the shows, has at that time just bought a Lamborghini Gallardo, a car most of his viewers have most likely never seen, much less driven, much less own. He's observed on the episode in question grumbling that an Aston-Martin with a V-8* just doesn't have adequate power. This while tearing along a road on the Isle of Man that the police have helpfully closed to traffic so he can drive fast for the cameras.
It's a typical arc, one you can detect at work in a great many fields. People tend to be most interested in gear at the level at which they themselves can contend. But reviewers are people for whom the natural hierarchy gets thoroughly subverted. They begin as "real people"—"real" in this sense meaning representative; that is, representative of the audience. But inevitably they get spoiled; they have opportunities that typical audience members never have; they can justify playing their particular game at a very high level, and then they are no longer representative—typical—at all. Reviewers start out actually caring about the things most people want to buy, but the very fact that they're reviewers launches them up the connoisseur scale until their tastes are highly refined and their interest can't be piqued by anything but the very best. If they're successful reviewers (successful meaning influential), then manufacturers tend to shower them with products to test, and offer them purchasing discounts ordinary customers never enjoy. They get jaded about ordinary products and can't even work up much enthusiasm for products that for most people are out of reach.
One of my other longtime hobbies is audio, and "reviewer creep" can be seen much more nakedly in audio writing than in photography. In the 1960s, the godfather of subjective reviewing, J. Gordon Holt, called a certain nicely-made mass-market box speaker that sold for a few hundred dollars "essentially perfect." By the late '80s, the editor of the magazine Holt founded called a $3,300 two-way mini-monitor "very expensive for a speaker this size"—shortly before he himself acquired a pair of even nicer two-way mini-monitors for $8,000. Nowadays, reviewers for the major magazines for the most part just can't get very excited about $8,000 loudspeakers at all. A recent enthusiast magazine has a cover blurb that says, "Lowest Priced Magico Yet! The V2 Loudspeaker." This low-priced wonder costs $18,000 a pair. That seems on the pricey side for six drivers in two boxes to me, but the question the reviewer poses in his opening paragraph is "...whether [Magico] can successfully translate the R&D that inspired its statement products...to an 'entry level' offering." Seems they were up to this dire challenge. At least he put "entry level" in quotes.
The exaggerated expectations of reviewers can sometimes lead to some unintentional hilarity in audio writing. I remember one review in which the reviewer recounted the difficulty of getting a very heavy, very expensive Class A amplifier up the stairs to his apartment—at which point the heat the behemoth generated became a practical problem, since the reviewer had to turn his window air-conditioner off in order to do his "critical listening." The picture of this poor fellow sweating away in his sweltering walk-up listening to an amp that was probably worth more than he was and that doubled as a heater was entertainingly vivid—especially since I lived in a hot, cramped city walk-up myself at the time.
In photography, I'm not sure we suffer much from reviewer creep. The reviewer best known for using expensive equipment is Michael Reichmann, but he's not an example of true reviewer creep—he's just a wealthy guy who'd naturally be using expensive cameras whether he wrote about them or not. They make sense for his work. I admit I hardly ever read camera reviews, so I don't really know which reviewers use what and why. Ironically, however, the problem in photography might not be the reviewers so much as certain readers! Not long ago I became aware of some bitter criticisms leveled at TOP because we supposedly only talk about "cheap toys." On some forum sites, apparently participants have to list the equipment they own as bonafides. I probably wouldn't qualify for those discussions.
Maybe we need a bit of reviewer creep around here.
We almost got a medium-format digital back for Ctein to wring out this summer, but that fell through. I've actually been trying to figure out what our next review series ought to be. I'd been planning on evaluating some small cameras, but maybe we harp on that too much already—perhaps what's most needed is a series on mainstream cameras—bestsellers of the sort most of our readers use.
I have to admit I wouldn't know what to do with a Lamborghini Gallardo. I don't think there's a single road in the town I live in where I could legally get it out of second gear.
*The last time a bestselling car in the U.S. had a V-8 option was in 1996, when you could get one in a Ford Taurus.
Send this post to a friend
Note: Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site. More...
Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Tim Bradshaw: "'Top Gear' is about cars in roughly the same way that Moby Dick is about whales."
Featured Comment by Dennis: "Reviewer creep! What a great term! I like the subtle association between review and creep. (Oh, was that unintentional?) [Nothing is unintentional. —Ed.]
"Remember 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'? 'Hi, I'm Robin Leach. I'm shouting at the top of my lungs and I don't know whhhyyyyyy!' I can see where such a show is more about entertainment than information. And when it comes to audio gear, while reviewer creep is obvious in what the reviewers say about the high end gear, there has to be an audience out there that wants to read about high end gear. Whether for entertainment, something to drool over, or because hobbyists spend a small fortune on audio gear compared to camera gear.
"Where I think the biggest difference lies between photography and auto/audio is the (relative) lack of a luxury market. Certainly an $8000 DSLR in the hands of a doctor or lawyer who does photography on the weekends is a luxury, but the camera wasn't designed as a luxury item; it was designed for professional. It would be like owning a delivery truck for running your garbage to the transfer station, rather than owning a Lamborghini. Our objects of desire are better than the objects we own because they're 'dust and weather sealed.' How sexy is that??? There's Leica, of course. But within a class of cameras, you don't have choices from dirt cheap entry level to you have to be a Syrian prince. If you like compact digicams, they range up to $500 ($1000 for the Ricoh GXR). If you like the new EVIL cameras, they range from practical $500 models to practical $1000 models. DSLRs see a wide variance up to top-of-the-line professional models at $8000. So we creep, but we have limited dynamic range."
Featured Comment by Ed Kirkpatrick: "Have you ever noticed the phenomenon of Comment Creep? It's when there are lots of comments and we don't always read them all before we put in our two cents worth. This tends to cause duplication and redundancies in the comments. I was sure to read all the way to the end before making this comment. And by the way, did you see the 'Top Gear' shows on the Bugatti Veyron? They tried to see just how fast it would go on a closed track...pretty amazing."