The Voice of a Blogger

I’m gonna say exactly what I think!

For some time now, I have been wondering if I should write to fragrance companies to get on their press list. This might be an easy decision for some – after all, you would be invited to press releases specifically for bloggers, receive samples of releases that have yet to be launched as well as numerous other freebies. Yet I – and perhaps some of my fellow bloggers – value having my own independent voice and being able to write my own honest opinions on a fragrance, without having to worry about offending some brand and being black marked for it. Just recently, Persolaise penned a thought-provoking piece titled ‘Who Do You Work For? – Thoughts on Blogs and Perfume Criticism’, where he made extremely valid, relevant and incisive remarks on the state of independent writing with regard to perfume criticism.

I have no doubt we’re still years away from a time when impartial fragrance reviews are a regular feature of mainstream media; I think most of us are resigned to that sad fact. But I’m aware that many of us net-based scentusiasts had hoped the internet would be the site where honest, independent voices could flourish and gain legitimacy. I’m now beginning to wonder if these hopes were unfounded. Yes, there’s still plenty of excellent fragrance writing on the blogosphere, the audience for which appears to be growing. But the “climate of fear” alluded to by James seems to have affected the output of several online writers, to the extent that quite a few are unwilling to write about a scent in negative or extreme terms… presumably because they’re worried about being struck off a brand’s press list and not receiving freebies any more.

– Persolaise

I have considered that it might be possible for a blogger to both remain honest about his/her views while being on the press list of a certain company. After all, most bloggers do leave some sort of ‘qualification’ on their blogs that they are not obliged to write reviews about samples they are sent, nor are they obliged to write positive reviews. Yet when the freebies and perks become of a significant scale, to the extent that bloggers seem to be paid to write good reviews, it remains highly questionable if what they write is really true to how they really feel about a perfume.

I also echo Persolaise’s thought that everyone on the internet has the right to publish what they see fit, “even if this means acting as an extension of a brand’s or a retailer’s PR machine”. But what this really means is that it becomes harder for the reader to sift through and distinguish between reviews that are a genuine reflection of the reviewer’s thoughts and reviews that aren’t perhaps as honest or transparent. This would be fine if readers only want evocative, raving reviews of perfume. But for the large part, I believe readers can discern when a glowing review is warranted and when it is not. So the question is: should a blogger compromise his/her independence and credibility for the perks that might be

It so happens that I was out shopping at Harvey Nichols in London today (in the perfumery section, of course) when I happened to strike up a conversation with Monsieur F (name changed to protect his privacy), who works as a trainer for a British company that distributes niche fragrances. Over the course of our conversation, I let slip that I was a perfume blogger, to which he responded by asking if I was on the press list of certain brands. He also informed me that the best way to get onto a brand’s press list is by writing a favourable review of one of their fragrances and tweeting it to them in order to let them know of my existence and potential as a reviewer. I replied that I didn’t want to get on any brand’s press list as yet, until I had sorted out the impact that doing so would have on my credibility and independence as a perfume blogger.

And then Monsieur F said something (and I thank him for his candid honesty) that really stuck with me, and which I reproduce ad libitum: “These bloggers, they start out with their ideals, and they want their own voice, but eventually they all give in… especially when you have big companies like Hèrmes inviting them to exclusive press releases and handing out beautiful goodie bags…” [As a fragrant aside, we also talked about Maison Francis Kurkdjian’s Absolue Pour Le Soir and how terribly ‘naughty’ and filthy it was].

If being on a brand’s press list means that I’m setting myself up for potential tensions in the future that might cause me to compromise on my writing, then I’m happy to be off them, even if this means that I’ll have to wait, like the average reader, for a perfume to be launched before I try it, and even if it means that my reviews of a new release come out weeks after everyone else’s has. I’m happy to retain my independent voice, be able to speak what’s honestly on my mind and be humorously irreverent when the occasion calls for it, even if this means that I’ll have to slowly hunt down the perfumes that I want to try, and even if it means that I end up reviewing perfumes that are ‘old’ or ‘passé’ (they never grow old or passé, just so you know). After all, I’m not anyone special or of any particular importance in the perfume industry – I’m just a regular guy like all of you are, who decided sometime back that it would be fun and nice to jot down my honest thoughts about the perfumes I encounter, whether good or bad (obviously, with some degree of subjectivity – it’s just one person’s opinion, after all). And I’m most certainly not an extension of a brand’s PR department, because if I really wanted to work in PR, I’d be earning money for my writing. No, this blog is as much a personal archive and journal of my scented journey as it is for everyone’s reading pleasure. It is a record and testimony of the privilege that I have of being able to enjoy things using my sense of smell. And it is my sincere hope that this independence and credibility that I value as a writer will equally be valued by the good people who read my blog.

~ The Smelly Vagabond

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35 thoughts on “The Voice of a Blogger

  1. Dear Vagabond, thank you for this thought provoking article about a subject that seems to surface more and more often.

    I can answer from my own experience and from where I stand on this. Since we have made our policy to write only about what moves us, arouses our curiosity or inspires us, we rarely focus on the negative aspects of a certain fragrance. We might, however, point out the weaknesses in a fragrance we enjoy.

    As for companies, we have been quickly disinvited from events as soon as we stated we didn’t feel obliged to write a positive review (or a review at all) about it, we have also been disinvited from a trip to Uruguay after making the same disclaimer to the company. All of them, as you might imagine, are big companies. They would rather invite people who will just copy their press blurbs than people who don’t guarantee glowing praise.

    If I want a trip to Uruguay, I can afford it; same goes for perfume bottles or other gifts. I wouldn’t dream of attending an event in exchange for gifts. Like you said, “if I really wanted to work in PR, I’d be earning money for my writing”. I feel no obligation towards any company but don’t want to be destructive either. If there’s something I don’t like, I will probably ignore it. I don’t fathom myself a critic, just someone who is passionate about fragrance and likes to write about it.
    In the end, isn’t it always obvious -at least to us- when a blogger or journalist has a paid relationship with a company?

    Cheers,

    Caro

    • Dear Caro,

      It is great to hear about your experiences regarding this matter, and I’m glad that you’re so upfront about it with your readers. I think it’s really up to the individual blogger as to what they choose to focus on, and your policy does make sense to me – after all, why bring any sort of publicity at all to a bad fragrance? For me, however, I think I will continue to write negative reviews of fragrances because I do like poking fun and being irreverent!

      And you’re absolutely right, I think readers will be able to tell when someone has a paid relationship with a company; I just wish they would be more upfront about it though.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

      • I think transparence is essential whether one chooses to focus on the nice bits, write about feelings, try to be as technically objective as possible or just copy press blurbs.
        Thank YOU for bringing up this always current subject.

        C.

    • I agree Caro. I would not waste my time writing about something that did not move me but would advise any weak points of a ‘fume that did. But I see myself as a writer on the subject rather than a critic a la Turin or Kafka.

      • A place for everyone? Indeed, even the haiku writers! The diversity of genre within perfume writing is amazing. There are even bi-lingual posts Caro, which I love as these highlight the fact that English is not the only language in the world. I think your site really contributes to the world-wide conversation.

  2. Well said! I fully agree with you, my dear Vagabond. I was honest in my recent review of Puredistance Black (which was sent to me by the company), and how much I loathed parts of it. I wrote of an experience that was light days apart from that of other bloggers, though I personally think that everyone actually had something quite dissimilar to each other at the end of the day.

    What struck me is that I was essentially told by one blogger that my view was not the “right” one as compared to everyone else. Ignore the fact that this is all a subjective expression of personal opinion, ignore even the role of skin chemistry. Apparently, there is a “right” and a “wrong” view, as well as a majority crowd. Which begs the question, how much are people influenced by what their peers write? Forget the pressure to remain on a perfume house’s list, what about hiding your problems with a scent because all your peers and fellow bloggers are raving about it?

    For me, I see my first responsibility as being honest for my *READERS,* and not to serve the perfume house. I order and pay for the vast majority of my samples anyway, so it doesn’t matter much to me in the end if I piss off Ormonde Jayne or someone else with a bad review. (And, believe me, I have written sharply critical things on a number of the OJs sent to me.)

    So, yeah, I agree with you. Keep on being independent, being honest, and being critical when it is warranted.

    • Dear Kafkaesque,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences! I think it’s hilariously ridiculous that someone else told you that your view was not the ‘right’ one, as though one’s personal opinion can be ‘wrong’. I applaud you and am really glad that you stick by your own viewpoint even in the midst of peer pressure. I think it’s really silly if in a debate everyone agreed with one another; likewise, if everyone had the same viewpoint all the time, we’d be better off as robots!

      I’d like to add as well that on top of our responsibility to our readers, we have a responsibility to ourselves as well – if I originally set out to write reviews that reflected my own thoughts, I would be betraying my own integrity as a writer. And yes! I can definitely take what you write as your own, because I find that your views tend to be so different from everyone else’s! 🙂

    • And in this case the perfume house, Puredistance still provided a link to Kafka’s review on their own website under News. They also quoted part of his review along with the other reviews that were more enchanted with the fragrance called Black. I think it is always good to have more than one opinion on the table, preferably several.

      • Haha, yes, they did, Jordan, but they only quoted one single line about how people should try it for themselves to make up their own minds, given the wide divergence in experience. The rest of the review was far too negative to be quoted. *grin*

      • If we see things from a company’s point of view, I don’t see any reason for them to include negative reviews, as this won’t help them with their sales, so I don’t blame them for selecting the reviews they want to feature. I am only dismayed by the extent to which some companies may go to secure only positive reviews – again, this might just be purely business for them but there is something diabolical about striking a blogger off a press list just because they state that they are not obliged to write positive reviews. And if we see things even more negatively, these companies are effectively being insidious in pretending that an ‘independent’ voice has given them a good review, when in fact the voice isn’t independent at all!

  3. I was very interested by your thoughts, and I have heard reports of the goody bags that get passed out at press events, and thought it was no wonder that so many ordinary perfumes get extraordinary write-ups. I would be interested in your thoughts about another aspect of this question: blogs that won’t allow any honest criticism of indie perfumes, for fear of hurting small start-up companies. After two years of sampling indie perfumes I have come across a couple of loves, and a lot that are nowhere near worth buying. As I see it, they are on the market for money, often a good bit of money, and if they are bad, they should be as subject to savaging as all the others. I have been induced by glowing copy to spend money on indie perfumes that were no better than the aromatherapy stuff, and I don’t resent the perfume company for trying to make money but I do resent the flowery prose about something that the reviewer just had to know wasn’t that good. Am I missing some important aspect of this? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

    • Dear FeralJasmine,

      I am sorry to hear that you have been unduly influenced by someone’s glowing review to spend money on perfume that’s no better than ‘aromatherapy’. I could launch into a whole post about naturals and the skill required to make them proper perfumes instead of just a conglomeration of aromatherapy oils, but that’s for another day. I don’t personally hold myself to that rule, because if I don’t like something, I’ll say so, even if it’s an indie brand (you could refer to my post on Sentifique’s Testostérone!). But I think some bloggers would prefer not to criticise an indie brand because what they write could have a horrible impact on their sales, especially indie brands that rely on word-of-mouth to be recognised on the market. They choose instead to just not feature the perfume at all, which is really up to them. One example that some people have pointed out was Luca Turin’s harsh criticism of almost the entire Mona di Orio range, which some say affected them quite badly, given his standing in the perfume community. But it’s most important to remember that the reviews we read are really just one person’s view. Equally important, we might do justice to our wallets and purses if we sample perfumes before buying them! (I am sometimes guilty of not following that rule, sigh.)

      Long point made short, however, I do agree with you that even when it comes to indie brands, we bloggers ought to be honest about what we write.

  4. Personally, I agree with you, though I can certainly see why some bloggers prefer/are willing to get closer to the purveyors in exchange for exclusive access or other perks. My blog is so tiny, I was actually really surprised when a company first wrote to me and asked me to accept a sample; it wasn’t that hard to say no (though I did stop to think) because I prefer to review what I want the way I want. My blog is just for my fun and the fun of any readers I happen to have, after all, and fortunately for me, I can afford to acquire (even just as a sample) whatever I’m sufficiently interested to smell.

    I think my thoughts on perfume also more accurately reflect the achievements of actual marketers. I’m not trying to provide “coverage”, I just smell (or write about) whatever interests me, so if sufficient press coverage exists and/or something interests me enough to write about it, that’s all the accomplishment the marketing dept. really needs, isn’t it? In that situation I don’t need to add to the coverage; adding an honest voice (to the extent that anyone cares – tiny readership!) to the internet must be valuable (or not) in and of itself.

    • Dear unseencenser,

      My blog is tiny, too! I’m glad to hear that your blog is for fun and for your readers, it’s a fantastic philosophy to write by, and I intend to keep it that way for The Smelly Vagabond as well. Oh, and by the way, I’m so glad that you’re commenting here because now I can subscribe for email updates for your blog 🙂

      I also agree wholeheartedly that adding an honest voice, however, small, to the internet, is valuable in and of itself. I think it’s also very clear when a blogger truly loves the perfume he/she is wearing because he/she has worn it for a long time, and I enjoy reading what they’ve learnt through their repeated wearings.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Well Mr Vagabond, I think website readers are perfectly capable of sorting out PR regurgitation from insight and experience. Those writers that are regurgitators presumably lose readership over time. I also think it there is no rush to review a new ‘fume. Much better to wait, wear it 3 or 4 times and let the juice unfold it’s secrets into your own voice of prose. There is also a similar article by Nafia Guljar called ‘Jo Malone and the Ugly Side of a Beauty Blogging’ which I will leave here as part of this conversation.

    http://confessionsofacreative.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/jo-malone-and-the-ugly-side-of-beauty-blogging/

  6. Here is the Puredistance News link that links to one negative review and several positive reviews. This company may be an exception to the situations that you are highlighting.

    http://www.puredistance.com/news/

    I find I write ‘about perfume subjects’ rather than endless ‘perfume reviews’. Therefore when I review something it is because I think it is either interesting, totally amazing or adds something to the perfume genre. Do people really want to read about dreck? Maybe they do but I do not want to write about it.

    Great discussion you have happening here Mr Vagabond. Now give me a haiku.

    • Dear Jordan,

      Thanks for the links! They are most certainly interesting to read. Regarding Puredistance, I think it’s great that they did actually link to Kafkaesque’s review, although to be fair to Kafkaesque, they only quoted the part about how people should try it for themselves. And the post on Jo Malone was fairly damning, even if I say so myself, but I liked it for its brutal honesty 🙂

      And yes, great discussion, I didn’t think my post, which was written less than two hours after my afternoon at Harvey Nichols, would provoke such strong sentiments!

      I’m glad you like my haikus, I have to confess that they are rather erratic as I can only write them down as and when inspiration strikes me. I sometimes wear a perfume for a few days to find that it doesn’t deliver any image worth writing about through the haiku form. One thing I do find is that with the haiku I don’t necessarily have to feel strongly about a particular perfume one way or the other, but somehow still get an impression of it that I try to capture through words, which can be interpreted personally by the reader. Ah, I love poetry! 😀

  7. That is how I started writing – I just wanted to share my thoughts on a perfume. My private, subjective thoughts. I don’t presume to give opinion on how truly good a perfume is (and neither do I have the knowledge to judge them professionally), I just want to share my love of them. Some I love, some I think are very interesting and some are plain awful but I don’t write about those because there’s not much to say. I rather spend the little time I have for writing, writing about things I like and love.
    That is also the explanation why there are basically no bad reviews on my blog.

    It’s fun receiving samples from companies but most of my reviews are about perfumes I procured myself. I feel that way there would be no sense of guilt in my mind if my opinion of a perfume I was sent was bad. And it’s not like I get that many samples either. 🙂 My social promotion skills are rusty. 😉 But I like them that way.

    I also agree with Jordan. I do think the majority of readers can tell by the tone of the text where the author is coming from with it.

    I apologize, it seems my comment is about everything and nothing. 🙂 It’s still morning without enough coffee for me. 😉

  8. Dear Vagabond,

    A really interesting discussion here! I’ve had personal experience very early on in my blogging adventure with regards to receiving a press kit from a company and it has shaped the way I’ve written since.

    I was really interested in the relaunch of a certain old British perfume house so I sent them a message on Facebook saying I was excited to smell the perfumes when I was next in London. They replied asking for my address and within a few days the most extravagant box of perfumes arrived, huge samples and one full bottle along with beautifully printed notes. I won’t lie, I’d hoped they’d send me something, (it was early days for my blog) but it hadn’t dawned on me until that point that I was obliged to write a good review, I’d never approached a company before and the overly generous box from the PR company made me feel pressured and uncomfortable.

    I made sure I tested all the perfumes fairly and I felt quite strongly that some of them were just not very good. With regards to writing critically, I tend to avoid doing it if I can. I’m not a very eloquent critic, I’m a writer and my essays are more full of descriptive imagery than critical analysis. If I’m not excited by a scent I find it really hard to write about. In the case of this press kit, I was a bit peeved that they were trying to buy me off, but I also didn’t want to leave the fragrances unwritten about. I felt like I should be honest to both parties. To the PR company (thank you for sending me perfume, here is what I think) and to anyone who might read my blog (this is a new launch, here is what I think.) I tried to write as fairly and constructively as possible, pointing out where the perfume fell down without slagging it off too extensively (although I could have!) because I wanted to create continuity in my blog and one critical review would stick out like a sore thumb.

    Needless to say I have most certainly been struck off that PR company’s list of ‘friendly’ bloggers and I don’t care one jot. I felt very uncomfortable with the whole thing and I have never approached a company since. I can see how the lure of free samples and invitations to press events can charm and bedazzle new bloggers into thinking that’s how you get ahead. I’m really glad I decided to put my writing first.

    Thanks for continuing this brilliant discussion,

    Susie. (Epiphany blog)

    P.S- interestingly, the piece about that perfume house is my most frequented post via search engines. So people are reading it. Or at least looking at it briefly. The PR company have not contacted me since 😉

    • Dear Susie,

      If a brand’s PR sets an expectation that they want only good reviews in return for the ‘gifts’ they send, it shows that they haven’t got any confidence in their product. I don’t get it – for almost everything else, such as film, classical music, or art, criticism is fair game, and writers don’t see any harm in being harsh in their reviews. The most critically-panned film sometimes ends up as the biggest summer blockbuster (well, perhaps that speaks more about people than anything). I don’t see how a negative review that is fair without getting personal should adversely affect sales terribly.

  9. What an interesting read. My own little perfume blog is just a few months old, so I see myself still very much as a reader of perfume and beauty blogs. And in that position I have to say that it does irk me a bit when suddenly everyone is reviewing the same perfumes because it’s then quite obvious that the samples have been provided by the companies. On the other hand those bloggers often share their samples or manage to get full bottles for a draw, and I’m certainly not complaining about that. It’s anyway a bit of a grey zone in the perfume world, because it is possible to get samples for free by writing to perfume houses without having or mentioning a blog. Some companies are just friendly…
    It’s a different story in the beauty blog world, where products are often not available in sample form, making blogging about them without being on a press list as very very expensive hobby.
    Would I be happy to be on a press list? Yeah, probably, but I’m not sure I’d stay on it very long.

    • Dear Sabine,

      I reckon I wouldn’t stay long on any press list if I ever considered getting myself on one! Perhaps one way we bloggers can tackle this issue is by being generous with one another? E.g. passing around samples or sending one another decants – I know some who are really generous, and it warms my heart whenever they do that.

      Thanks for your honest thoughts.

  10. Fascinating debate and one that chimes with me on a number of points. In particular, like FeralJasmine I feel similarly conflicted by the general ‘hands off’ approach by bloggers when it comes to small indie companies. I have made this very point in a discussion on a post about negative reviews on another blog, including my concern that readers of blogs might get swept away by the tidal wave of good reviews and make blind purchases of scents that they would later regret. It wouldn’t necessarily occur to people that because Bloggers C, F and H remained silent on this new release and didn’t review it, that that was because they didn’t rate it.

    I think Puredistance are a pretty fair company. I didn’t care for Opardu and told them so in an email. I didn’t do a negative review but was critical of it in comments on other bloggers’ glowing reviews. PD told me after the event that they were happy I didn’t review it badly but that it was entirely my prerogative either way.

    This is in stark contrast to two other new niche brands who expressly told me not to review their perfume if I didn’t like it. They went on to tell me that if I did like it I was not to say this or that about them personally – they were so keen to curate their image they were basically trying to hijack the editorial reins. One of these scents I like, one I didn’t, but so far I haven’t written about either, as I am feeling a bit cross.

    It’s a minefield, but I have figured out what feels right to my nose and my conscience on a case-by-case basis. Overall, I think beauty bloggers as a category are more guilty of this goody bag-grabbing mentality than their perfume counterparts, says she, generalising most sweepingly!

    • I am quite fascinated to hear that two different brands tried to tell you what you could and could not write. Did they really think that would work? And I am filled with morbid curiosity; what did they not want you to say about them personally?

    • Dear Vanessa,

      Thanks for stopping by my humble blog! It really takes two hands to clap. On one hand we have brands who want bloggers to write only favourable reviews of their perfumes, and on the other, we have bloggers who encourage this practice by agreeing to do so in exchange for goodies. Not only is the reader ‘scammed’, as FeralJasmine has pointed out, but the reputation of bloggers on the whole becomes tarnished, and that is perhaps why so many of us have spoken out against it.

      P.S. You probably shouldn’t write about those two scents at all 😀

      • After we’ve been at this perfume thing a while it’s much clearer who is or is not doing honest reviews, but the goody-baggers do scam beginners, which is a real shame. But I should add that at this point I’m able to read a variety of perfume blogs that give individual, opinionated, gloriously idiosyncratic, and honest reviews. This is a good thing, so hearty thanks to all of you who keep telling the truth as you see it.

  11. Dear Smelly Vagabond , I am a simple perfumelover and reading only one blog (Bois de Jasmin, which I like very much)–reading more of them takes too much of my time. Nevertheless, I think this discussion is of big interest (I have no opinion) and deserves more attention. So I was reading more on your blog, and will suscribe as one of your followers.(excuses for my English, not my best language).

    • Dear Cornelia,

      Thank you for reading my blog. I think it’s great to read more than one view on any fragrance, but at the end of the day, trust your nose! Nothing wrong with only reading one blog if you don’t have the time 🙂

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