Many answers, one decision


Last week I wrote a short post in which I debated whether or not to accept a free car rental in exchange for a promise to write a post about my experience.  I had already made my decision before publishing (and had let the rental car company know), but I didn’t declare the decision in that post.  I wanted to to hear what readers thought without them being swayed by my decision.

One decision Silvercar

To my surprise, responses to the post flooded in through comments, emails, Facebook, and Twitter.  Readers expressed views varying from “No!”, to “Yes!” to “I don’t care!”.  I loved reading the responses on all three sides of the debate.

I’ve collected, below, a selection of reader comments that I think closely mirrored my own thought process as I tried to decide…

Dan says no:

If u frequently write trip reports then sure why not. Take the free be and disclose it and be honest.

But ur not in the business of writing trip reports and that’s not what we come here to read. So I vote no – don’t take it.

Phil says yes:

I would take it. As long as you disclose the deal and write an honest review, I think that anyone who reads your blog should be able to judge for themselves if it’s biased or not. Everyone already has their opinion on your integrity.

DonT says no:

Don’t do it. It’s not necessarily the risk of bias, as much as it is the appearance of it, even with full disclosure. Your integrity is worth more than a free rental, right?

Ziggy says yes:

Let’s get something clear – there is absolutely nothing unethical in accepting a free rental in exchange for writing about the product. Nothing, nada, zilch. If you declare the “gift” and if you’re able to keep an even handed view of things and can write a truly independent review then I can’t see anything wrong with getting the rental for free.

Those claiming that you’d be “tainted” are basically saying that they don’t trust you to be independent. And that’s their problem. It’s amusing to see how they’re fine with getting all the info you produce (for free) then use it to their own advantage and gain….but, suddenly, when you’re offered a freebie, they’re not prepared to take you at your word or trust your integrity. Do you really care what people like that think?

Chris says no:

Don’t do it! It’s a slippery slope. I value your opinion and blog for the same reason I value Consumer Reports. Keep everything objective!

In the judicial recusal world, a judge should recuse himself if there is even “an appearance of impropriety.” By accepting a free ride, you are creating that appearance! Please don’t!

Smay says yes:

I know you. You won’t take it so you can avoid the potential ”appearance of impropriety”. From the beginning your blog has been a leader in so many ways and again I applaud you! That said I personally would prefer that you did take it. I, along with all your readers and disciples have reaped SIGNIFICANT gains via your efforts and sharing your knowledge. Anyone reading your blog should, really should, encourage and support opportunities that arise for you to be compensated for your efforts. I use your links and spread that wealth to others who have shared valuable knowledge with me

Ricardo says no:

I have to absolutely commend you for the way in which you share your misgivings about such arrangements. The down sides though,in the long run are simply not worth a rental. In 5 years, what will be more important, the price of the rental, or your possible having to explain for the rest of your life in a disclaimer that this rental company afforded you the use of their cars for free. Life is too short. Long way of saying “Heck No!”

Peter says yes:

I’m with those that urge you to take the offer. Aside from trusting that you’ll do a good job handling the conflict of interest, the question is so what if you end up being biased or being perceived as biased? Your blog to me is mostly about deals, opportunities, and creative uses of websites/portals/etc. If your single post destroys my perception of your ability to review a premium products honestly, guess what? I’ll continue to read your daily posts about MS, discounts, etc all the same. This blog is about maximizing opportunities and I believe you should jump on this one.

Terry says no:

The rental price is small potatoes compared to the value of the brand you have created. Pay the rental fee. Write the blog post. Keep your integrity without question. If you have to ask, you already have your answer. Looking forward to your sessions this weekend.

The Mean Farmer says yes:

You hack travel for a living right? What’s the difference here?

FlyerM says no:

“Whenever there’s a doubt, there is no doubt.”

If you’re hesitating, that’s your conscious telling you it’s a bad idea.

I should have thought of that…

A few readers suggested other options:

Paul suggests offset the amount of the rental with a blog giveaway:

Take the amount you would have paid for the rental, and offer it up as a blog giveaway to the airline of choice or something! Win win for everybody.

Then just be honest. Travel agents do this stuff all the time (or, used to anyways), and sure its meant to influence them, but also allow them to speak honestly and with knowledge about such and such experience. Just be totally upfront about it, annoyingly so in the post.:

Similarly, Aleks suggests giving away the free rental itself:

If you’re worried about potential conflict of interest or being biased with getting a free rental (and I am certain you will love it, they’re awesome), but don’t want to turn them down, you could ask them to instead provide a free rental that you could give away to your readers via some sort of raffle. That way, you get a rental experience unbiased by getting it for free, and they get their promo on your blog.

Craig suggests an experiment comparing the free rental to a paid rental:

Additionally, I think by accepting this offer, it gives you the opportunity to follow up with a review of the product when paid for by yourself. I think many readers would be interested to know if the comped experience was better overall than the standard paid for experience that your readers will receive. All the more reason to accept this offer, in my opinion.

Great ideas.

One more thing…

David asks me this:

I think the question you should be asking yourself, is do you think that writing about this rental car company is an important post for your readers. I think the majority of us trust you enough to assume that you’ll give us relatively honest feedback. But would you be making this post at all if it wasn’t for the offer?

Would I write up my experience about the car at all if it wasn’t for the offer?  A question like this one led me to my answer.  The truth is that I probably would not write up my rental car experience.  There have been countless trips in which I went in expecting to write about my experiences, but never did.  The reason?  Nothing particularly interesting happened.  When was the last time something interesting happened to me that was specifically related to a car rental?  Probably that disastrous Alamo rental… about 20 years ago.

If I have a very interesting experience when traveling (like this; or this), then I’m always happy to write it up.  Or, if I have experiences that are noteworthy for being particularly bad, or particularly awesome (like this), I may write up those too.  In general, though, I don’t write up every little travel experience I have.  That would be boring for me and for you.

The decision

Ultimately, my decision had less to do with ethics or the desire to remain unbiased than a fierce determination to keep 100% control over my content.  This situation introduced a very small requirement: write something about my experience.  That sounds simple enough.  But, maybe I’ll rent the car and there won’t be anything interesting to write about. What then?  I simply did not want that hanging over me.

And, yes, as a few readers pointed out, the possible appearance of impropriety (regardless of the truth of it) was not worth the small amount of savings involved here.

On September 23rd (two days before “Should I or shouldn’t I” was published), I replied to my contact at Silvercar:  thanks, but no thanks.  I then booked the car myself with the code COMEDY, which gave me a free rental day.  No reason to pay full price, of course!

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