As you know, I do lots of theatre writeups, which some folks view as reviews. Because of this, there are many people out there who view me as a critic. I always respond that, no, I’m just an audience member who loves to share my views on theatre with my friends and the broader world, with the hope of enticing more people to discover live performance. But they still think I’m a critic. This includes publicists, who then offer me comp tickets to their shows. I generally decline (with one exception), citing the ethics policy of my real-life employer. Although I generally do not state who I work for other than that I work in the field of cybersecurity (although one can find that information if one looks), I do note that we have ethics rules that prohibit us from receiving gifts from suppliers above a nominal value (around $10). The logic being that if you get such a gift, and then make a decision of judgement regarding such a supplier, it could appear to be biased due to such a gift.
I have always felt that this applies in the arena of theatre reviewing. Why should you accept a gift from a theatre, and then write a review of that theatre? After all, Consumers Reports doesn’t accept products from suppliers and then review them — they go out and buy the product on the open market. That is why I always pay for tickets, with the exception of the Fringe Festival (which is often of nominal value). I will accept discounts, but that’s because I would normally pay for half-price tickets through Goldstar. So I’m paying the theatre what I would pay through Goldstar.
I will never forget a discussion with one local critic regarding this, where his response was that he would not review a show unless he received free tickets and free parking. I think that is just wrong. I will note that, however, that this does highlight one key difference (in my eye) between “reviewers” and “audience members that write up shows”. Reviewers have editors that assign them shows to provide coverage in a market. Audience members pick the shows they want to see because they think the show will be interesting, and then write up what they see. Both can be critics, and both can apply critical thinking and constructive criticism to what they write up.
I bring this up because of a recent crackdown by the FTC on “influencers”. Here’s a quote from that article:
Commissioner Rohit Chopra called for tougher penalties on companies that disguise advertising on platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok as authentic reviews in a statement sent out Wednesday. The statement came after the FTC voted 5-0 to approve a Federal Register notice that would seek public comment on whether Endorsement Guides for advertising (which haven’t been updated since 2009) need to be reviewed, according to TechCrunch.
For years, the Federal Trade Commission has required influencers to disclose sponsored posts, but the guidelines seem to have had little effect. In one recent case mentioned in the letter, a Lord & Taylor campaign paid 50 social media influencers to post about a dress on Instagram, but didn’t require them to disclose that the posts were sponsored. The FTC charged Lord & Taylor with deceiving the public, settling the case by prohibiting the company from “misrepresenting that paid ads are from an independent source,” but didn’t levy a monetary fine.
Influencers and online personalities are often given products for free by companies hoping to get some exposure. While some reviewers will disclose that detail, it’s often hard to tell when an endorsement is genuine, or if a review is coming from an undisclosed partnership. Now the FTC is cracking down, but the focus is on holding advertisers and companies accountable, not small influencers.
Note the sentence I have highlighted. If a critic receives a free ticket to a show, how is that any different than being given the product for free by a company hoping to get some exposure? Yes, it is traditional — but as we’ve seen with #MeToo, tradition doesn’t makes something ethically or morally right. At minimum, critics must disclose whether they were given free tickets by the theatre directly or by a publicist for the theatre.
This emphasizes why my ticket policy remains. I do not accept free tickets for non-Fringe shows. For the Fringe festival, where tickets are of a nominal value, I will accept free tickets if I can fit the show into my Fringe schedule, but I will always disclose when a producer has given me free tickets. I encourage — indeed, I challenge — other critics to adopt this policy.