Last August, the Internet exploded with product reviews for a newly marketed set of ball-point pens, the lavender and pink BIC for Her. The pens were marketed as slim and gently colourful, in an attempt to hit the multi-trillion dollar women's market of female buyers for American household products.
And the public appreciated this. A lot. The pens garnered over 800 sardonic reviews on the American website amazon.com, and over 500 reviews on its sister website, amazon.co.uk. One female reviewer writes,
"Since I've begun using these pens, men have found me more attractive and approachable. It has given me soft skin and manageable hair and it has really given me the self-esteem I needed to start a book club and flirt with the bag-boy at my local market."
And another woman joyfully reported:
"…I gripped one in my lady sized hand and suddenly everything fell into place in a shower of sweet scented perfume and rainbows. I called my boyfriend and informed him I would no longer be using his savage and barbaric man-pens to draft short stories and sketch out creative designs – instead I would produce him a child, drink lavender tea, and watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on repeat for the rest of my days."
In imitating the breathless tone of reviews, these comedic reviews poke fun at the idea of the review itself. Such comedy raises our awareness of how contrived such testimonials can be.
Various American and British men also chime in with their "experiences" of these female-oriented pens:
"I work at Bob's Jack Hammer Parts and Ammunition Supplies. We accidentally ordered a pallet load of 'Bic Pens for Her' for our stationery cupboard. Pretty soon the whole place went haywire. We started to be concerned when Gary commenced to worry about his hair; if it still had its shine and lustre" … "If you're a man, which I used to be, avoid using the Bic Crystal For Her Ball Pen… STAY AWAY!"
Most of these American and British reviewers, of course, had never tried these pens, and were instead reacting to an idea. Riffing on the concept of a female-only pen, they tangentially reflect on, make fun of, and highlight how we relate to each other as men and women in society through the purchase and use of gendered products.
Via a friend's Facebook posting, I was even more delighted to read about the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, a plastic artefact sold on Amazon that, when pressed down sideways on a banana, neatly slices it into small circles.
The producers bills it as "safer than using a knife," "quick" and "great for cereal." And anonymous reviewers again responded with glee:
"This nifty tool gave me back my freedom. Gone are the days when I spend hours slicing bananas…"
"What a life saver this little gem is! For most of my life I have been using a potato gun to launch my bananas through the large harp I keep in my kitchen but the results are mediocre at best. They never end up being sliced at the right angle, or they bounce off the wall onto the floor and not into the cereal bowl. But now I don't have to keep all this heavy equipment around and no more cleaning up… What a great product!"
While another reviewer expresses mock confusion:
"Only worked on half. The rest of the bananas curve the other way. Do they sell a model for those bananas or do I need to continue using a knife? I'm getting low on fingers."
Mock reviews across the Amazon store
Although I enjoyed the inventiveness of these reviewers, I had to wonder if this kind of writing just arose suddenly last August. Was there a whole new genre of literature out there: customer review comedy? Indeed, I soon found that spoof reviewers work to link one product with another. This led me from the Wheelmate Laptop Steering Wheel Desk, designed to provide a writing surface while driving:
"We love the Wheelmate Laptop Steering Wheel Desk. While we text, chat and play solitaire, our cat sits on the desk and drives the car. . . Thanks for selling such an amazing product! Our cat, Toonces, thanks you as well."
To the Three Wolf Moon t-shirt, recommended by comedic reviewers for awkward men seeking masculinity:
"The Three Wolf Moon shirts power is obvious. […]you will get women, and fly. Most importantly my son was born without bones and when I put this shirt on him he grew bones. Don't ask me how it happened but the magic is there."
"Yesterday I was contentedly cruising along Arizona's Grand Canal (depth – 5 feet, width 35 feet) in a canoe rented at a nearby Indian concession. Enjoying the lovely creosote bush and dirt scenery, I was suddenly shocked by the sight of a huge ship heading towards me. Fortunately I'd read Captain Trimmer's book while waiting at the DMV for verification of citizenship…"
"As the father of two teenagers, I found this book invaluable. I'm sure other parents here can empathize when I say I shudder at the thought of the increasing influence and presence of huge ships in the lives my children. I certainly remember the strain I caused so long ago for my own parents when I began experimenting with huge ships."
And similarly, to an e-report entitled The 2009-2014 Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats in Great China. The following review hits the hyper-inflationary rhetoric of book-marketers spot on:
"A current blockbuster best seller and a classic in the making, this analysis is beloved by children as well as adults, scholars as well as arm chair travellers the constipated as well as those who are decidedly not, and even those who can move their bowels regularly."
"I knew my day was going to improve when the truck pulled up at my home with this cable deep within. No ordinary truck, this one was Holy White, and the gold Delivery logo sparkled like a thousand suns reflected through shards of the purest ice formed with unadulterated water collected at the beginning of the universe. The driver, clad in a robe coloured the softest of white, floated towards me on the cool fog of a hundred fire extinguishers…"
"Not to sound like a complainer, but, in an inept half-gainer,
I provoked my bowl to tip and spill its contents on the floor.
Stupefied, I came to muddle over that increasing puddle,
Burgeoning deluge of that which I at present do adore -
Snowy Tuscan wholesomeness exclusively produced offshore -
Purg'ed here for evermore."
"I'm a busy professional so I don't have the luxury of just grabbing my bow and quiver and spending days in the high glens hunting fresh 'corn. This product allows me to come home from a hectic day and enjoy a meal packed with that special nutrition only unicorn can provide…"
"Don't order this product if you have a conscience. The unicorns in the industrial unicorn farms live in appalling conditions, in many cases worse than those of the pegasus ranches. Don't believe the propaganda of Lisa Frank and the other tycoons of big unicorn; all that awaits these poor creatures is the abattoir and the rainbow factory. Be ethical and buy (kosher) dragon meat instead…"
"Don't order this product…"
So what do we make of these? On the one hand, these reviews are witty and fun, a marker of human inventiveness in the marketplace. Amazon doesn't restrict such reviews, and they serve to poke fun at how producers develop and advertise products – as well as how consumers buy into gimmicks as life-changing and necessary.
But even more, in imitating the breathless tone of reviews, these comedic reviews poke fun at the idea of the review itself. Such comedy raises our awareness of how contrived such testimonials can be.
Amazon.com is one of the most popular sites on which to read and write product reviews. I do a lot of both, especially if by doing so I can get quality ebooks at no (direct financial) cost. But a number of influential authors have recently admitted to urging fans to write reviews and even trading cash for good words, in order to drive their reputation and book sales.
This short-cutting of a public reputation system threatens to undercut the value of an Amazon review itself. And so Amazon has responded swiftly. Several weeks ago, it revised its review requirements to prevent authors and their friends from reviewing related products, and erased thousands of reviews with an algorithm shift that swept away many innocent reviews in the process.
Why do this? Amazon's swift response points above all to the system of value around these reviews. Reviewers contribute their thoughts to the public, assessing and lending value to books through their recommendations. And in part because of this system, Publishers Weekly reports that Amazon harvests almost 30% of all book sales across America. This is in no small part because of the firm's ability to connect such individualized assessments with easily-purchased books, books moved en masse by contingent labourers like these, and sold at prices designed to drive competing publishers, distributors, and wholesalers out of business.
"Fake" reviews thus endanger Amazon's system as a whole, and are swiftly punished. But the humorous review has little effect on the bottom line, and many remain: a gentle mockery of the system of consumption, reputation, and cultural regulation in which they are firmly embedded.