A lot of collectors enjoy a sneak peek at upcoming 3rd party Transformers figures via video reviews or written pictorials, and there’s no shortage of either in the community. While many fans create this content themselves using their own purchases, some are privileged enough to be sent early review samples of yet-to-be-released figures. These test shots often make their way to reviewers with decent followings to maximise exposure, thereby increasing the chances that collectors will put in a pre-order for said figure. If the figures are not quite up to standard, we like to think that reviews will point manufacturers in the right direction. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a number of 3rd Party review samples sent to me for review over the last 3 years or so, and it’s been an interesting way to experience the hobby.
With some companies, I enjoyed early test shots, but with others I received review samples around the same time as the first waves of production stock were being sent to retailers. There are pros and cons to both. Early test shots garner much greater engagement for reviews as there’s less chance collectors have seen the figure in hand, meaning that their appetite for information and visuals is at its greatest and any media on the figure is news. However, the figures can have myriad issues with paint, looseness, clearances and all sorts of other quality concerns. They may also not contain all the final accessories or paperwork, meaning one cannot fully portray the figure as it will be in the hands of buyers. This can affect general perception of the figure, especially if it breaks. Instructions for complex figures are not always included, either.
Getting a review sample that is production ready allows one to properly communicate the experience of owning that figure as a collector, but it would occasionally be in the reviewer’s hands at the same time as collectors, thereby not affecting pre-orders and general opinion as much. Reviewers and associated retailers (if they are sponsored by one) want to maximise exposure, views, engagement and all of that other stuff that demonstrates a return on investment.
What investment? Well, often reviewers get to keep the samples they are sent to evaluate. I have been allowed to keep a vast majority of the 3rd party figures I have reviewed, as I expect many retailer-sponsored video and pictorial reviewers do. This was certainly the case at the start, but some manufacturers have moved away from this practice a little, sending only one sample to each retailer. The sample then does the rounds among that retailer’s various reviewers, occasionally finding a home with one of them or even back at the retailer.
MakeToys had sent Pandinus samples to many reviewers to keep, as you can imagine, that must have been a tremendous expense. Some big ticket items are so attractive and guaranteed to sell so well that manufacturers may not even send a sample out at all, confident in the knowledge that reviewers will purchase their own specimens for review. This poses a similar problem to that of production-ready samples that are not in the hands of reviewers early, but with golden ticket items like Downbeat, I guess they did not feel that sales would be affected by a lack of reviews. I recall one company that was supplying me with samples regularly did not send a sample of one particular release to any reviewer, stating that they did not believe the transformation of that figure was complex enough to warrant reviews. That product just went straight to market, no reviews or anything.
As an interesting aside, very few of my personal review samples came through a retailer. I was fortunate enough to already be in a position where some of my work was known in the community and I was having my writing published on a weekly basis by TFSource right here. I was encouraged to reach out directly to 3rd party companies, letting them know of my intentions to do reviews of their products on behalf of a retailer. I cited my background and position in the community for reasons of credibility and mutual benefit. As a result, those who responded favourably established a direct relationship with me, as well as through the retailer who had been recommending me.
This in itself had inherent positives and negatives. Having a direct line of communication made it easier to discuss samples and issues with them, clear up misconceptions about what would be included with a release and generally helped me understand some of the decisions made with a design/package more clearly. A significant drawback was that if companies were not happy with my evaluation of a figure, if my views on things didn’t match how they wished their products to be portrayed, it could mean they stopped sending me samples for a while. Maybe permanently. I’m very lucky in that TFSource have never given me any sort of instruction about how to write my reviews, and they have completely supported my honesty and integrity in reviewing. That comes with a price, sometimes. It also means that I was never getting samples from all companies, just the ones I had reached out to or was offered through established relationships.
Another enormous plus has been the rare occasion where my creative input and background knowledge of the Transformers or Diaclone source material has been requested to help shape part of a project. This is something that could never have happened had I not gone down the 3rd party reviewer path.
There have, of course, been occasions where a company had so much at stake that they wanted to influence what would come out in a review. Listening to their concerns and taking them on board goes without saying, it is after all a relationship worth maintaining, but it’s a very fine line to tread. By allowing them to influence your review, you give up control – both creative and sometimes factual – and when customers get items in hand, that hiding or manipulating of facts will immediately become apparent. This affects credibility, and after a decade and a half of building a healthy reputation as a factual writer, this was never going to be something I would compromise on. Has this cost me samples? Yes. Has this affected my relationship with certain companies? Undoubtedly. There are times when a review had to be scrapped altogether because there were things I would not be willing to say or conceal, that’s just not something I could ever live with.
I’d be lying if I said that some fans had not commented on how grateful reviewers should be about getting free samples. They’re right, it’s a privilege and one that I always treated with respect, but at the same time with ambition. If I was to break down how many hours I spent on photography, photo editing, actual review writing and promoting across the many days of the week it took, and divided it by the cost of the figure I had received for free…let’s just say the hourly rate equates to something most unfavourable. I could probably have raised the money for the toys in fewer hours by doing jobs associated with relatively modest hourly pay rates. It is for this reason that I have never subscribed to the opinion that any of this was for free, it never has been. There were certain group shot photographs that took me an hour and a half to edit just by themselves. Writing reviews is far more work than writing the regular articles. Articles that had been written at great financial and time cost to myself over a very long period of time, I had certainly worked to be in a position to be considered.
The ambition, just to go back to that, could be that one would get to such a position where their word on a figure could influence many. One would be so trusted as a reviewer that their credibility was beyond reproach. As weak as the analogy of Jeremy Clarkson and Top Gear to the motoring world is, should 3rd party companies ever feel so strongly that a reviewer would gain them that wide an audience with such influence, the responsibility would be on them to provide the best product possible. That would be quite an achievement for any one person or group of people in the community. As it stands, I do not believe any reviewer has that kind of standing in the wider community, nor that blanket reach or influence upon the whole audience. I also do not believe 3rd party companies feel any of the reviewers have that kind of power. Retailers maybe, but that’s not a side of things I’ve ever had great access to.
So, on the whole, it’s been a wonderful experience. I have gotten to handle amazing 3rd party items that I may not otherwise have bought. I have met some amazing people in the process and enjoyed the opportunity to produce reviews and photographs of toys which collectors have been looking forward to immensely. I have been able to add toys to my collection at no traditional financial cost, and occasionally early, but I have absolutely had to earn them with work, time and sometimes sacrifice. I have been privileged enough to be in a position to then sell certain samples should I need or want to, although I do wonder how 3rd party companies feel about reviewers selling ‘free’ review samples and the message that might put out to collectors. Often, it’s a very innocent exercise in raising money, general downsizing or just a shift in collector preference and priority. I’m not convinced they always see it that way.
The allure of getting early 3rd party samples that you can sometimes keep for yourself is strong, but the greatest feeling is knowing that you are a trusted voice and can have a positive effect on the collecting of fellow fans. I would like to think that I could also have a positive effect on the products that 3P companies put out, but I feel that is asking and expecting too much of the scene, my influence and the reality of economics and business. The best a reviewer can do is tell it like it is and hope that when the final product is in the hands of the consumer, their assessment and efforts will have contributed favourably to the experience of the collector.
All the best