Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The strange, ongoing saga of Dr. Phil's "Love Smart"...

In our last episode, we saw how “real name” Amazon reviewer “Sara Burnett” had somehow morphed into “Jane,” offering up an identical review of Dr. Phil McGraw's Love Smart, complete with misspellings. Well, it gets better: Today, “real name” reviewer “Dr. Joyce OHolleran” of Miami, FL, has magically become “real name” reviewer “Dr. Marilyn A. Barry” of Minneapolis, MN. Yes, once again, their reviews are verbatim-identical. (And interestingly, OHolleran and Barry appear to be the only two doctors in America without listed phone numbers; I checked. If they’re MDs, I guess they have all the patients they can handle already, so why leave the door open for new business, right?) Call me cynical, but I have to believe that whoever orchestrated this switch did so to bring the glowing text of the OHolleran review back to the top of the pile, thereby helping overcome the negative weight of the two less positive reviews that had popped up in recent days. At this point I have no idea what role, if any, Amazon played in this sleight-of-hand, but the fact that OHolleran disappeared the same day Barry got posted sure doesn't make the whole affair seem any less conspiratorial. What makes the OHolleran/Barry scenario all the more sordid, in my view, is the “author's” personal revelation about the role self-help books have played in her own marriage, by “turning our average sexual life into outstanding.” Unless OHolleran happens to be married to Barry, the inclusion of this testimonial—in an obviously bogus review—is a particularly odious touch.

I've also noticed a few other things by closely observing the Love Smart page in recent days. Individually, they represent little more than circumstantial evidence, but they do carry a certain cumulative weight. At the very least, they’re worth pondering:

1. A number of the reviews seem to use boilerplate language. For example, reviews by “Catherine Higgins” of OH (Dec. 12) and “Sara Miller” of Bloomington, IN (Dec. 7) refer to the “prescriptive element” of McGraw’s book. I could be wrong, but I doubt that both women (if indeed they are two different women, or even real people at all) would’ve independently arrived at that esoteric phrasing.

2. Anytime anyone posts a negative review (which, to the Dr. Phil camp, probably, is less than five stars), a brand-new five-star review appears within hours, reclaiming the top of the heap. As noted, at least two of these instant reviews—by “Jane” and “Marilyn A. Barry”—have been letter-for-letter restatements of prior reviews.

3. Negative reviews get condensed or spiked. Already this week, a pair of highly critical reviews, one from an “Aaron Regnery” and one from a “John Smith” (I grant you, that last name is pretty suspect), were purged altogether. What’s interesting about Smith’s highly literate review, which appeared Dec. 7 and was taken down today, is that it had already received 37 feedback votes, 15 of which were positive. It is highly unusual for Amazon to remove a review with that level of reader feedback. In addition, a review from “BentinSoho” was severely edited after its second day on the site. Here is how it appeared originally, on Dec. 10:

I'm imagining Dr. Phil lounging around backstage while his pancake makeup is being applied wondering just what the heck he can slap his name on next to make money. That whole diet plan didn't work, so how about a relationship advice book? Like the diet plan, this book is full of filler and no substance. Date with this book and you'll end up dropping some money that would have been better spent on an online service or a haircut. The advice is way too general and Dr. Phil isn't offering anything new--except his name on the cover.

And here, folks, is how it appears now:

[...] Like the diet plan, this book is full of filler and no substance. Date with this book and you'll end up dropping some money that would have been better spent on an online service or a haircut. [...]

Though one could argue that Amazon was reacting to the review’s ad hominem tone, Amazon’s pages brim with reviews that take this kind of tack, and worse. One of the latest reader reviews for SHAM says I am “clearly a cynical and narrow-minded man.” Clearly.

What’s striking, and ironic, about all this is it’s a microcosm of the tactic that drives self-help as a whole: repurposing. The gurus shamelessly recycle content from one book to another, or from one medium to another (books to seminars, seminars to DVDs, etc.)...so why should it be any different with their reviews?

To those of you hooked on Dr. Phil and self-help generally, I would say this: They’re laughing at you, folks. Do you not see that by now? They’re taking your money and they’re laughing at you, all the way to the bank…


Anonymous said...

Wow. This is hot stuff. Why is noone jumping on this?

Anonymous said...

...Or are we all just so cynical now that we accept this as business as usual? If so that's a very sad comment on contemporary society.

Anonymous said...

This is really pitiful. I feel betrayed by Amazon. Shame on them for being accessories to this SHAM!

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to lose faith in Amazon reviews, both because of personal experience and what you've outlined here. I once reviewed a book on Amazon, severely knocking its premise after doing my own research into the topic, and two days after writing it, the review was removed from their site. No email or any other notice that a) they were removing it, or b) the reasons they removed it. Sounds to me like some Big Brother at the Amazon company is manipulating reviews to get what the company wants out of them.