Brad Newman was unhappy.
The 35-year-old Los Angeles-area resident was at a restaurant in Paris when he asked for green tea instead of black tea. At the request, the waiter, he thought, treated him rudely.
Obviously, the waiter did not know who he was.
Brad Newman, as it turns out, is a frequent contributor to TripAdvisor, the social media outlet that allows ordinary people to write reviews of restaurants, hotels, and other services. When most contributors encounter rude service — imagine that, rude service from a French waiter — they write something scathing in their review. But not Brad Newman. Brad Newman was unhappy, and he had a better idea.
He indignantly told the waiter that he writes reviews for TripAdvisor. Instantly, the waiter was back with the manager, who apologized and offered to give him the meal for free.
And that is when Newman, who says he has been a "lifelong entrepreneur" since first starting a car-wash business at 14, had his grand idea. He would print up plastic cards, like credit cards, stating that the holder writes social-media reviews.
As he told the Los Angeles Times, "Why can't waiters, hotel workers, concierges know that people are reviewers? If that French waiter had known at the beginning that I write a lot of reviews, he'd have treated me like Brad Pitt."
Once, he told the Times, he was at a hotel that was charging 400 euros a night, the equivalent at the time of about $500. He took out his reviewer card and asked if he could pay 200 euros instead.
"In return, I would write a great review on TripAdvisor. The woman at the hotel immediately said yes. It was a win-win for both of us."
Newman thinks this is such a great idea that he now sells the cards for $100 to his fellow reviewers. An amateurish little video he has on his Web site shows people getting terrible treatment at restaurants, hotels, dog groomers, and dentists, and then writing negative reviews about it. But then, presumably after flashing their card, it shows them getting great treatment. In one case, instead of an ugly man giving a massage, it shows the happy reviewer being served by a beautiful young woman.
Newman thinks he is doing no harm. I strongly disagree.
He and the others who have paid money for the privilege are effectively selling favorable reviews to restaurants, hotels, and dog groomers. They are leveraging their influence as critics to gain special favors and free services. It goes beyond — far beyond — doing a favor for a business and having the business do a favor for you. It's also lying to the hapless readers of the reviews.
Far worse than that, it is also, to put a word to it, extortion. The holder of the card is implying that, unless he is paid off in some way, he will write a negative review and tarnish the business' reputation. It's a shake-down racket, pure and simple.
Lawyers consulted by the L.A. Times said that what they are doing is not illegal because no one is making an explicit threat to harm the business. I think that if the threat is implicit enough, as it clearly is here, then if it isn't illegal it ought to be.
As it happens, I am on a committee that is looking into revising the standards of ethics for the Association of Food Journalists. Our duty, as I see it, is to ensure that people who write about food professionally should be beyond reproach. No favors should be given, no services received in exchange for coverage. In my eyes, newspaper writers, magazines, and even bloggers should always be above suspicion that they have been financially influenced, even in a small way, by the people and institutions they cover.
But that's for professionals. Brad Newman is an amateur who is out to seize whatever he can from whomever he can, using every method at his disposal. He isn't a professional critic, he's just a jerk.
Contact Daniel Neman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6155.