This is a guest post by Andrew Betts
Wait, are you saying that not everything I see on the Internet is 100% factual? Are gun reviews are lying to me? In short, yes. Nothing is ever really that simple, though is it? We like guns. I mean, they are useful tools for defense of home and family, but you probably aren’t reading blogs about fire extinguishers. Besides being deadly serious tools, guns are also fun to shoot and entertaining to talk about, watch videos about, or drool over glossy magazine photos.
There is a big business built around gun related entertainment. We read magazine and blog articles and follow Facebook groups. (You are following The Home Defense Gun on Facebook, right?) We watch YouTube videos and television episodes. We voraciously consume gun related entertainment. How accurate is the information we are getting though? What would it sound like if these guys were 100% honest?
We hunger for information about guns because there are far more guns out there than we could possibly afford to buy. When we do buy a gun, ammo, accessories, or related accoutrements, we really want our dollar to be spent well and that makes us hunger for information even more. What’s more, there is tremendous competition in the industry and every manufacturer is desperate to get information out to as many people as possible.
Enter the gun rag correspondent and the YouTube gun channel. They will happily tell a great number of people about your brand new blaster or bullet. Free test samples mean low cost advertising for the manufacturer and a source of content for the writer or YouTube poster. The folks reading or watching the content get to find out about new products and get a close look at more products than they could possibly buy.
The problem comes when people perceive this content as an unbiased review when, in many cases, the video or article amounts to a paid advertisement. We cannot simply dismiss all of the content out of hand, either. They are certainly not all paid shills and there is a lot of ground between outright paid shill and completely unbiased plaster saint.
At one end of the spectrum, there is the YouTube channel that is treated like a business. They receive a lot of test samples, they have a large viewership which generates significant revenue on its own, and they may even get paid sponsorships. In turn, they pay to promote their content through Google AdWords, Facebook, and other venues. These guys often do reviews or even “testing” but the tests are more of a demonstration than any real measurement of the product’s capability. For example, shooting a magazine of M855 “penetrator” into a level III steel plate looks cool on video, and to uninformed viewers it sounds impressive, but it provides no real insight into the product’s capability considering that any level III plate should stop that round easily. The “test” is intentionally set up in such a way that the results are known before filming.
These channels will also do almost anything to produce more content because they rely on YouTube (and possibly advertising revenue) to put food on their plate. They literally do not have a day job. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch his channel, of course. It is still entertaining. The close relationship with manufacturers that these channels enjoy often means they get information about new products long before other outlets. We all like to hear about the coolest new thing. It just means that you need to be aware that at least some of the videos from this kind of channel are essentially commercials.
Most of the time, the bias from the paid shill crowd is reflected in somewhat gentle “testing” or they may simply neglect to mention some of the negative factors that could affect your purchase decision. Other times they will go so far as to be intentionally deceitful. There is more than one eyewitness report of a famous YouTuber experiencing constant malfunctions on the range and then posting a video with no mention of the problems. My personal opinion is that outright fakery like this is rather rare, but it is important to keep in mind that, unless you were personally present during a range session, you cannot know whether malfunctions were simply edited out.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the guy who pays for everything out of his own pocket and receives no sponsorships whatsoever. This guy is the antithesis of a paid shill. You can be sure that he is not producing advertising material for a manufacturer but he may have some of his own biases and opinions. We are all human and it is likely impossible to prevent any bias whatsoever creeping into a video or article.
Still, some people elevate opinion to an art form. Sometimes he may base those opinions on dangerously faulty assumptions, such as recommending lightweight varmint ammunition for defense because he doesn’t understand the importance of the 12” minimum. Often, this guy starts to believe himself to be an expert simply because people listen to him and he may have significant knowledge but it is important to remind ourselves that there is always more to learn.
A subset of this category is the guy who believes himself to be an expert because he was a cop or a soldier. I do not consider myself to be an expert by any means but I have learned a great deal more about guns in my civilian life than I did in the Army. I have even learned far more about the M16A2 and M4 as a civilian than the Army taught me.
There is a great deal of subtlety between those two extremes, though. Most people can probably tell that channels which never say an unkind word is only out to generate ad revenue, but just because a YouTube channel receives products for free does not mean they are shills. Channels like ShootingTheBull410 also receive materials for free and still perform fair testing that does not always reflect positively on the product in question. This is probably one of the most important ways to discriminate between the outright shills and the rest. If a gun channel, blog, magazine, etc. has never uttered a negative word about a product, it is probably safe to disregard their “reviews” as simple advertising. On the other side of that coin, the negative reviews may involve products the reviewer paid for out of pocket while the positive reviews involved products provided by the manufacturer. This sort of “pay to play” arrangement would be particularly cynical and I hope that it is rare.
This same concept applies to the products themselves, though. Manufacturers are unlikely to go on record telling reviewers that they won’t send product unless they get a positive review, but this is often the implied subtext of correspondence. I know of at least one YouTube gun channel who was literally told by a sales representative that they would only send samples if they could review the video before publishing
Please understand that I’m not trying to tell you to stop watching YouTube gun reviews or gun rag articles, I just want you to understand that there may be significant motivation for some of these guys to bend the truth or maybe even lie. Remember, he may seem like a really trustworthy person, but that’s his job. Unless you have met the person reviewing or “testing” a product, you cannot speak to their trustworthiness. That applies equally to me, of course. I urge you to exercise discretion and view everything with a healthy dose of skepticism. Focus on the facts and compare independent sources. As always, training is more important than gear. No amount of cool stuff can make up for a lack of training.
Andrew Betts served with the Arizona National Guard for over 12 years, including a tour to Afghanistan. Visit his YouTube Channel for more great shooting information.