On NVIDIA, the web, and ethics

Kyle at the cold, Hard|OCP has posted another op-ed bit about NVIDIA and their handling of hardware review sites and eval hardware. Kyle doesn't pull any punches, and he's obviously anrgy here. His new sidekick Steve has posted what may be even more damaging: an account of his correspondence with NVIDIA in an attempt to obtain review hardware, including this alleged promotional agreement:

NVIDIA shall grant the Hypothermia:

One (1) GeForce SDR Board, Value $300.00
Three (3) NVIDIA T-shirts or equivalent

In return, Hypothermia shall grant NVIDIA:

Premiere placement of the NVIDIA logo(s) on the splash/intro, links and main Hypothermia Web pages and establish a link from the NVIDIA logo to http://nvidia.com. NVIDIA reserves the right to request re-linking to alternate sites should the aforementioned site change. Re-linking must be completed within 5 dyas [sic] of requested date. Hypothermia shall maintain the logos and links on the Web site for 3 months, beginning from the first day of the logo placement and established link. The logos and links shall be placed within 10 days of the signed agreement. The logo will be provided by NVIDIA.

Exclusive 3D video graphics sponsorship of Hypothermia

Now, if this agreement is authentic, the fact of the agreement itself is just mind-blowing to me. I've not seen anything of the sort in the (nearly) two years I've been involved in this crazy business. (Steve seems upset, at least in part, because the agreement didn't work out well for him, although that part isn't terribly interesting.)

But I have to admit, I never really believed it. In all the flap a while back over Tom's Hardware Guide's prominent placement of an NVIDIA logo on the site—along with a string of positive reviews of NVIDIA products and negative comments about 3dfx and its products—I never really believed such an explicit, written, promotionally-oriented agreement could have existed between a hardware manufacturer and a media organization responsible for hardware reviews. Certainly it would have to be clear to the site's readers that advertising space had been purchased, and certainly such a thing wouldn't be done in connection with review samples. Call me naive, but this just knocks me outta my chair. Now we have a possible example of just such an agreement, in writing.

The relationship between hardware review sites and manufacturers/resellers has always been ethically tricky. Having a day-of-release review of a hot new product can be a make-or-break event for a review site, but such sites necessarily depend on manfacturers for their advance review samples. The very nature of this relationship can make it difficult for a reviewer to feel free to criticize a product, however justly. (I suspect some of the "piling on" directed against NVIDIA going on around our little corner of the web the past couple of days may be a result of frustration borne of the reality of this situation.)

Beyond that, face it: most of us are tech enthusiasts. How can we not like the latest and greatest gizmo, so long as it works resonably well? TR certainly isn't pure as the driven snow on this count, though we do try to keep it honest.

Nevertheless, a good many sites manage to maintain some semblance of critical integrity, or at least to stay well enough on the right side of a sometimes-blurry ethical line. But if the document Steve has published is authentic, NVIDIA and review sites involved in such agreements have let product evaluations and product marketing mix together at least a little too closely. Steve claims he wrote in requesting a review board, and this agreement came back to him in response. If true, that's just wrong.

I should say, for the record, that NVIDIA offered no such agreement to us when arranging for our GeForce2 GTS review (though we didn't get to keep the $300 video card after the review). I suspect they don't make such agreements any longer, even if they once did. But then it looks like perhaps I was pretty darned naive about what was going on behind the scenes in the first place, so who knows?

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