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Rigged online food reviews should come as no surprise

by Philip Brasor

NHK has a regular travel series called “Quiz de Go,” which sends TV personalities to far-flung corners of Japan and then asks them questions about the area’s local qualities. Several weeks ago, three celebrities were exploring Miyazu, Kyoto Prefecture, and were turned on to a local delicacy called Curry-yaki. They sampled the treat in front of an 80-year-old woman who has been selling it for decades. She asked their opinion, and they answered excitedly with various takes on the word oishī (delicious).

“Of course, I knew you were going to say that,” the old lady remarked.

Except for sugoi (wow!), does any Japanese word have less meaning from overuse than oishī? Every nuance has been exhausted due to the ubiquity of travel and food shows, and unless the morsel in question was prepared by some comedian or idol ripe for ridicule, reactions to food are invariably and effusively positive.

It’s an old story, and is being repeated here is to provide context for the news that 39 companies have been soliciting payments from restaurants to boost those restaurants’ rankings on the website Tabelog, which provides kuchikomi (word-of-mouth) information about 670,000 eateries throughout Japan along with one-to-five point ratings based on postings by anonymous patrons. Kakaku.com, which runs the website, first mentioned publicly that it was aware of such “information technology firms” last January and tried to foil their influence on the Tabelog ratings system by deleting suspicious comments, but now it says it may sue them.

It isn’t clear on what legal grounds such a suit will be based, but the stakes are high. According to Kyodo news service, Tabelog “attracted more than 32 million visitors in November alone.” Hiroyuki Fujishiro, who teaches a course in media literacy, told the Nihon Keizai Shimbun that he has covered this practice, known as “stealth marketing,” in his class and that students say they are wise to the possibility the ratings are rigged, but they still use Tabelog when choosing a restaurant. Anyone with knowledge of how the media, not to mention the world, works will take the results of such ranking services with a hefty handful of salt. So why do people still find them useful?

Tokyo Shimbun looked into one of the cases that sparked Tabelog’s concern. In the Tsukishima waterfront area of Tokyo there are about 70 restaurants serving monja-yaki, which is a watery batter fried with vegetables and seafood. The row of eateries is a famous tourist attraction. Common marketing sense says that all these establishments selling the exact same fare should cancel one another out, but they actually provide mutual reinforcement. In Japanese commercial parlance this is called the “love-hotel effect.” If you have one love hotel in a neighborhood it isn’t going to receive as much business as a love hotel in a neighborhood that’s filled with them, because people will go to that neighborhood specifically to seek out a love hotel.

But while the large number of monja restaurants may attract fans to the area, it is natural to assume each one will want to distinguish itself from the pack, and after the local merchants association noticed lines suddenly appearing outside the doors of certain members last summer it confronted seven restaurants with its suspicions. Three admitted paying money to information service companies. One told the newspaper that salesmen from several companies called him with proposals, and the one he chose charged ¥100,000 a month for five positive comments/ratings on Tabelog. The company also said it would boost the restaurant’s home page visibility in Web searches.

Other restaurants revealed they had also been contacted, and seemed well aware of the practice. As one owner said, almost none of the members receive more than three or four comments a month normally, and the average number of points is pretty much the same for everyone. If one restaurant suddenly gets more customers, they all notice. No one actually said they thought it unethical for a member to avail themselves of the service, only that it would be almost impossible to get away with it in such a closed business community.

What’s central to the scandal is not whether or not businesses pay to boost ratings. One could make a good argument that such payments are legitimate PR investments, and are a business’ right. In America, for instance, certain groups think that laws limiting contributions to political campaigns are unconstitutional since they believe money is a form of free speech. What’s really at issue is whether or not people’s belief in the Tabelog ratings system is being compromised, whether they’re being “fooled” into thinking a restaurant is better than it actually is.

And that’s a pretty trivial issue. On Twitter, a poster by the name of ui_nyan commented that it’s disingenuous of the media to express shock at the business transactions behind the Tabelog scandal because that type of transaction is already standard operating procedure in TV and publishing. Magazines glowingly and openly cover businesses that advertise with them, and every night you can see several TV shows ranking products and services, mostly associated with food, for the purpose of substantializing support from existing advertisers.

Consumers know it’s all yarase (staged). They just like rankings, which reduces everything to a number and an order. Understanding that a restaurant is better than another is less important than being assured that it is. Some businesses, in fact, have set this obsession on its head to their advantage. Not only do they not advertise, they also don’t allow the media to cover them, but, of course, the media does, indirectly. I used to live around the corner from an unagi (grilled eel) restaurant that refused all press entreaties, and there were lines around the block all the time.