Riffs on Amazon products a truth of online era

Reviewers have had a field day on Amazon's website, posting obviously ludicrous reviews of products such as binders and banana slicers.

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Anne Kramer can't quantify the effect of reviews for her company's product going viral on the Amazon website, but she thinks it can only be a good thing.

"It's hilarious," she said.

Mrs. Kramer is CEO of ErgoWareHouse in Palo Alto, Calif., which sells the Wheelmate Laptop Steering Wheel Desk.

Reviewers have had a field day on Amazon's website, posting obviously ludicrous reviews of her product -- a shelf to hang on a steering wheel. It is meant to be used as a desk while the car is stopped.

But some of the 675 reviewers have rhapsodized about how they can finally clean their guns, chop vegetables, change diapers and even do brain surgery -- though they say the size of the desk is best for people with small heads -- all while driving.

Mrs. Kramer is not offended and, in true entrepreneurial spirit, has embraced the attention as a potential boost to sales.

"I would think it's kind of organic marketing and bringing people to our site," she said.

Along with the reviews, the Wheelmate also has 124 customer-submitted photos, many the supposed aftermath of using the Wheelmate while driving.

There are photos of Nascar wrecks, multicar pileups, a car through the roof of a house and, most dramatically, a historic photo of the Hindenburg airship exploding into flames in Lakehurst, N.J., accompanied by the caption, "Available since 1937!"

These kinds of viral riffs on products have been something companies have had to get used to in the online era. For many years, businesses had total control over their brands, said Michael Walsh, an associate professor of marketing at West Virginia University.

Some responded to online comments that they didn't like by filing lawsuits. At the other extreme, he said, "There's a school of thought that suggests that getting people to talk about you is a good idea."

His own view is that companies have to respond through social media.

That is exactly what Pasadena, Calif.-based Avery Dennison did when the company's binders suddenly became a target of political reviews after the Oct. 16 presidential debate during which Republican candidate Mitt Romney mentioned that when looking to diversify the ranks of people he was hiring, his staff brought in "binders full of women."

The comment was immediately seized upon, and the Avery Durable View Binder with 2-inch slant ring in white is now up to 1,208 reviews. "I don't always put women in binders; but when I do, I always use the best -- high quality Avery white 3-ring binders."

There were "customer" photos of Barbies in binders and the requisite Patrick Swayze from "Dirty Dancing" with the caption, "No one puts Baby in a binder."

Avery Dennison did not see a measurable spike in binder sales, said company spokesman David Frail, but the company did issue a nonpolitical statement on its Facebook page two days after the debate: "We're hearing a lot about binders today! It's terrific to see so much passion this election season. And we're always excited to hear folks talking about binders."

The Facebook post had 36 comments -- mostly from people who indicated they were laughing -- and 351 likes.

Internet users with a bent for comedy have had fun with other products as well.

Take the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, please.

The banana slicer, a yellow plastic banana-shaped gadget with 17 cutting bars running across it, had received 1,826 reviews as of Friday, including the hyperbolic, "What can I say about the 571B Banana Slicer that hasn't already been said about the wheel, penicillin, or the iPhone ... this is one of the greatest inventions of all time."

Those reviews, however funny, are at least for actual products normally available on Amazon.

Then there's the joke advertisement on Amazon for Tuscan Whole Milk, 1 gallon, 126 fl oz., which carries a price of $45 a gallon.

Tuscan Dairy Farms does sell milk but not on Amazon. The company, on its own Facebook page, noted that the New Jersey dairy became an Internet phenomenon in 2006 because of the reviews on the faked ad.

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Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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