I remember when I got my first embargo document. It was almost two decades ago and it was for a PC game. It was rather simple. It told me that the company had given an early edition of the product and that I should not write about it in any media until a certain date. That really was it. A single paragraph. And that was the template that was followed by and large for quite a while. I would say till about a few years ago.

with complex embargoes, are brands trying to control media coverage? - complex embargoes

The embargo was simple: certain members of the media were given access to a product before its release date and were asked not to write about it until a certain, which often was the release date. The reason for this was simple as well: to make sure the public had access to reviews of the product soon after it was released, and while doing so, also ensuring that the media had a level playing field. No matter how early or how late someone got a product, they could only write about it at a particular time. So there was no chance of someone beating others to a review because they got a device early.

An embargo date for everything, from design to cameras to software…

And then, a few years ago, this simple document started getting a little complicated. This process has continued to the extent that today when we get an embargo note with a product, it comes literally with an editorial schedule.

Yep, an embargo today has more dates than someone gone mad on Tinder!

There are dates for when we can write and/or post pictures of the product but not mention it by name. Sometimes we are even told the dates until which only the back and/or the front of the product can be shown – there are even dates on which we have been told we can show the UI. Then there are dates until which we can only show images taken by the camera (a separate date for when you can compare them with other cameras). There are also dates for comparison of the device with others, dates for showing the package, dates for reviewing the camera…and many more. And of course, we also have dates for unboxings and the review itself.

A far cry from the “write anything you want after this date” days, isn’t it?

Just keeping in touch with changing times…

The big question is: why is this happening?

Well, there are two ways of looking at it. Unlike say, about a decade ago, when most product coverages was around reviews, now there are many aspects to writing about a product – first impressions, camera reviews, battery reviews, and so on. So well, with greater content options should come greater embargo conditions…or wait, should that actually be the case? The problem with this explanation is that this multiple-embargo method is simply too complicated. Instead of working out a series of dates for different features, would it not still be simpler to just give reviewers a day and time after which they can choose to write what they wish about a product – a first impression, a review, a battery review, a comparison or whatever? (three of the biggest brands out there follow this simple procedure even now)

This brings us to the other way of looking at this date-for-everything-and everyone mania. And that is a little disturbing.

…or trying to get some control?

There are sections in the media that believe that behind all the multiple dates is an attempt to control editorial calendars. Given the fact that there is intense competition between different news outlets, websites, and channels, each tries to release information the moment the embargo expires. Of course, this competition existed in the past too, but at that time, there was no way of knowing which media outlet would do what about a product. The result was that when the embargo lifted, some did reviews, some looked at specific features, some just shared photographs, and so on. It was very rare to see different media outlets covering the same aspect of a product on the same day at almost the same time.

The multiple date embargo has changed that. Now a reviewer knows that she or he can ONLY write about the cameras on such a date, only about the looks and design on so and so date, and so on. And in some cases, the embargo clauses even control the content, specifying the kind of photographs that can be published and the level of details that can be given out, and sometimes even if an opinion or decision can be expressed. There are also at times clauses that specify what can be posted only on social networks! One of my editor colleagues summed it up with a wry grin “At times, I feel we do not work out which stories to do about products or even the deadlines. The brands do it for us.

More dates = more coverage!

Which begs the question: why would the brands want to do so? Well, the answer is simple: for more media coverage.

Give a reviewer or an editor a device and tell them that they can write whatever they wish after a certain date and time, and the chances are that they might get anything from one to three or four pieces, with no real control. Give multiple embargo dates for different aspects of the device and suddenly the publication or channel is almost obliged to release articles or content about those features by those dates. Of course, the reviewers have the option to not write so many pieces, but they often end up writing them anyway, in the fear that if they do not, their competitors might do so and grab a chunk of traffic.

Net result: a device in 2010, would be lucky to get more than two or three articles about it. Today, it is not uncommon to see almost half a dozen stories about a single product. What’s more, brands can sometimes schedule embargoes to disrupt coverage of rival products – it is not uncommon to see embargo dates of a review on one product coinciding with the launch date of a rival product.

Who gains from this?

What really matters, however, is does this benefits the readers and viewers of the publications or channels or the consumers of the products? I am not too sure it does. Yes, now people get far more information about a single product than they did in the past, But a lot of this writing is not in the control of the reviewers who are having to follow deadlines and content guidelines from brands. In the past, it would take anything from one to two weeks for a smartphone review. Today, you might get five stories including a review in a week! With so much quantity, quality tends to get compromised.

I can speak only for myself, but I do know that the reviews where I get more time with the device tend to have more detail and information. Reviews written in a hurry can tend to miss out on features or might feature conclusions based on relatively less usage. I do not see how any consumer can benefit from this. Yes, there is more information, but it is often done at breakneck speed and with restrictions imposed by the product manufacturer (that almost sounds like an ad, doesn’t it?).

Of course, this is just a theory. Brands might hand out embargo dates, but they seldom dictate what a reviewer writes. And at the end of the day, while reviewers complain about embargoes, they do have the option not to accept them. Or to accept them, but limit coverage. As one of my colleagues pointed out, “Just because an embargo for camera review lifts on a certain date does not mean that you HAVE to do a camera review on that date!

That may be true, but it is a little simplistic. Most publications and content creators are believed to hate to concede ground to their rivals – the fear of “if we do not do it, our competitors will, and get attention” inevitably forces the hands (keyboards and cameras) of most reviewers.

Time to put quality before quantity?

It is important to remember, however, that all this is just theorizing. There might be some perfectly innocent reason for the increase in embargo dates (maybe some folks just like to have cluttered spreadsheets). What, however, cannot be denied is that the current scenario favors quantity of content well above its quality, And that is not healthy for viewers, readers, and consumers who often make purchase decisions based on the information they get from different media about products.

Is there a solution? Perhaps better and clearer communication between the brands and the media. Perhaps a less competitive attitude from both sides about their respective competitors. I do not really know how many I speak for, but as for myself, it would definitely be a relief and more efficient to have to deal with just one embargo date than many. It would also feel nice to know that I am the person who is in total charge of the review. I am not sure too many feel that way these days.

Too many dates can mess up matters. And not just on Tinder.

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