lotr_blurayLately I’ve been pondering reimmersing myself in Tolkien: I’ve been rereading The Hobbit in e-book form, and am considering going on to Lord of the Rings—it’s been a while. Perhaps after that I’ll watch the twelve-hour extended-length movie adaptations again, by way of getting ready for Peter Jackson’s prequel, which just recently began filming in New Zealand.

Out of curiosity, I peeked at the listing for the Blu-Ray versions of the movies on Amazon, and noticed something rather interesting. It seems that the 1-star protest review has spread beyond the realm of overpriced or windowed e-books, and is now being used to protest DVD-related “injustices” too. (Not that this is unexpected—they were being used to protest restrictive video game DRM before they were used for protesting e-book-related matters.)

And so it is that the Blu-Ray of the theatrical cut of the trilogy whose final installment broke Oscar records has 3,160 1-star reviews out of 3,749 reviews total, averaging a paltry 1.5 stars. Why? Because the studios are releasing two separate box sets, rather than combining both 3-hour theatrical and 4-hour extended versions into one. Writes one 1-star reviewer:

BOTTOM-LINE: The studios will make whatever argument they think will fly to convince us they can’t put both versions on one disc, because they want to double their income on this movie. Which has ALREADY MADE THEM A BILLION DOLLARS. Don’t play along—let friends know not to buy ANY LOTR Blu Ray that doesn’t have BOTH versions on one disc.

They do have a point: the “limited edition” DVD set included both versions through seamless branching. There’s no reason they couldn’t do the same for the Blu-Ray—except, of course, for wanting to milk that cash cow for all it’s worth. It’s unclear whether there even will be an equivalent to the branching limited edition for Blu-Ray—the exclusive extra documentaries from the limited edition set are being tacked onto the extended-edition Blu-Ray release due out in June. (Weirdly, all the extras in that set are being rereleased as DVDs, rather than Blu-Rays—I suppose it was cheaper to keep pressing the same discs than to remaster them to package them together on fewer Blu-Rays.)

I’ve held in the past that 1-star reviews are a way consumers can make their opinions felt in a way that has visible effect, but I’m starting to wonder whether this is simply becoming yet another form of “slacktivism”—the idea that you can somehow “make a difference” by not doing anything more than clicking a link and posting vitriol to the Internet. If people see the Lord of the Rings trilogy rated at 1.5 stars, what are they likelier to dismiss: the quality of the movie, or the quality of the reviews? It doesn’t seem likely that movie studios are going to look at a few thousand 1-star reviews on Amazon and think, “Oh dear, we’d better change our ways.”

And by the same token, it doesn’t seem likely these reviews are going to change publishers’ minds. Though it seems equally unlikely that those who make a habit of posting them will give them up. A better strategy would be drawing attention in blogs and the media to these pricing practices, getting the word out into places that carry more weight than reviews on Amazon. (After one such overpriced e-book was mentioned prominently in a CNET article, the e-book price mysteriously dropped a few bucks.) Of course, that takes a bit more effort than posting a 1-star Amazon screed.


  1. Believing that a low rating on Amazon is below the threshold of notice is just silly. Of course they care … probably more-so than a few blog articles complaining about the high price of bestselling book. After all, the blog is on an out-of-way corner of the Internet while the book is sitting happily in the top-100 sales. The 1-star reviews are more like protesting in front of the store.

    Of course, I’d probably label a lot of things as “slacktivism”. Marching down the street, sending a few hundred letters to the same person/group, putting up flyers on campus bulletin boards … but, then again, maybe I’m just jaded.

    • Maybe so, but I doubt very many people are going to pay much attention to the 1-star reviews for much longer than it takes them to notice that most of them are complaining about something only orthogonally related to the content of the item itself. If anything, the reviews might draw more attention to the item as people peer in out of curiosity to see why it’s rated so low.

      And then, I suspect, those curious people will more likely than not snort and conclude, “These whiners need to get a life.”

  2. Perhaps Amazon needs (as I believe another poster has suggested elsewhere) to adapt the multi-point rating system used by sites like CNET.com: Being able to provide specific ratings for things like content, extras, container and quality would allow reviewers to make clear why they are complaining, and still allow the other aspects of the product come through in reviews.

    I know I would’ve preferred this to some of the reviews I’ve left of books that received absolutely atrocious scan-and OCR treatments… of course, in those cases the text was so bad that it literally ruined the entire reading experience, rendering a good story into so much dross by virtue of the horrible presentation.

  3. I certainly take Amazon reviews very seriously. That said, I’d prefer for reviews to focus on content. After all, a customer can read the description of the product and determine if he cares about BlueRay features. She can read the price and determine if that’s something that seems too high. But she can’t read the book or see the movie. A bunch of fluff reviews that doen’t describe the movie at all but complain about features that are obvious (and might not bother some customers) make it difficult to wade through to find actual content reviews.

    Rob Preece

  4. A 2-category review system is complicated to implement (especially retroactively) but I’d like to see it also. In Netflix for example I’ve rented movies I enjoyed, but the DVDs were horribly mastered; is my rating to apply to the content or the presentation? Similarly with ebooks we might love the story, but shudder at the poor formatting, typos, and other goofs that slipped past the copyeditors.

    The review Chris quoted recognized that low ratings were only a first step, and called for a boycott of buying any edition of the BD discs until a combo package was released. I doubt if many fans will follow that suggestion. Hard core fans only want the extended editions anyway, so why should they care about a ‘seamless branching’ version that cuts out scenes they want to watch?

  5. @Chris, I think you are assuming too much when you believe that customers will go to the product page and read through the reviews for the specific criticisms. Why go through all that effort for a book that’s only two-stars good?

    @Steven, they do have a multi-point rating system, but I’m not sure how that works. (I know it exists because I see the point breakdown on some product pages.) Perhaps that would make for a decent article: usage and limitations of the Amazon multi-point rating system.

  6. “most of them are complaining about something only orthogonally related to the content”

    I disagree fundamentally. content/price/quality are all intrinsically related. Also I suggest your belief that media companies are immune to the affect of bad publicity, and your cynicism about the influence of public denunciation of products are both rather naive Chris. Many many purchasers will look at the average rating and move on. Many will also see protests and purposely not buy because of them. This has been shown before many times when manufacturers fall foul of the public. Any producer/manufacturer/supplier who ignores this kind of thing is condemning itself to lost sales over a significant period together with a bleed over affect on other products. The world is full of alternative entertainment. It takes very little for people to flip one product and moe to another and never come back.

  7. One-star review campaigns have had limited success with e-books when authors have taken notice. Of course, most books don’t have the kind of publicity of LOTR, so I don’t know that these reviews are hurting sales. That said, the campaign is meant to promote a non-activity (i.e. not buying the product). Isn’t slactivism just doing something that’s easy but fails to have the desired outcome? In this case, what else other than informing consumers (as reviews do) would help keep people from buying these Blu-Ray discs? This is pretty much the only tool available to people wanting to change how studios operate. The purpose isn’t for consumers to vote with reviews but for them to vote with their wallets. I also don’t think that having 84% one-star reviews is something to shrug off. It clearly indicates a large number of discontent fans.

    Also, it might be worth comparing it to the extended edition box set. I realize it hasn’t been released yet but there are already 890 reviews, most of them 5 stars. I assume people find more value in buying the extended edition instead of the theatrical release.

  8. Personally, I read the 1 star reviews for any product I am considering buying. Quite a few times, the 1 star review was not “this is a bad product” but rather constituted information “orthogonally related to the content item.” I almost always find that information useful in making a purchasing decision.

    For example, one product I considered buying from Amazon had a bunch of one stars protesting about how Amazon was improperly packaging the product which led to an excessive amount of damaged items which Amazon didn’t seem to care about. Other one-star mini-campaigns have noted DRM, price or support-related issues like this, and again I have found those comments very helpful.

    The only time they’re not helpful is when the one star reviews are based on the user ignorance of how the product works or is designed to work.

    I’m also curious what Chris Meadows would recommend as an alternative to this “slacktivism.” This doesn’t appear to be a situation where a boycott or other actions would be likely to succeed, so a one star campaign seems to be an appropriate balancing of resources given what is likely to be accomplished by other means.

  9. @Brian: Exactly. If I’m interested in something, then I don’t care why people liked it; I care why people didn’t like it. If the reasons they didn’t like it sound similar to reasons I wouldn’t like something, then that’s meaningful to me.

    Indeed, I’m less likely to be interested in a book with nothing but gushing “5 STARS BEST BOOK EVER!!!” reviews…

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