Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Sketchy Mattress Review Websites

David Zax, in a must-read article for Fast Company, describes the litigation initiated by Casper against several mattress review websites:

On April 29, 2016, Casper filed lawsuits against the owners of Mattress Nerd, Sleep Sherpa, and Sleepopolis (that is, Derek), alleging false advertising and deceptive practices.

Mattress Nerd and Sleep Sherpa quickly settled their cases, and suddenly their negative Casper reviews disappeared from their sites, in what many onlookers speculated was a condition of the settlements. But by the end of 2016, when I started closely studying the lawsuits, Derek’s Casper review remained, defiantly, up on Sleepopolis. He was soldiering on in his legal battle with the mattress giant. People who knew him called Derek a fighter; one of his nicknames was “Halestorm.”

Casper had another way of referring to him. Derek was “part of a surreptitious economy of affiliate scam operators who have become the online versions of the same commission-hungry mattress salesmen that online mattress shoppers have sought to avoid,” Casper’s lawsuit alleged. The company complained that Derek was not forthright enough about his affiliate relationships, noting his disclosures were buried in a remote corner of his site. This did violate recently issued FTC guidelines, and Derek updated his site to comply.

This is a deeply disturbing piece. Derek Hales, the founder of Sleepopolis, was doing some shady things that seemed to be driven by the value of affiliate links more than his honest opinion of the mattresses. But Casper’s practices are even more suspect, beginning with this correspondence between CEO Phillip Krim and Jack Mitcham of Mattress Nerd:

In January 2015, Krim wrote Mitcham that while he supported objective reviews, “it pains us to see you (or anyone) recommend a competitor over us.”

Krim went on: “As you know, we are much bigger than our newly formed competitors. I am confident we can offer you a much bigger commercial relationship because of that. How would you ideally want to structure the affiliate relationship? And also, what can we do to help to grow your business?”

[…]

Krim then upped his offer, promising to boost Mitcham’s payouts from $50 to $60 per sale, and offering his readers a $40 coupon. “I think that will move sales a little more in your direction,” replied Mitcham on March 25, 2015. In the months that followed, Mattress Nerd would become one of Casper’s leading reviews site partners. (The emails surfaced due to another mattress lawsuit, GhostBed v. Krim; if similar correspondence exists with Derek Hales, it has not become public.)

It certainly sounds like Krim was, behind the scenes, financially incentivizing reviewers to push the Casper mattress. You’ll want to read Zax’s full article for the kicker to the Sleepopolis saga. It’s atrocious.

Update: I’ve been racking my brain all day trying to think about what the end of Zax’s story reminds me of:

“Hello!” ran the text beside the headshot. “My name is Dan Scalco and I’d like to personally welcome you to the brand new version of Sleepopolis. Here’s what’s up… On July 25th, 2017 our company acquired Sleepopolis.com …. Derek Hales and Samantha Hales are no longer associated with Sleepopolis.”

An italicized note added:

“In July 2017, a subsidiary of JAKK Media LLC acquired Sleepopolis.com. Casper provided financial support to allow JAKK Media to acquire Sleepopolis.”

David Carr, writing in the New York Times in 2014:

Last week, I read an interesting article about how smart hardware can allow users to browse anonymously and thus foil snooping from governments. I found it on what looked like a nifty new technology site called SugarString.

Oddly enough, while the article mentioned the need for privacy for folks like Chinese dissidents, it didn’t address the fact that Americans might want the same kind of protection.

There’s a reason for that, although not a very savory one. At the bottom of the piece, there was a graphic saying “Presented by Verizon” followed by some teeny type that said “This article was written by an author contracted by Verizon.”

SugarString writers were apparently prohibited from writing stories about net neutrality or the NSA’s spying activity — remember, this was in 2014, when both of those topics were especially concerning. So if you were going to SugarString for your tech news, you were highly misinformed. Likewise, if you were to visit Sleepopolis — owned by Casper — do you think you’d be getting a fair review of mattress buying options?

The reason I’ve been puzzled all day about this is because I’m nearly certain that there was a similar marketing-spun publication that was created by — I think — a mining or oil and gas company. I don’t think I’m making this up or misremembering it, so if you have any idea what I might be thinking about, let me know.