I learned of a recent campaign by Microsoft, to encourage bloggers to write about Windows Vista, from Joel. Specifically, they sent new high-end laptops loaded with Windows Vista, to selected bloggers asking them to try the OS and laptop out and blog about it. The recipients were free to keep, return or give away the laptops afterward. Apparently, Microsoft adjusted their offer and asked for the laptops back.
Since laptops were sent unsolicited, I don’t automatically conclude that the gesture was unethical and that any blogger accepting the laptops are unethical for not immediately returning them.
When I get an unsolicited survey with a "dollar" included in the envelope, I don’t bother to mail it back. I also don’t fill out the survey.
Even if no quid-pro-quo is formally required, the gift creates a social
obligation of reciprocity. This is best explained in Cialdini’s book Influence (a summary is here). The blogger will feel some obligation to return the favor to Microsoft.
Certainly, the blogger MAY feel an obligation and with full disclosure the reader can decide for himself whether to give the blogger’s review any credence. But to assume a gift recipient’s review will be biased is unfair. Otherwise, it would seem to follow that no public official should accept any non-anonymous donations otherwise the donation could be seen as a bribe.
Having said that. Anyone that takes the stance that Joel has taken to eliminate any appearance of favoritism, by refusing any "gifts" has my respect and their opinion will be more highly regarded by me.
Related: A Sell-Out’s Tale