For consumers, one of the most significant challenges of the digital shopping age is finding a retailer and product you can trust. This challenge is one of the driving factors behind the importance of online reviews. Consumers are often willing to believe the collective advice of the internet when dealing with unfamiliar products, brands, and retailers. It's understandable that some businesses want to take advantage of this trust by putting up fake reviews that glorify their products and services. No matter how tempting this sounds, do not do it. A recent $12.8 million suit the FTC brought against an Amazon retailer is a reminder than fake reviews cost more than they are worth in the long run.
A weight-loss supplement retailer was fined $12.8 million in connection to false claims and fake reviews from the seller. The weight-loss retailer is known to have used the services of the ironically named amazonverifiedreviews.com, which had been sued by Amazon in 2016. The reviews were guaranteed to be a certain length and were also required to be either 4-star or 5-star review. What makes this case unique is that it's the first case the FTC has brought in connection to fake reviews.
“People rely on reviews when they’re shopping online,” said Andrew Smith, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, according to a press release. “When a company buys fake reviews to inflate its Amazon ratings, it hurts both shoppers and companies that play by the rules.”
Even without the potential for legal troubles, it's a bad idea for businesses to try to influence customers with fake reviews. Using fake reviews to manipulate public opinion about a product is unethical and violates the trust people place in the online marketplace. Even if it were completely legal, fake reviews would anger the target audience, and they will have no reason to trust the seller in the future.
Whether it's due to the ethical considerations or the legal ones, fake reviews are not in the long-term interest of the business owner. Rather than try to promote counterfeit reviews, it's better to spend that time and money improving the business, so it elicits positive reviews.
The situation with the FTC and this Amazon seller is also a reminder that there is a value in hiring an established, knowledgeable and ethical marketing team. A good marketing team will let you know when your plans violate FTC guidelines and what changes need to be made to create a campaign that complies with the rules.
Business owners can't use "Everyone else is doing it" as an excuse for unethical online marketing behavior. As this $12.8 million ruling indicates, even if the FTC can't punish everyone who is breaking the rules, the violators who find themselves in trouble with the FTC will face hefty fines. The potential for a ruinous judgment that can destroy a business is reason enough to avoid breaking the FTC rules for promotions and sponsored content.
As this was the first case involving fake reviews, business owners and retailers should expect similar prosecutions in the future. There are fake reviews on all of the major platforms, such as Google and Facebook. It's likely that the FTC will tackle violators on these platforms in the future.
For more recent news about online marketing, read this article about Google’s new notification informs website owners of any weekly drops in the site’s number of visitors.