>Most people who use online consumer reviews as an aid for decision-making recognize an inherent dilemma: how do you know whether the reviews are honest, consumer reviews, or phony reviews posted by a business owner, its competitor, or a paid reviewer? Apart from hit-or-miss strategies like ignoring reviews by one-time contributors or those with over-the-top review language (positive or negative), there really isn’t a good way to distinguish the two.
Cue the Federal Trade Commission, which this week settled an enforcement action brought against Reverb Communications – a public relations agency hired by video game developers to promote their products.
The original complaint alleged that Reverb engaged in deceptive advertising practices by posting positive online game reviews in the iTunes Store that gave the impression that they were written by disinterested consumers, rather than by a paid advertising or PR firm. The terms of the settlement require Reverb, which admitted no wrongdoing, to remove the allegedly deceptive reviews that it already posted, and prohibit it from making similar misrepresentations in the future.
This is one of the few actions the FTC has taken since issuing late last year its revised guidelines concerning endorsements and testimonials in advertising, which address internet endorsements and require disclosure of any “material connections” between an advertiser and an endorser. In a previous instance, the FTC sent essentially a written warning to Ann Taylor’s Loft, which had given gifts to bloggers attending a preview of its new season’s clothing line but failed to inform the bloggers that such gifts had to be disclosed to readers.
Based on this limited history, it seems that the FTC is going after the advertisers or professional endorsers, rather than an individual blogger or reviewer. The FTC has already said as much in its attempts to clarify the endorsement guidelines. As one FTC employee has been quoted as saying, “Our approach is going to be educational, particularly with bloggers. We’re focusing on the advertisers. . . .”
Game developers should be mindful about the advertising techniques they or their PR firms use to promote their games, and ensure that their employees and agents are not posting phony reviews on web sites. The Reverb case showsthat the FTC is more than willing to take action against such practices.