MICHAEL B. FERTIK, CEO of reputation-management co.
(photo credit: ap)
The Web site said an herbal remedy could cure cancer
and offered miraculous firsthand accounts. One woman offered to "share
my experience": The formula had routed her lymphoma, sparing her
radiation treatment, she said.
What she didn't mention is that she also owned the company selling the product she praised online, authorities said.
A growing number of regulators, trade groups and site owners are
cracking down on so-called "AstroTurf" marketing - seeding the Internet
with seemingly grassroots testimonials, reviews and comments that
aren't as organic as they seem.
The Federal Trade Commission told Holly Bacon, the owner of the
herbal-remedy company, in a settlement last fall to tone down her
claims and change her promotional tactics. And last month, New York
Attorney General Andrew Cuomo
announced a $300,000 settlement with a
cosmetic-surgery firm he said had employees pose as clients to write
glowing testimonials and online journals.
The FTC plans to vote this summer on updating
29-year-old guidelines on endorsements, making it clear they ban phony
"While we did not have such a thing called blogs or Twitter
the social media out there in 1980, the same principles about
transparency and truth in advertising apply," said Richard Cleland,
assistant director of the FTC's advertising division.
The European Union has responded by directing
member countries to ban falsely representing oneself as a consumer, and
other trade groups and businesses are deleting suspect reviews and
Still, some experts say it may prove difficult to enforce
traditional truth-in-advertising standards on the freewheeling,
"We haven't worked out basic social and economic norms about
this, much less legal norms," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew
Internet & American Life Project. "This is an environment where a
lot of the rules have been scrambled."
DUBIOUS TESTIMONIALS are nothing new - flip through a Victorian women's magazine.
But they have found a new, global venue on the Web, with its
easy anonymity and participatory, peer-to-peer ethos. Some 84 percent
of Americans say online customer evaluations influence their purchases,
according to an Opinion Research Corp. survey released in April. The
telephone survey of 1,004 adults has a margin of sampling error of plus
or minus four percentage points.
Flaps over online "user" reviews go back to the 1990s.
Amazon.com pulled several customer reviews of the 1999 Monica Lewinsky
biography Monica's Story that had been written by a political consultant and others who hadn't read the book.
In 2006, a furor erupted over a supposedly homespun blog
chronicling a couple's encounters with enthusiastic Wal-Mart employees
on a cross-country trip - underwritten by a group funded by Wal-Mart
Stores Inc. The group's public-relations firm, Edelman, took
responsibility for the blog, or "flog," in critics' terms.
The prominent travel Web site TripAdvisor got attention
recently for red-flagging a number of its 400,000 hotel reviews, saying
it suspected they came from hoteliers seeking to pump up their ratings
or knock down competitors'.
Electronics maker Belkin International Inc. apologized in
January after a sales staffer solicited people to write positive online
reviews "as if you own the product" for a small fee; potential takers
also were instructed to mark negative reviews as "not helpful."
De'Longhi deleted - but defended as accurate - a dozen raves
about its coffee makers on Amazon after they were exposed last month as
the work of a company marketing manager, according to The Wall Street Journal's The Wallet blog. De'Longhi did not respond to inquiries from The Associated Press.
Amazon's user-content chief, Russell Dicker, says the vast
majority of its tens of millions of user reviews are legitimate, and
the company works to sniff out fakes.
The plastic-surgery firm Lifestyle Lift Inc. baldly told
employees to create "postings on the Web as a satisfied client,"
Cuomo's office said.
The company has now agreed to make sure marketing material
reflects actual patients' comments and is clearly labeled as company
sponsored. Cuomo said the settlement appeared to be one of the first to
focus on AstroTurfing.
THE FTC has said since 1980 that consumer endorsements must be
honest opinions from actual customers, or clearly marked otherwise, and
payments or other arrangements that would affect the testimonial's
credibility must be disclosed. Proposed revisions to the guidelines
emphasize that online plugs aren't exempt and say that a worker who
posts a message about his company's product should "conspicuously"
reveal his or her employment.
The National Advertising Review Council, an industry
self-regulation group, also is exploring the issue, its president, Lee
Some major Web retailers and consumer sites try to scrub out bogus reviews themselves.
Apple makes sure reviewers in its App Store actually own the applications they critique. Consumer Reports
allows only paid subscribers to post reviews on its Web site, though
some comment areas are less restricted. The British consumer site
Reevoo.com doesn't allow unsolicited reviews at all; instead, staffers
contact buyers of various products to ask their opinions.
Some site managers describe a cat-and-mouse game of ever more subtle shilling ploys and increasingly stringent responses.
ILounge.com, a popular independent site about products related
to Apple Inc.'s iPhone and iPod, at first simply told those offering
comments its anti-AstroTurfing rules.
Now two full-time employees - one a former British police
officer - troll its user forums for questionable posts. The site has
stopped covering some companies it branded repeat offenders and called
them out publicly, despite protests that employees acted out of zeal or
"It became the only manner in which the problem could be dealt with," editor-in-chief Jeremy Horwitz said.
TRADE ASSOCIATIONS in the emerging fields of online
word-of-mouth marketing and "reputation management" say they're eager
to stamp out tainted testimonials and are circulating ethics codes. But
they acknowledge that economic pressures and the Internet's scant
accountability tempt some to bend the rules.
Reputation-management company ReputationDefender has
been asked - and refused - to concoct both positive buzz and damaging
attacks, said CEO Michael B. Fertik, who helped form his industry's
Online Reputation Management Association.
Such requests often come from people who say they are being unfairly maligned online and can't trace the culprit, he said.
"They're feeling helpless," Fertik said. "I don't think all the
people who are asking us to do fake reviews are coming from a place of
Bacon, the herbal-remedy company owner, genuinely believes in
the healing properties of the "black salve" she sells online from
Sparks, Nevada, said her lawyer, Marie C. Mirch. The FTC says the
ointment and tablets may cause burns and scarring at high
Under the FTC settlement, Bacon's company, Cleansing Time Pro LLC, no longer says the salve treats cancer.
The company's site still includes a testimonial - with a disclaimer noting that the writer stands to profit from a sale.