In a review-based consumer market – currently dominated by Amazon – people’s genuine opinions can influence whether or not emerging brands survive. In fact, according to Pew Research, approximately 82% of Americans let online reviews affect their purchasing decisions. So if you’re an emerging brand trying to make a name for yourself, writing a few fake reviews here and there may seem harmless, right?
As tech critic David Pogue said, “If you’re a desperate, obscure company, those reviews are your only hope of generating sales. Highly-rated products appear first in Amazon’s search results, so getting your product listed at the top means big money. Gaming the system becomes very appealing.” They key word here is “desperate.” It’s not a good look on anyone, whether you’re trying to scale your brand, land a job or get a date.
Take skin care brand Sunday Riley, for example. The Texas-based brand recently settled with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after the company was accused of posting fake reviews of their products on Sephora’s website for two years. As part of the settlement, Sunday Riley agreed not to write fake reviews, but did not admit any wrongdoing or receive any form of punishment. The FTC said, “Rather than relying on satisfied customers to generate real buzz about her products, (founder Sunday Riley) directed her employees to write glowing reviews and bury negative ones, while offering detailed instructions on how to avoid detection.”
The FTC shared snippets of multiple emails sent by the CEO, in which Riley urged her employees to always use a “virtual private network”, or VPN, before writing fake reviews so they aren’t traced back to the company. “If you see a negative review — DISLIKE it,” Riley said in one of her emails to employees. “After enough dislikes, it is removed. This directly translates to sales!!”
The FTC complained that the “settlement includes no redress, no disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, no notice to consumers, and no admission of wrongdoing. Sunday Riley and its CEO have clearly broken the law, and the Commission has ordered that they not break the law again.” So in other words, they got a mere slap on the wrist for cheating, which is lucky considering that not too long ago, New York regulators fined 19 companies a total of $350,000 in penalties for their misleading fake review practices.
As the NY Times reported, “The yearlong investigation encompassed companies that create fake reviews as well as the clients that buy them. Among those signing the agreements are a charter bus operator, a teeth-whitening service, a laser hair-removal chain and an adult entertainment club. Also signing are several reputation-enhancement firms that place fraudulent reviews on sites like Google, Yelp, Citysearch and Yahoo.”