A recent FTC complaint should remind readers to approach online postings with caution: The complaint found that a public relations firm's employees were posting favorable reviews of products their firm represented.
Public relations firm Reverb Communications is settling with the Federal Trade Commission after charges of deceptive advertising. Reverb employees had posted iTunes reviews about games and applications produced by clients of Reverb - without disclosure.
The complaint against Reverb lists some of the reviews called into question.
- "Amazing new game"
- "ONE of the BEST"
- "Really Cool Game"
- "One of the best apps just got better"
See the complaint here. It also noted that Reverb's clients paid the company commissions off some of their sales, The New York Times noted. According to the FTC, the questionable reviews were posted by Reverb and Snitker between Nov 2008 and May 2009.
Last year's revised FTC "endorsement and testimonials" guide requires users disclose any relationship to the product or service, or its advertising agency. As the New York Times explained, those new guidelines are usually thought of as applying to bloggers, "but they also cover anyone writing reviews on Web sites or promoting products through Facebook or Twitter."
PC Magazine published a statement by Reverb, which claimed that the iTunes reviews were written by Reverb employees by their own free will. According to Reverb, the employees bought the games with their own money and chose to review them.
"Seven out of our 16 employees purchased games which Reverb had been working on and to this the FTC dedicated an investigation...These posts were neither mandated by Reverb nor connected to our policies...If a person plays the game and posts one review based on their own opinion about the game should that be constituted as 'fake?'"
However, the problem remains that their employees did not dislosure in their reviews that they were employed by a PR firm that represents the product they were reviewing.
Yet, Reverb wrote that it settled the case because it was a dated and "frivolous matter" that already had been resolved.
Reverb and its owner Tracie Snitker were required by the FTC to remove any existing reviews they wrote if they "misrepresent the authors as independent users or ordinary consumers" and don't disclose their relationship to the product. Reverb and Snitker are also restricted from repeating the FTC violations in the future.
The companies Reverb represented and reviewed aren't named, as PC Magazine noted.
“Companies, including public relations firms involved in online marketing need to abide by long-held principles of truth in advertising,” said Mary Engle, Director of the FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices in a press release posted on the FTC website.
“Advertisers should not pass themselves off as ordinary consumers touting a product, and endorsers should make it clear when they have financial connections to sellers," Engle is quoted as saying. See the complete press release here.
Reverb is based in California and provides sales, public relations and marketing services.
StinkyJournalism has written to Reverb and will update with any response.
UPDATE: 09/24/2010 10:38 AM EST: "iTune" was changed to "iTunes" in the headline.