Fake product reviews have no place in PR, says PRSA’s Gerard Corbett
Date: 02 October 2012 09:20
Information technology research and advisory company Gartner recently announced something that savvy Internet shoppers have long suspected: A considerable number of online product reviews are fake.
Gartner estimates that 10 to 15 percent of social media reviews will be fake – that is, paid for by the companies that produce the products or services being reviewed – by 2014. Gartner attributes the spike in bogus reviews to “consumers’ increased reliance on social media ratings and reviews” and to “[marketers’] hope of increasing sales, customer loyalty and customer advocacy through social media ‘word of mouth’ campaigns.”
There are those in the blogosphere who seem to feel that there really is nothing wrong with paid reviews … even when the reviews fail to disclose that cash or other forms of payment were provided in exchange for the opinions expressed.
According to a post on Blogthority a blog that focuses on “How To Increase Your Blog Earnings With No Extra Effort,” fake product reviews are unethical only if written without “honesty and integrity.” Disclosing that the review has been paid for, the post says, is not a requirement.
What makes a paid review ethical, blogthority.com says, is the extent to which it contains an “honest opinion,” even if the views conveyed are undesirable, and that the reviews do not “recommend something” that the reviewer “would not” or “isn’t” using his or herself.
I respectfully disagree.
The organisation that I chair, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), maintains a Code of Ethics that calls for truthful, accurate and transparent communications. What could possibly be truthful, accurate or transparent about posting positive reviews of a product, without disclosing that you’ve been paid to do so?
PRSA addressed this issue specifically in a Professional Standards Advisory – a periodic update of PRSA’s Code, based on evolving technology and changing social and professional mores – that was issued all the way back in Oct. 2008. The advisory states that “Misrepresentation by organisations and individuals using blogs, viral marketing, and anonymous Internet postings with undisclosed sponsorships and/or deceptive or misleading identities or descriptions of goals, causes, tactics, sponsors or participants,” is improper under the PRSA Code of Ethics.
Simply put, a consumer who reads a paid review would, in all likelihood, believe that the review had been written by an “ordinary” consumer, not a paid advocate. And, the best intentions of honesty and integrity aside, there is absolutely no way of knowing for sure whether or not cash or another “exchange of value” influenced the review in any way.
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) appears to agree with PRSA’s way of thinking.
In 2009, the FTC announced that it had settled charges against public relations agency Reverb Communications, alleging the firm had engaged in deceptive advertising practices by having its employees write and post positive reviews of clients’ games in the Apple iTunes Store, without disclosing that they had been compensated to do so.
Two years later, the FTC hit Legacy Learning Systems with $250,000 fine and other sanctions for hiring affiliate marketers to write positive reviews of its “Learn and Master Guitar” DVD series on third-party websites. The FTC held the reviews were deceptive and illegal, because the affiliates didn’t disclose they were getting paid for their reviews.
These are among the first cases brought under the FCC’s revised “Guidelines on the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”, which took effect on 1 December 2008.
Those guidelines state in part that “When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (ie, the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed.”
The bottom line is that the same ethics that apply to off-line communications also must be applied to social media conversations and other forms of online communications. Consumers have a right to know that the information they read online is accurate and truthful. They also have a right to know if a product “reviewer” has been paid to offer a positive opinion of a product or service.
These rules apply equally to public relations, advertising and marketing professionals, as well as to bloggers and, in fact, anyone looking to make a few bucks by offering their opinions online.
And regardless of whether the reviews they post are friend or foe, honest or not, disclosing payment is the ethical thing to do.