Ever wonder why a brand new product you were considering purchasing has so many reviews on Amazon?  Like, if it’s so new, how did it already get so many great reviews?  The FTC wondered about that too.  And what it figured out was not encouraging about the trustworthiness of our product review eco-system.

In a recently announced action --  the first of its kind – the FTC charged vitamin and supplement marketer The Bountiful Company with “review hijacking.”  The FTC’s complaint asserts that Bountiful, which sells products under Nature’s Bounty and other popular brand names, took advantage of certain Amazon functionality in order to use reviews from one of its products on other unrelated ones. The complaint explains that the functionality allows Amazon vendors and third-party sellers to create “variation relationships” between and among products sold on Amazon.com that are substantially similar, i.e., products that differ only in very specific ways, such as “color, size, quantity or flavor.”

So, if a marketer sells both 100 count and 300 count bottles of the same supplement, those products can appropriately be in a “variation relationship." When products are in such a relationship, they share the same product detail page on Amazon, and the page displays the total number of ratings and reviews and the average star rating for all of the products in the variation relationship. They also share any  “#1 Best Seller” or “Amazon’s Choice” badges.  For products that are identical as to their core characteristics, this approach makes sense: it provides the consumer with appropriate information about how consumers review and rate those substantially similar products.   

However, this is not what Bountiful did.  Rather, the complaint alleges, in order to help boost interest in its products that were not garnering the same good reviews as some of its others, it created “variation relationships” between those products, allowing the poor-performing products to be haloed by the reviews on the well-performing ones. The problem, of course, is that the products in the relationships Bountiful created were not actually substantially similar: they had different formulations.  As a result, consumers saw Amazon’s Choice badges, best seller badges, and 4.5 star reviews on products that hadn’t earned them. Not surprisingly, FTC alleged that this conduct was false and misleading and a violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.

The proposed order requires Bountiful to pay $600,000 as monetary relief for consumers, and prohibits the company from making similar types of misrepresentations. It also bars the company from creating variation relationships, or using other deceptive review tactics, to create a false impression about consumers’ reviews of its products.

If the message hasn’t gotten through yet, this is yet another pointed reminder that the FTC is really focused on the product review eco-system to ensure that it actually provides trustworthy information to consumers and is not used to mislead them. Review hijacking is just the latest target in its increasingly long line of enforcement actions involving product reviews. Not only has the FTC brought numerous actions, but it has also announced an advance notice of proposed rulemaking, in which it is seeking public comment on whether the FTC should promulgate a trade regulation rule on the misleading use of reviews and endorsements.  If it does, the FTC would be able to obtain civil penalties from advertisers who violate the law through review hijacking and other misuse of consumer reviews.