Abracadabra: Bad reviews be gone?

It’s the oldest trick in the book: Now you see it, now you don’t. This illusion is fine on a Las Vegas stage, but on an online retailer’s website, making negative reviews disappear is hardly magical. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) calls it review suppression – and companies engaging in this practice will be held accountable according to a release from the FTC today, January 25, 2022.

In its first case challenging a company’s failure to post negative reviews as a deceptive practice, the FTC has reached a proposed settlement with the California-based fast-fashion retailer Fashion Nova, LLC. Like many online retailers, Fashion Nova’s website contains customer reviews rating its products on a five-star scale. Shoppers visiting the website viewed individual reviews for each product, as well as the average star rating the product received and a graph breaking down the number of reviews received for each product by star rating. But, the FTC alleges, negative reviews were not displayed on the website and not reflected in overall star ratings.

So how did Fashion Nova pull off this disappearing act? According to the complaint, Fashion Nova installed a third-party review management interface that allowed it to automatically post certain reviews while withholding other reviews for its approval prior to posting. The FTC alleges that, from 2015 to 2019, Fashion Nova used this feature to automatically publish four-and five-star reviews while not posting any of the hundreds of thousands of reviews that got below four stars.

The complaint charges that Fashion Nova misrepresented that the reviews on its website accurately reflected the views of all purchasers who submitted reviews to the website. The proposed settlement puts provisions in place to address Fashion Nova’s deceptive practice and orders Fashion Nova to pay $4.2 million for harm consumers incurred.

Fashion Nova has now agreed to post product reviews regardless of whether they are positive or negative. The proposed settlement recognizes certain legitimate reasons for not posting reviews, such as when they contain obscene, sexually explicit, racist, or unlawful content, but those criteria must be applied to all reviews equally, regardless of the opinion expressed. Fashion Nova is also not required to post product reviews unrelated to its products or customer service (which includes shipping and returns). The proposed settlement also prohibits Fashion Nova from making any misrepresentations about product reviews or endorsements. Once the settlement is published in the Federal Register, the FTC will accept public comments for 30 days.

Review suppression is not the only customer review sleight of hand on the FTC’s radar. The FTC announced it is also sending letters to ten companies that offer review management services, warning them to not take improper steps to avoid collecting or publishing negative reviews.

What can online retailers and review management companies take from these actions?

Treat reviews equally. Post all genuine reviews regardless of whether the opinion is positive or negative. In addition, if your company has review moderation policies, ensure the policy is implemented uniformly, regardless of the opinion expressed. Don’t treat negative reviews with more scrutiny.

Solicit reviews neutrally. Soliciting reviews should be a genuine attempt to collect all honest opinions. Don’t ask for reviews only from those likely to leave positive ones or discourage submission of negative reviews.

Outsource review management responsibly. Review and reputation management companies may offer promises of increasing your customer reviews and ratings. Make sure you understand what they are doing. You can be held responsible for what they do on your behalf.

For more guidance from the FTC – including newly-released guidance for marketerswebsites, and platforms – visit ftc.gov/reviews.

If you or your business have legal questions or concerns regarding business law, consumer protection, computer law, or related matters, contact attorney Jeffrey A. Franklin at Prince Law Offices.

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