Astroturfing is like the underbelly of the PR business – large, hidden, and when it pops out, really ugly. A decade ago, that kind of fake grassroots campaigning was at the edge of public relations, and it happened primarily in politics. Today, the rise of social media has put a new spin on astroturfing, with faux reviews posted all over the Web. And, it’s more closely associated with what many of us in PR do on a daily basis
That’s why the recent settlement between the FTC and Reverb, the PR firm caught trying to game iTunes ratings with reviews by its own staff, is actually good for our industry. An expert quoted by the New York Times puts it more strongly. He says the settlement might be useful to PR firms who want to “resist clients who demand they play dirty.”
Wow. So, who is really responsible here? In this case, it seems like no one twisted arms at Reverb. MobileCrunch actually outed the firm last year for openly marketing its team of review-posting interns to help developers promote gaming apps. In settling with Reverb last week, the FTC warned again that paid endorsers, PR firms, and anyone benefiting through “material connections” must disclose the relationship.
And, Reverb isn’t alone. Anyone who frequents Yelp, amazon, or iTunes has learned to be skeptical of, um, creative writing. Last year, executives at Belkin were busted by The Daily Background for offering payment for positive reviews of its products, and for writing reviews themselves under anonymous handles. Retailer Ann Taylor was let off with an FTC warning after offering gift cards to bloggers in exchange for coverage. That was a move in the right direction, since previous guidelines had emphasized individual blogger responsibility.
But, the FTC hasn’t gone far enough with the latest wrist slap. To date, the penalty for astroturfing has been modest public humiliation. Maybe the risk of reputation damage. But though the Reverb case has, in fact, reverberated throughout our industry, no fine was involved, and the consent decree implies no wrongdoing. A hefty payment would be a more powerful deterrent. And, though Reverb seems the bad actor here, why not follow the money to the companies who actually subsidize the payola?
Only with real teeth in its regulations will the FTC will root out the bad Apples (pun intended.) In the meantime, if you’re shopping for apps, or gadgets, or just about anything, check out The Consumerist’s list of 30 Ways You Can Spot Fake Online Reviews. Let the buyer – and promoters – beware.