Businesses and review sites alike should not mislead customers about reviews and paid-for recommendations, as Lucy Marlow explains
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has recently published a report following its call for information in February 2015 on the use of online reviews and endorsements. The report was commissioned as it was recognised that while online reviews can help consumers to make decisions and encourage businesses to improve the quality of their services and products, more and more concerns were being raised over misleading practices that breached consumer law.
Misleading practices are damaging and may prevent consumers from choosing the products or services that may best suit their needs. Business can also be harmed by such practices. The key areas of concern include:
- Fake reviews being posted on review sites.
- Negative reviews not being published.
- Businesses paying for endorsements in blogs and other online articles without making this clear to consumers.
The CMA has provided guidance on how businesses can address these concerns and avoid breaking such laws as the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs), and contravening the UK's advertising codes (such as the Committee of Advertising Practice's code for non-broadcast advertising), which mainly deal with misleading adverts.
Businesses (and anyone acting for them) that want their products or services reviewed by consumers, or wish to promote their items online, have been given the following advice:
- Do not mislead consumers about the identity of the reviewer.
- Do not provide inducements to consumers in return for writing positive reviews about the business. All advertising and paid promotions should be clearly identifiable to readers and viewers.
Review sites, meanwhile, have been given the following advice:
- Make it clear to website visitors how reviews are obtained and checked.
- Publish all reviews - even negative ones, provided they are genuine and lawful.
- Disclose any commercial relationships with businesses that appear on the site and explain how this might affect those businesses' ratings or rankings.
- Have procedures in place to identify and remove fake reviews, and act promptly in response to reports of suspected fake reviews.
- Clearly identify all advertising and paid promotions, including when reviews have been paid for.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has a duty to enforce the UK advertising codes. If a complaint is made, the ASA would give the party concerned a chance to have their say. If a complaint is upheld, the ASA can 'name and shame' by publishing the outcome on its website.
Likewise, trading standards departments have a duty to enforce the consumer protection regulations. Typically, a report to a trading standards office is resolved by the party involved providing undertakings to stopâ¨the offending advertising. However, trading standards offices also have powers to take civil (and, in limited circumstances, criminal) action to stop breaches of the CPRs.
Lucy Marlow is a solicitor at Thomas Eggar