So, now that you’ve read the online reviews and they’re all so positive you’re ready to make the purchase, but hold on there, are all the reviews actually the honest opinions of real customers? Unfortunately, these days it can be sometimes hard to tell. Then there is the rise of the influencers and brands vying for them to promote a product, but again, it’s not always clear to consumers if a review is paid-for or a real honest review.
The good, the bad, and the fake online reviews
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘fake it till you make it’ and yes, sometimes it can be good advice, but unfortunately, some businesses have taken that mantra to a whole other level by posting fake reviews online under the guise of being just your average consumer. According to reports, others have gone even further by blatantly encouraging would-be reviewers to post fake reviews in return for some sort of reward. Businesses have also turned to influencers to promote products or services which in itself is not a problem; what is a problem is not making it clear to consumers that a review/endorsement on social media and other mediums is paid-for and not just the influencer graciously deciding that this is her ‘#fav #essential #mustbuy’ face cream – just like the 100 or so other favourite face creams in a space of just a few days.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that online reviews and even the ever-increasing presence of influencers have their place in a business’ e-commerce and marketing plans. Reviews are also an extremely handy tool for consumers, when used in conjunction with other research activities, to find out more about a product or service, or to see if others had a good experience before they make a commitment to purchase and enter into a contract. However, there is also a negative side.
According to a European Parliament think tank document on ‘online consumer reviews’ published in 2015: ‘Misleading or fake reviews undermine the consumers’ confidence in the integrity of online reviews and lead to consumer detriment. A fake review can be defined as a positive, neutral or negative review that is not an actual consumer’s honest and impartial opinion or that does not reflect a consumer’s genuine experience of a product, service or business….The problem of fake reviews not only concerns individual consumers; it can lead to an erosion of consumer confidence in the online market, which can reduce competition.’
Consumers should indeed read reviews but always take it with a pinch (or more) of salt.
European legislation protects consumers against unfair commercial practices, such as bait advertising, false claims, misleading offers or aggressive practices. However, there is also an onus on the consumer to take every reasonable precaution and do research about a trader, product, or service as not all commercial practices are necessarily misleading and have to be assessed case-by-case.
The EU Directive 2005/29/EC on unfair commercial practices defines misleading or aggressive commercial practices and prohibits certain practices that harm or are likely to harm the economic interests of a consumer. For example, the Directive explicitly prohibits the practice of ‘falsely claiming or creating the impression that the trader is not acting for the purposes relating to his trade, business, craft or profession, or falsely representing oneself as a consumer.’ Consequently, any review presented by a trader as consumer feedback must genuinely reflect real consumers’ opinions or experiences.
The Directive also provides that the public must be informed if a newspaper article, TV programme or radio broadcast has been ‘sponsored’ or ‘paid for’ by a company as a way to advertise its products or services. This must be made clear by images, words or sound (for example, clearly stating the word ‘advertorial’ at the top of a paid-for newspaper article/promotion).
The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI)’s Code of Practice includes a section on misleading advertising which states:
- ‘A marketing communication should not mislead, or be likely to mislead, by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise’.
- ‘Endorsements by fictitious or historical characters should not be presented as though they are genuine testimonials’.
What should consumers do?
Whether it is a review or an influencer endorsement, consumers should always, ALWAYS, do their own research on a trader and its product or service thoroughly before buying. Don’t just take a reviewer’s or influencer’s word for it; this is just one part of the overall research process. Other checks you should be doing include visiting the seller’s website to ensure that they give full contact details (including phone number, email, and geographical address) and not just a Contact Us form, and checking the terms and conditions. You can also do a ‘whois lookup’ search to find out more about the website and try to locate independent online feedback.
If you think you’ve been misled, to the extent that it was major factor in your decision making to complete a purchase, then there are various organisations that you can seek advice from and/or report the matter to:
- European Consumer Centre Ireland for cross-border disputes (where the trader is based in another EU/EEA country.
- The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) for disputes between an Irish consumer and an Irish-based trader.
- Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland for complaints about the content of an advertisement or promotion or how a promotion has been run.
- If you think you have been a victim of a scam/fraudulent activity then this would be a criminal matter and should be reported to the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau.