PR firm busted over fake iTunes reviews

A public relations firm has “settled” Federal Trade Commission charges that it wrote bogus reviews of games on iTunes on behalf of its clients. Its the first major such case since the introduction of new guidelines on disclosure from people writing online.

Reverb Communications staff had “consistently” posted reviews on iTunes using false usernames. Every review rated the game at four or five stars and included comments such as “GREAT, family-friendly board game app” and “Really Cool Game”.

In the wonderful stating-the-obvious style of most legal verdicts, the FTC noted (PDF): “Respondents failed to disclose that those reviews were written by employees of Reverb, a company hired to promote the gaming applications and often paid a percentage of the applications’ sales. These facts would have been material to consumers in their purchasing decision regarding the gaming applications. The failure to disclose these facts, in light of the representation made, was, and is, a deceptive practice.”

Although the FTC didn’t name the games involved, Reverb’s website lists 23 current gaming clients and 33 former clients, including some major iPhone app developers. It specifically lists 20 iPhone games, including iSamJackson and Turf Wars.

According to the FTC, the Reverb reviews breached the Federal Trade Commission Act. This followed revised guidance from the FTC last year that made clear anyone writing online about a product or service shows disclose any material connection they have with the seller. At the time that prompted speculation that amateur bloggers might fall foul of the rules if they failed to disclose getting free copies of a product that they reviewed.

At the moment, Reverb won’t face any repercussions beyond the negative publicity. It will have to remove all the bogus reviews and has signed an agreement committing to disclose commercial connections in the future. Although Reverb hasn’t been found guilty of breaking any laws, the agreement is legally binding and violating it could lead to a fine of up to $16,000.

2 Responses to PR firm busted over fake iTunes reviews

  1. Reverb Statement:

    During discussions with the FTC, it became apparent that we would never agree on the facts of the situation. Rather than continuing to spend time and money arguing, and laying off employees to fight what we believed was a frivolous matter, we settled this case and ended the discussion because as the FTC states: 'The consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute admission by the respondents of a law violation.'

    This issue was specific to a handful of small, independently developed iPhone apps that several team members downloaded onto their personal iPhones in their own time using their own money and accounts, a right and privilege afforded to every iPhone and iTouch user. Any iTunes user will understand that each time a product is purchased you are allowed to post one comment per product. Seven out of our 16 employees purchased games which Reverb had been working on and to this the FTC dedicated an investigation. These posts were neither mandated by Reverb nor connected to our policies. Bottom line, these allegations are old, this situation was settled awhile ago and had nothing to do with the clients that many outlets have been reporting. The FTC has continuously made statements that the reviews are “fake reviews” something we question; if a person plays the game and posts one review based on their own opinion about the game should that be constituted as “fake?” The FTC should evaluate if personal posts these employees justifies this type of time, money and investigation. It’s become apparent to Reverb that this disagreement with the FTC is being used to communicate their new posting policy. We stand by the statement from the FTC that: 'The consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute admission by the respondents of a law violation.'

  2. What a load. Seriously does Reverb not have the intelligence to have a policy in place forbidding employee's from writing app reviews for apps they market? The conflict of interest is obvious. Makes this statement look like a lie. :)

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