Astroturfing: Fake Reviews Cost Lifestyle Lift
In New York, the cosmetic surgery corporation Lifestyle Lift will pay $300,000 to settle claims regarding fake online reviews it posted about itself. No stranger to fights over online reviews, Lifestyle Lift illustrates the ongoing problem of astroturfing -- creating a false sense of grass roots support. Increasingly, business and political entities use social media to build false buzz or support.
Lifestyle Lift offers its own brand of (or at least its own branded) face lift. As its website encourages: "Now you can look as good as you feel! Regain that more youthful and confident appearance. Face your day with renewed confidence."
Unfortunately, the company found itself unhappy with the state of its own appearance online. Maybe the confident glow that accompanies mass marketing cosmetic surgery lost some luster once dissatisfied reviews began popping up on various review sites.
Maybe feeling old and saggy caused a cantancorous Lifestyle Lift to sue multiple websites for trademark infringement (and lose) simply because they hosted boards where Lifestyle Lift customers griped.
Maybe there were allegations (confidentially settled) that once Lifestyle Lift lost the bounce in its step, it instructed its employees to pose as patients and post positive Lifestyle Lift reviews on RealSelf.com (one of the sites Lifestyle Lift sued for trademark infringement).
Well, when you've lost that glow, you've gotta do something about it, right? And when your online rep is showing serious wrinkles? Then, as Lifestyle Lift's former president told employees, it's time to "[p]ut on your wig and skirt and tell them about the great experience you had," right?
Actually, no. This is a classic example of the pervasive and troublesome menace known as astroturfing. It runs a wide spectrum, including but by no means limited to:
- blogs that benefit from giving good reviews to certain products;
- fake customer reviews;
- creating illusory communities for "customers" to share product opinions (which are actually tightly controlled by the company itself, as Lifestyle Lift chose to do); and even
- creating entire organizations to give a veneer of third party objectivity to what is actually self-interested promotion.
Though the lines between what is allowed and what is illegal can become blurry, behavior like that of Lifestyle Lift crosses a number of legal barriers, most notably unfair competition laws.
As reported by the New York Times, the company will pay New York $300,000 to settle allegations of false advertising, deceptive commercial practices and fraudulent conduct under federal and New York commercial protection laws.
Unless New York's pursuit of Lifestyle Lift represents a trend, the fine may do little to discourage astroturfing.
With the internet increasingly populated by less then sincere takes on all manner of goods and services, at least one old rule remains true: buyer beware (of the review too).
- NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo's Press Release
- Astroturfing (Source Watch)
- Lifestyle Lift Tries to Use Trademark Law to Shut Down User Discussions (Eric Goldman's Technology and Marketing Blog)
- Laws for sale! Astroturfing and citizen apathy on the rise (Ars Tecnica, 2007)
- Unfair Business Practices in Utah (provided by Eisenberg & Gilchrist)
- Trademark Basics (provided by Wang Hartmann Gibbs & Cauley PLC)