Spineless FTC Goes Weak on Astroturfing

Writing astroturf reviews is WRONG, people. Like, OBVIOUSLY wrong.

So you’d think that if you got caught instructing your employees, in sunny yet oh-so-detailed ways, on how to leave fake positive reviews for your products, you would get more than just a slap on the wrist.


I mean, that’s what happened to the sorry bastards running Lifestyle Lift, who got smashed by the NY AG’s office to the tune of $300K after creating an elaborate scheme of fake microsites and reviews. Dozens of other companies have also paid 5- and 6 figure sums to settle astroturfing complaints brought by regulators.

But for shlepper of high-end beauty products Sunday Riley? Who gave employees a nine-step guide to writing fake reviews on Sephora’s website (you can read it in all of its hyper-specific, fraud-tastic glory here)? They’ve earned merely a stern talking-to and a “please don’t be naughty again” from the FTC.

Timothy Geigner at Techdirt put it best, describing Sunday Riley’s practices as:

really blatant, really fake, and really shady. This was a coordinated attempt to falsely manipulate the review system of Sephora for the purposes of fooling the public into buying more product.

This wasn’t a foot-fault, a naive error, or a single instance of wrongdoing. It was a calculated effort to fool a public that already has a super-hard time staying informed about the rapidly-evolving skincare industry.

But instead of stomping on this, the FTC basically greenlit further wrongdoing. Its settlement with Sunday Riley doesn’t require payment of any money, agreement to any kind of oversight, or even an admission of wrongdoing. While I’m no fan of agency overreach, this is the kind of factual record that screams out for significant punishment – not this kind of “tsk-tsk” nonsense.

“Self-Defense” and Negative Online Reviews

It seems doctors have the same blocks as lawyers when it comes to dealing with online reputational ecosystems. I can’t tell you how many times while at Avvo I heard lawyers complain about their inability to defend themselves from (surely false/scurrilous/overstated!) negative online reviews.

“I’d be revealing client confidential information,” they’d say.

“It would get me in trouble with the Bar if I set the record straight,” they’d complain.

And they’re not wrong!

For doctors, too have the same concerns. And besides professional liability, there’s the bugaboo of the HIPAA Privacy Rule, which broadly covers virtually any disclosure of private health information.  As a clinic in New York just found out – via payment of a $125,000 settlement – even disclosing protected health information that has already been publicly disclosed by the patient can lead to liability under HIPAA.

Oh, the injustice of it all! It’s enough to have some calling for a leveling of the playing field, of finding a way to give doctors a right of defense in online public forums.

But these suggestions miss the forest for the trees. For while there’s  a good argument that keeping patient or client secrets – even in the face of attack on one’s reputation – is part of the price doctors and lawyers pay for the privilege of enjoying our licensed monopolies, there’s an even more fundamental problem . . .

Arguing in public about the details of an online review is profoundly counterproductive.

No matter what the facts might be, getting down in the mud and bickering with a reviewer leaves the impression that the professional is thin-skinned, defensive, and not adequately patient- or client-focused.

This in no way means that doctors have no recourse. There are numerous strategies far more effective than “setting the record straight.” The best of these are:

  • Regularly soliciting reviews. Not only does this give you powerful market research insights, it also ensures that any negative feedback is in context with (hopefully) a wealth of positive feedback. 1
  • Responding generally. Just because you can’t argue doesn’t mean you can’t use a negative review as a mini-marketing platform. It can be tricky – you’ve got to really rise above, and resist the urge to condescend – but the payoff can be great. A simple message such as this can be highly effective at showing that a doctor is a confident professional who cares about patient outcomes:

“I’m sorry you had a bad experience. This does not sound familiar, or at all like what we expect in our practice. Please don’t hesitate to contact me directly to see how we can make things right.”

When it comes to online reviews, what’s important isn’t that you’re right, but that potential patients perceive you as the professional you (hopefully) are. So don’t fret about HIPAA keeping you from defending yourself. Focus instead on making sure your approach to online reputation is putting your practice in the best light with potential patients.

(Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to be caring, on-time, and really good at what you do as well.)