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FTC taking aim at phony Web testimonials – July 30, 2009

There was an associated press story in our little local paper today, The Memphis Commercial Appeal, that brightened up my morning. Jennifer Peltz, who wrote the article entitled "FTC takes aim at phony Web testimonials" was seemingly aghast that companies, individuals who had a financial axe to grind, or affiliates might put slanted or false information on the Web in order to help enrich themselves. It brightened my morning for two reasons (1) it has been going on for over 10 years and (2) finally it looks like the FTC is getting serious about this.

We have been open for years that we accept advertising (at least we have for the last couple of years and our ads are clearly marked as sponsored links) but no one pays us a dime for the reviews and it will stay that way. I′ve infuriated some advertisers in the past and if that′s what happens when I call ?em like I see ?em, I can live with that. What has irked me over the years has been factories that publish their own "reviews" or salespeople and affiliates who either don′t disclose their particular slant or simply create a "phantom" complaint about a particular product.

What was interesting was that last year, a popular retailer put a new model on the market and the first day that it was on the market, reviews automatically started appearing bashing the quality of the product. People who claimed they had owned the treadmill for months and were talking about the poor quality had an air of credibility for the average consumer who didn′t know that the treadmill hadn′t been manufactured when people claimed they bought it. In other words, salespeople or factories who saw this impressive new model as a threat decided to lie about the product and then point potential customers to the "reviews" in order to sully the product and win sales for themselves.

That′s the real problem with the Web right now. I know customer reviews are gaining in popularity but unless there are some control mechanisms, anyone can write anything about a particular product and as bad as I've seen it in the little business of fitness equipment, it makes me put no faith in any of the "consumer reviews" I see online. What is problematic is that if a factory really is putting out junk, I would want to know about it but so much false information is being spread right now that it is hard to know what to believe.

Hopefully the FTC will take this seriously and according to the article, Richard Cleland, the Assistant Director of the FTC′s Advertising Divison said, "the same principles about transparency and truth in advertising apply." They have already taken action against several companies on the web and we hope they get busy in the fitness industry soon. According to the article, even those in the State Attorney General offices are getting involved with the NY office levying a $300,000 fine against a cosmetic surgery firm for having employees post reviews online acting as though they were clients.

We don′t have a problem with anyone posting their opinion about what they truly believe but we believe you should get full disclosure and know if there is someone behind the writer paying for the opinion or even worse, a salesman is fabricating information or their own "review" site in order to make a buck on the trust of honest people.

If you have been snookered by an affiliate site, you can file a formal consumer complaint with the FTC at