Online reviews and endorsements are a growing tool used by businesses to sell their products and services. Last month, the Canadian Competition Bureau (with international partners) conducted a “sweep” of the internet targeting online reviews and endorsements. The sweep is identifying websites that use online reviews or endorsements as part of their business model. The Bureau has noted that it will follow-up with websites of concern, ranging from a warning or information letter to opening an investigation.
The Bureau’s sweep follows the June 2016 publication of the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network’s (ICPEN) Online Reviews and Endorsement Guidelines for digital influencers (e.g., bloggers, tweeters), review administrators (i.e., processors of consumer reviews online) and marketing professionals (i.e., promoters of goods and services on review platforms, social media).
The Bureau’s sweep in an important reminder for companies and individuals to be informed and vigilant when using online reviews and endorsements to sells goods and services. In this regard, salient portions of ICPEN’s guidelines for digital influencers, review administrators and marketing professionals are summarized below. The application of the guidelines will vary depending on the circumstances the business and products and services at issue.
A “digital influencer” is broadly understood as anyone who posts online content on their own website, online platform or social media account that includes an opinion, experience or other information about a market, business, good or service. Key principles for digital influencers include the following:
- Disclose all paid-for content clearly and prominently: digital influencers are expected to ensure that any content they post (or which payment has been received) is clearly identifiable to viewers as paid-for content. “Paid-for” includes monetary and non-monetary payments. Paid-for content may include advertisements, advertorials, product placements, sponsored posts, sponsored links, articles written in collaboration, promotional features and consumer interest stories.
- Disclose other commercial relationships: digital influencers are expected to ensure that viewers are advised of any relevant commercial relationships that may be featured in their online content.
- Views are expected to be genuine: digital influencers are expected to make clear whose opinion or experience is being conveyed regarding markets, businesses, goods or services, such as whether the opinion is the person’s own opinion or that of an employee’s, a guest contributor’s or an advertiser’s.
- Decline non-complaint businesses: Digital influencers are expected to decline requests from businesses to post paid-for content without proper disclosure.
A “review administrator” is generally regarded as an organization or individual that processes consumer reviews. Review administrators come in many forms and include: (a) entities that manufacture, distribute or supply products and services, and also obtain reviews about them, (b) third parties that obtain reviews on behalf of an entity that manufactures, distributes or supplies products and services; and (c) third parties that are involved in the collection, moderation and display of reviews. Key principles for review administrators include the following:
- Publish terms and conditions prior to collection: review administrators should have terms and conditions under which it will collect, moderate and publish consumer reviews, and publish those terms and conditions.
- Verifying consumer reviews as authentic: review administrators should exercise adequate due diligence, such as only accepting reviews from consumers who have purchased the product or service at issue or allowing site users to assess the reliability of reviewers.
- Publishing reviews in a neutral manner: review administrators should publish reviews in an objective and neutral manner (i.e., without delay, select editing)
Marketing professionals include those who promote their goods or services on review platforms, blog posts, video blogs, tweets or online publications (sometime known as traders) as well as search engine optimisers. Key principles for marketing professionals include:
- Disclose clearly and prominently where content is paid-for or where other commercial relationships may be relevant to the content.
- Never write fake reviews.