IP, Technology & Data

You may have heard the recent outcry over favourable product reviews by Nokia and a Microsoft employees posted (anonymously, of course) about the new Nokia Lumia 600 Smartphone (which sits on Microsoft’s Mango OS) on a third party website.

These comments have been criticised for not being genuine reviews of the product but rather a marketing ploy to try to boost sales and customer opinion. This advertising ‘technique’ of masquerading as a genuine customer and making positive, inflated reviews about your own product (or, indeed, negative comments about a competitor’s product), coined astroturfing, is a risky strategy – not least because in many countries it is unlawful but also because if found out, it could be very damaging to your brand’s reputation.

The Nokia employee was found out because (in a not terribly covert manner) his ‘anonymous’ post was sent from an IP address that was owned by Nokia. This, of course, opens up a whole new can of worms because the Nokia IP address – and the employee’s email address – was released by the company that hosted the review website, presumably in breach of the site’s privacy policy.

The law in the UK
In the UK, advertising is broadly controlled and regulated by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). In March of this year the ASA remit was extended to include digital media which meant that restrictions were tightened around what companies could claim on their own website and other online media in their control, such as their Facebook or Twitter accounts.

In relation to product or service reviews, the ASA will address complaints made where websites are picking and choosing which reviews will appear on their website, so as to cast the company in a better light. Similarly, the ASA are currently investigating the transparency of the reviews that appear on the TripAdvisor website. TripAdvisor had stated that the reviews on its website were ‘trustworthy’ but in reality it is unlikely that TripAdvisor really knows whether the reviews are honest or not, so the endorsement has been taken off the site.

While the digital remit is a welcomed extension of the ASA’s powers, astroturfing – such as the Nokia Lumia incident, where one company posts fake review on another’s website – still falls through the cracks.

It won’t fall far though before being caught by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which prohibits companies from falsely representing themselves as a consumer. The Regulations are enforced by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) which can impose unlimited fines for a breach. On the face of it, the OFT has more bite than the ASA. However, the OFT may be less inclined to get involved in smaller, isolated cases – such as a couple of blog posts by employees where there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of a larger astroturfing strategy.

Remember though, that even if astroturfing doesn’t result in any formal fine or sanction it could still cause serious reputational issues for your brand. Nokia and Microsoft have learnt this the hard way.

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