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PR firm rapped by FTC for fake iTunes reviews

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1st Sep 2010
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A PR agency hired by video game developers has agreed to settle over allegations by the US Federal Trade Commission that staff posing as consumers posted positive reviews on Apple’s iTunes store.

According to the FTC complaint, between November 2008 and May 2009, Reverb Communications and its owner Tracie Snitker posted reviews of their clients’ iPhone games on iTunes using account names that gave consumers the impression that they were written by disinterested members of the public. This was despite the fact that the PR firm was hired to promote the games in question and often received a percentage of the sales.

Under the terms of the proposed settlement, Reverb is now required to remove such endorsements. FTC guidance states that material connections between reviewers and sellers of products and services must be disclosed.

Mary Engle, director of the FTC’s division of advertising practices, said: "Companies, including public relations firms involved in online marketing need to abide by long-held principles of truth in advertising. Advertisers should not pass themselves off as ordinary consumers touting a product, and endorsers should make it clear when they have financial connections to sellers."

But the PR firm contends that the reviews were merely honest praise put forward by a few employees who were acting independently. Snitker told tech website the Register that during discussions with the FTC, it became apparent that "we would never agree on the facts of the situation".

"Rather than continuing to spend time and money arguing and laying off employees to fight what we believed was a frivolous matter, we settled this case and ended the discussion because as the FTC states: ‘The consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute admission by the respondents of a law violation," she said.

The situation related to a "handful of small, independently developed iPhone apps that several team members downloaded onto their personal iPhones in their own time using their own money and accounts", Snitker continued.

As a result, she questioned the FTC statement that they were ‘fake reviews’ and asked "if a person plays the game and posts one review based on their own opinion about the game, should that be constituted as ‘fake’?"

The posts were neither "mandated" by Reverb nor "connected to our policies", Snitker added as she wondered whether "personal posts by these employees justifies this type of time, money and investigation".

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