We’ve long discussed the problem that is astroturfing and companies that abuse website reviews sections by inputting fake positive reviews for their own products. These fake reviews break the ecosystem of sites like Yelp and many others, where a big part of the draw to the sites are the communities that provide helpful, honest reviews. It’s also been the case, however, that such fake review campaigns have occasionally come with fines or lawsuits with limited clarity on precisely what laws were being broken.
Still, the FTC is a thing and it would seem to be in that organization’s purview to mete out some kind of punishment for the truly bad actors out there. In the case of skincare company Sunday Riley, however, it seems that FTC settlements for truly egregious fake review campaigns are entirely without teeth.
Let’s start with the scheme itself. According to the FTC, for two years, spearheaded by founder Sunday Riley herself, employees and interns were tasked with both voting down real negative reviews on Sephora.com, as well as setting up fake accounts for Sephora and inputting fake positive reviews. This, again, was directly communicated by Riley herself.
The FTC shared snippets of multiple emails sent by the CEO. In these emails, Riley urged her employees to always use a “virtual private network”, or VPN, before writing fake reviews so they aren’t traced back to the company.
“If you see a negative review — DISLIKE it,” Riley said in one of her emails to employees. “After enough dislikes, it is removed. This directly translates to sales!!”
Most recently in April 2018, interns of the company were also asked to make fake Sephora accounts and write reviews of Sunday Riley skincare products.
So, yeah, 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. That certainly feels like about as blatant a case requiring FTC involvement as the fake review subject is going to get.
And the FTC did get involved. It pushed Sunday Riley into settling with the agency. And boy, what a settlement it was.
As part of the settlement, Sunday Riley agreed not to write fake reviews. The company did not admit wrongdoing or receive any form of punishment. FTC commissioners Chopra and Slaughter disagreed with the settlement, arguing that the company should have paid a higher price.
“Going forward, the FTC should seek monetary consequences for fake review fraud, even if the exact level of ill-gotten gains is difficult to measure,” Chopra and Slaughter said in their letter.
“Today’s proposed settlement includes no redress, no disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, no notice to consumers, and no admission of wrongdoing. Sunday Riley and its CEO have clearly broken the law, and the Commission has ordered that they not break the law again.”
Yeah, that’s basically right. The FTC settled with Sunday Riley by simply asking that they please not break the law and act so shitty again. Meanwhile, the company has admitted no wrong doing, paid no fine, or suffered any other consequence. Honestly, what the point of this FTC settlement is, is beyond me. Are we to reach settlements with thieves that consist of a request that they not steal any longer?