As a public service to our wonderful readers, BrightReviews is launching a brand new series of articles designed to help you avoid some of the most common “sins” television marketers commit. Read, learn, and share these tips so you and your loved ones don’t get burned.
Sin #7 – Phony Affiliate Sites!
Fake Affiliates is a sneaky way to convince you that real people have tried a product and are giving it an unbiased review. However, upon closer examination it sometimes turns out:
- These sites are run by the actual company that makes the product.
- The supposedly real reviewers either don’t exist or have been paid to promote the item.
- This payment can also be in the form of a commission on sales when you click the link to buy the product.
- It may look like a news article or important consumer update but it’s an ad.
Are these Fake Affiliates legal? Essentially, no. In 2009, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published specific guidelines governing product endorsements which stated that any material or financial connections between the endorser and the product be disclosed on the website. If the website or person makes any false or misleading claims, it is also considered deceptive.
And then, starting in 2011, the FTC began fining companies that violated the law. The first was Legacy Learning Systems who were fined $250,000 for paying people to endorse its guitar instruction program. Then, 10 other sites claiming to be unbiased news agencies endorsing acai berry weight loss products were also slapped with injunctions. The FTC says it is continuing to crack down on this plague.
Another scam related to phony endorsements is what’s known as “astroturfing” – creating fake personas and writing glowing reviews on websites to make it seem like the product is popular and/or legit.
One company we recently reviewed, LifeStyle Lift, was fined $300,000 by the state of New York for having its employees post on message boards. They pretended to be happy patients of this plastic surgery company and also attempted to have negative reviews deleted. Lifestyle Lift agreed to mend their practices and are still in business today.
How Can You Spot a Fake Affiliate?
While the above examples clearly violated the law and were penalized for their actions, there are still plenty of fake affiliates out there who either haven’t been caught or comply enough with regulations so they won’t be fined or shut down.
A good example is Tan Physics, a sunless skin cream. An Internet search of the product turns up a website called Safeskin.org which has the dramatic headline “Frenzy Over New Sunless Tanners” and sub-head “Stores Struggle to Keep Amazing New Sunless Tanners in Stock” and at first glance looks like a unbiased news site.
But we want you to notice: 1) The word advertorial which is a blend of the words “advertisement” and “editorial” which signifies that this is paid content. 2) The language on the right stating “Writers are compensated” for their work.
However, you may miss these if you are also in a “frenzy” over sunless tanning cream, so the company also puts in all caps: THIS IS AN ADVERTISEMENT AND NOT AN ACTUAL NEWS, ARTICLE, BLOG OR CONSUMER PROTECTION UPDATE.
However, you won’t see this unless you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page.
This is all perfectly legal, and while we are singling out Tan Physics for illustration purposes, there are hundreds of other sites just like this.
How To Protect Yourself
Now that you understand some of the tactics both legal and illegal marketers use to convince you their news/reviews are legit, here are a few things you should do before buying.
First, look carefully at the entire website or blog. Are the words “advertorial” or “advertisement” anywhere? If there’s a link that says “disclosures” or “disclaimers” click on it. And scroll all the way to the bottom! This should at least let you know if this is a paid endorsement for the product.
Legit bloggers usually also have an “About Me” section that should disclose whether they are receiving the product for free in exchange for a review. Again, this is totally legal and not necessarily a scam, but you might want to look at the person’s other reviews in the blog. Are they critical of any products or do they love everything? That may indicate whether a person is sincere or not.
If there are numerous positive (4 or 5 star) reviews on a website or message board about the product, look at the dates. Are they all grouped around the same day? Are they short and vague? (“It’s great!” “I love it!”) These may indicate astroturfing.
You may want to cross-reference on Amazon.com. They indicate whether it is a “verified purchase” and have links to the consumer’s other online reviews. Again, this is not a perfect indicator as someone could be paid to buy and review the product. Look for well-written, informative reviews that weigh pros and cons.
You may also want to check with friends to see what they think and perhaps post a query on Facebook. An honest opinion from a trusted friend is always valuable.
And, of course, check here at BrightReviews.com! We are non-partisan and not affiliated with any products we review. If you hear of an affiliate scam, be sure to let us know so we can help alert others. (You can and should also report them to the FTC and your state Attorney General).
Well, that wraps up all 7 Deadly Sins of “As Seen On TV” Products! We hope you found this informative and enjoyable. Let us know what you think, or if we missed anything below!