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US gov slaps flack for fake iTunes game reviews

'But we really liked 'em!' claims firm

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The US Federal Trade Commission has reached a settlement with a California public-relations firm in which the company agrees to stop posting reviews on Apple's iTunes Store of their clients' games, and take down the ones already posted.

The FTC characterizes the reviews, which weren't identified as being written by the firm's employees, as "deceptive advertising". The PR firm contends that the reviews were merely honest praise by a few employees acting independently.

"Companies, including public relations firms involved in online marketing need to abide by long-held principles of truth in advertising," said the FTC's director of its Division of Advertising Practices Mary Engle in a statement announcing the settlement.

"Advertisers should not pass themselves off as ordinary consumers touting a product," she added, "and endorsers should make it clear when they have financial connections to sellers."

The PR firm in question, Reverb Communications, describes itself as "a full service videogame agency that provides public relations, marketing, and sales services."

From the FTC's point of view, Reverb's services were a wee bit too "full". In its complaint, the commission noted that from November 2008 through May 2009, Reverb staffers — including the company's owner Tracie Snitker — posted "four and five star ratings" of client's games on the iTunes Store that were skewed to the positive.

How positive? The complaint lists a few examples:

"Amazing new game"
"ONE of the BEST"
"[Developer] hits another home run with [game]"
"Really Cool Game"
"GREAT, family-friendly board game app"
"One of the best apps just got better"
"[Developer] does it again!"

Reverb's Snitker asserts that the FTC is overreacting. In an email to The Reg, she wrote: "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.'"

Snitker continued: "This issue was specific 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, a right and privilege afforded to every iPhone and iTouch user.

"The FTC has continuously made statements that the reviews are 'fake reviews' something we question; if a person plays the game and posts one review based on their own opinion about the game should that be constituted as 'fake?'"

It should be noted that the word "fake" appears nowhere in the FTC's annoucement of the settlement, the complaint itself, the formal agreement document, nor the FTC's analysis of the matter.

"These posts were neither mandated by Reverb nor connected to our policies," wrote Snitker, who wonders "if personal posts by these employees justifies this type of time, money and investigation."

According to the FTC, Reverb engaged in deceptive advertising. According to Snitker, the reviews were independently produced by employees who simply liked the games they were being paid to promote.

If you have an opinion one way or another — overreaching government or shady PR firm? — the FTC wants to hear your thoughts. You can post a comment here for the next 30 days.

Bootnote

Reverb is not the first company to face such legal action. In July 2009, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo reached a settlement with the cosmestic surgery firm Lifestyle Lift, in which the face-fixers agreed to "stop publishing anonymous positive reviews about the company to Internet message boards and other Web sites," an activity that Cuomo characterized as as "attempt to generate business by duping consumers [that] was cynical, manipulative, and illegal."

Reverb should feel lucky: their settlement with the FTC involved no monetary damages, while Lifestyle Lift had to pay $300,000 in "penalties and costs" to the state of New York in the Cuomo settlement. ®

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