Regardless of which of the many remakes of “Mutiny on the Bounty” you’ve seen, they all involve an illegal takeover. Challenging a practice called review hijacking, an FTC complaint against The Bountiful Company – which manufactures dietary supplements, including under the Nature’s Bounty and Sundown names – charges that the business “took over” reviews and ratings that consumers had left for other Bountiful products on Amazon.com and falsely attributed them to newer products. A $600,000 proposed settlement is designed to put an end to Bountiful’s alleged manipulation of consumer reviews and ratings and reminds other marketers of the FTC’s ongoing commitment to take action against deceptive review-related practices.
Just what is review hijacking? Answering that question requires a look behind the scenes at the relationship between companies like Bountiful and retail giant Amazon. Bountiful sells its supplements to Amazon, which then sells them to consumers on Amazon.com. Companies like Bountiful can ask Amazon to create “variation relationships” between products that are substantially similar, differing only in narrow ways like color, quantity, or price. The page of a product in one of these variation relationships displays the total number of ratings and reviews and the average star rating for all of the products in the variation relationship. Those products also may share designations likely to attract consumer attention – for example, Amazon’s “#1 Best Seller” or “Amazon’s Choice” badges.
The FTC complaint includes an illustration of how this is supposed to work. Say a consumer is looking to buy a certain dietary supplement that is available in quantities of 100 or 200 tablets. Assuming those two products – identical except for the amount – are in a variation relationship, the reviews and ratings consumers have given to the 100-tablet product will also appear for the 200-tablet variety. According to Amazon, substantially different products shouldn’t share a variation relationship and the reason for that is clear. It would be deceptive to attribute consumers’ ratings and reviews of one product to a different item.
But that’s what the FTC says Bountiful did. Quoting an email from a Bountiful employee, the company “got creative” – their words, not the FTC’s – and “created variations with some of our [new products] to try and ramp them faster as they were NOT selling.” Bountiful’s motivation? “[W]e wanted to give them a little boost” in ratings and reviews to “gain visibility and allow them to also borrow the ‘amazon choice’ badge and best seller badge which worked.”
You’ll want to read the complaint to see how the FTC says Bountiful finagled the system, but the gist is that the company allegedly created variation relationships for products that were substantially different. That allowed Bountiful to “hijack” the ratings, reviews, and badges of its more popular existing products and attribute them to newer or less popular products.
For example, in March 2020, the company began selling two new products for Amazon to offer on its website, Nature’s Bounty Stress Comfort Mood Booster and Nature’s Bounty Stress Comfort Peace of Mind Stress Relief Gummies. Bountiful asked Amazon to combine the new products in a variation relationship with three of Bountiful’s established products, but here’s the problem: the products had different formulations. The complaint cites an email from a Bountiful employee, stating that although consumers “d[id] not love” the two newer products, sales “spiked” when they were put in a variation relationship with the three more successful – and higher rated – items.
Another email from a company employee explained that by creating variation relationships between new products and established products, new products could “. . . essentially ‘borrow’ the best-selling flags, ratings, and reviews, and first page placement” of the top sellers.” According to the email, the employee was “using this strategy with all of our launches,” and the strategy had proven “extremely successful.”
Bountiful’s alleged review hijacking resulted in reviews, ratings, and badges being falsely attributed to newer products or weaker sellers – a practice the complaint says violated the FTC Act. In addition to the $600,000 financial remedy and other injunctive provisions, the proposed order prohibits Bountiful from making misrepresentations about ratings, reviews, badges, or endorsements for any of its products or services.
Once the proposed settlement appears in the Federal Register, the public will have 30 days to file comments.
This isn’t the first time the FTC has sounded a warning about review hijacking. It’s one of the practices cited in the FTC’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Use of Reviews and Endorsements. The message for marketers should be clear. Because reviews, ratings, and badges are highly material to consumers, the FTC looks with disfavor on advertisers’ attempts to manipulate the system.
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Hi ftc.gov administrator, Thanks for the educational content!