Are Fake ‘User’ Reviews an Acceptable PR Tool?

Every marketing/PR pro should know the value of user-generated content: Real-life reviews of products, services and professional organizations (like, say, PR firms) written by real-life customers! In certain industries like electronic publishing, Amazon reviews are more important than any commercial could ever be.

But this weekend The New York Times turned a harsh journalistic spotlight on a time-tested and somewhat accepted element of the promotional business: the fake review.

The sole purpose of the profiled business was to churn out positive reviews of books by self-published authors, who paid for the service on a per-review rate. While no contract demanded that the content be positive, glowing write-ups were understood to be par for the course. This is not a new practice: A data expert cited by the Times believes that as many as 1 in 3 online reviews–of any kind–are fake.

In this case, the phrase “user generated content” was truly a misnomer: Reviewers never actually used, or read, the books. Here’s the money quote from a freelancer: “There were books I wished I could have gone back and actually read,” she said, but of course she didn’t have the time because she had to write enough new (fake) content each week to earn a living wage. It’s more than a little depressing.

We guess one could argue that a fake review is essentially just an informal press release, but the fact that the fake reviewer poses as someone who has actually used the product quickly kills that line of thinking. Most savvy web users accept the fact that popular sites like Amazon, Yelp and GoodReads are not immune to spam, but that’s a poor excuse for dishonesty.

The founder of the business profiled in the Times justifies the thousands of fake reviews he published by claiming that “These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.” That’s a bit like saying, “Well, no one actually read them, so it’s all good!” This strikes us as cynical and disappointing. The man also claims that he no longer believes any positive reviews he reads online—gee, why might that be?

It’s one thing to manage a client’s media presence, to write content in their official voice and speak on their behalf. But posing as as another person in order to praise your own clients? That’s just bad PR, and all parties would be very embarrassed if you got caught. (For what it’s worth, the fake review business failed after Amazon realized what its owner was actually doing.)

Tell us: How often does strategic dishonesty factor into the PR business? Have you heard of someone acting in a PR capacity while claiming to be someone they’re not–online or off–to win good press or to strike out at critics?

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