Amazon Reviews: The Ethical Implications of Working in a Grey Area
Amazon ranking: #51,485
I’ve talked previously about Amazon’s policies about reviewers and how it’s changed in the past year. As an ardent rule follower, the idea of being on the wrong side of the government really irks me (it’s weighed about equally with my curiosity about how social systems work). I’ve heard about the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) “warning” celebrities about their ads on Instagram, and I’ve heard about the Amazon Review arguments on their chat forums, but I’ve never actually seen the actual documentation; so I went to the source.
Here’s a summary of what the FTC says about consumer review policy as it applies to reviewing on Amazon:
Business can’t prevent people from posting negative reviews contractually (i.e. a business can’t say “We will only let you review this if it’s a positive review”) and they can’t take down negative reviews just because they’re negative reviews (Amazon is in control of this). (1)
When it comes to Amazon, I see at least one place where this could get questionable.
- If a company contacts you and says “Please give us a good review, if you don’t we won’t ask you again” then technically it seems like that would be against the rules. Of course there’s no requirement that they have to ask you again anyway, but specifically stating it could be seen as a threat or put undue pressure on you.
The FTC also has a guide about marketing on the internet, specifically relating to product reviews and endorsements:
It says that if you’re giving someone something to look at/endorse/review, then it has to be the typical experience that anyone would get if they purchased/used the product. This prevents a bait and switch situation where someone thinks they’re honestly reviewing something and the “real” thing is of a lower quality.
- Amazon does a lot of fulfillment in its own warehouses, but not all. This could be a possibility (if the sellers knows your order number) but there’s no way a reviewer could tell unless they ordered multiple of the same products.
Native Advertising is something you see in a lot of places, and product reviews can be considered native advertising depending on how they’re used:
The policy behind native advertising seems to have to do mostly with sponsorship (i.e., so and so paid me to write favorably about this) and disclosure of sponsorship (3). The Enforcement Guidelines (4) of this uses an example where:
employees of a public relations firm hired by the developer posted reviews about its games in the iTunes app store, without disclosing their relationship to the company.
As this relates to Amazon:
- I feel like this is the greyest area of them all that I’ve run across. In the particular example they use I’m going to assume that since the App is using a PR firm, they’ve hired the PR firm to help them get business, and the PR firm is therefore fabricating good reviews to get other people to buy it so it looks good for their PR firm. It’s a strategic tactic.
- There are definitely reviewers on Amazon who have abused this, but I don’t think all reviewers have. A reviewer who I follow on Amazon who’s in the top #1500 hasn’t posted anything less than a 5 star review in months (actually, I’ve never seen her post a review less than 5 stars). While it’s possible that all 740 of the products are 5 star products, it’s also possible that she’s being nicer because she’s getting them at a discount.
- On the other hand, there are reviewers (like me) who want to honestly review the products and give a good view of the positives and the negatives. I see it more like being asked to do product testing and giving feedback – i.e. not misleading people by just saying nice things. If I give a bad review, then does that mean the company “sponsored” me to give a bad review?
- Ultimately, ethically, I think this is largely up to intent and how both parties see the transaction. I see the motivation behind asking for reviews as deeper than “Say something nice” in terms of technology and algorithms. Even a bad review can push your product ahead of a product that has zero reviews. I have bad reviews on my profile and everyone can see them. A seller shouldn’t expect that I’ll give them a good review if they have a subpar product.
Amazon’s policy on reviews is significantly more strict than the federal government’s policies:
Amazon says it doesn’t permit reviews made for refund/reimbursement/discounts etc. etc. etc. and it doesn’t permit reviews where the reviewer has a relationship (such as an employer or friend) (5). This policy was changed back in October of 2016 – previously Amazon encouraged free product reviews in various ways.
- They’ve implemented this with algorithms (they can track Amazon gift cards, refunds, and internal messaging) so there are a lot of ways that they can make sure this doesn’t happen. It also seems like they have tracked public interactions on social media to determine “relationships” that would indicate bias.
- I suspect that they’re trying to cover themselves legally in these policies. On the Amazon forums I’ve seen complaints that when people report accounts for review manipulation there’s little to no response from Amazon which (to me, at least) implies that Amazon doesn’t have a lot of emotional investment in the process.
- Amazon gets a lot of heat for their reviewing process and has for the past 3 or 4 years. They are seen as responsible for both the seller’s and the buyer’s actions. Amazon can’t control or track what sellers say privately to buyers outside of the Amazon ecosystem, so the best action for them to take is “broad and sweeping” so they remain blameless.
- It also seems that they overshoot the mark a lot of the time (see my blog about this review that got taken down) which frustrates a lot of honest people who are writing reviews.
From a non-lawyer’s perspective, it seems like Amazon is trying to prevent illegally formatted native marketing, and the only way they can do this is to say “No one can be paid for anything ever.” A lot of the businesses on Amazon are based abroad and Amazon is almost guaranteed to take the fall for allowing those violations to happen in the first place. At the same time, it seems like the FTC cares more about honesty and fairness than about money changing hands.
I would consider what I’m doing to be product testing, and I’m not afraid to give bad reviews (I’m not a marketing agency) – so my conscious is in the clear. Yes, this experiment is technically against Amazon’s policies, but it also isn’t misleading anyone and I’m not doing anything illegal. If the worst thing that happens is upsetting Amazon, I think I can deal with that for the sake of experimenting.