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Commentary: I'd rather trust a 3-star review than a glowing 5-star post

Fake reviews and their ilk come in all shapes and varieties. Just like scams and fraud, if the review sounds too good to be true, it probably is, says Reed Smith lawyer Bryan Tan.

Commentary: I'd rather trust a 3-star review than a glowing 5-star post
Five-star reviews on Loft Home Furnishing's website as shown in this screengrab taken on Jun 21, 2024. (Image: Lofthome.com)
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SINGAPORE: Just how did we get here? How did we get to a place where praise of excellence is viewed with scepticism and modest accolades are preferred? Probably the same place where phrases such as “all that glitters is not gold” and “if it is too good to be true, it probably is” are cited as catchphrases essential for self-preservation.  

The Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) recently announced that it had issued a warning to Loft Home Furnishing for posting fake five-star product reviews on its website.

The digital age has resulted in the evolution of advertising regulation as marketing and advertising roles are carried out by a variety of parties enabled by technology.

For some businesses, the owner is the face of the business with a turbocharged social media account. For others, an external advertising agency or digital marketing agency runs their channels on a variety of platforms. Increasingly popular is the use of influencers or key opinion leaders who effortlessly weave in commercial messages into their daily deluge of messages to their awaiting hordes of followers.

While traditional advertising channels such as print and broadcast media such as radio and television still exist, the rise of the digital media, particularly with social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Tiktok, X and Google, is evident.

It is not hard to see why - with real-time updates readily available, social media is increasingly relied on by consumers to make decisions, especially when it comes to the review of products.

According to a GlobalData report commissioned by Amazon last year, 57 per cent of Singapore consumers look at online reviews before purchasing a product. Separately, a recent study by digital marketing platform BrightLocal shows that 50 per cent of consumers trust reviews as much as personal recommendations from friends and family.

So, online reviews are now an important, if not the most important, component of the overall marketing and advertising strategy of a business. The move by CCCS to take action under the Consumer Protection (Fair Trading) Act 2003 (CPFTA) for Loft’s fake online reviews is not unexpected.

ALL SHAPES AND SIZES

Fake reviews and their ilk come in all shapes and varieties. These may be written by reviewers who do not exist or, as seen in the case of Loft, attributed to customers who didn’t write them (the “invisible reviewer”). They may also appear as endorsements by real people - typically prominent celebrities, business leaders or politicians - who neither gave their permission nor conducted such a review (the “unwilling celebrity reviewer”).

Then there are the reviews that repurpose or reword content from legitimate reviews to say something else (the “misinterpreted review”); those that are posted on websites set up for the purpose of hosting reviews to appear independent (the "ownself check ownself review”); fake negative reviews (the “saboteur”); those written by real persons but without indicating it is sponsored, or done by real persons lacking expertise (the “review in disguise”); and finally, those that suppress negative reviews while keeping positive reviews (“selective censorship”).

There is a school of thought that one should “fake it until you make it”. Misapplied creativity will unfortunately result in even more ways in which fake reviews will be manifested.

As many as 30 per cent to 40 per cent of online reviews are completely fake or otherwise not genuine, according to the consumer advocacy group US PIRG. Customers have "no way of knowing for certain which reviews are legitimate”, it told the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last year.

For this reason, the FTC is looking to ban fake reviews and testimonials and fine those who write them. Offenders face fines of up to US$50,000 for each fake review - with penalties applied every time a consumer sees the fraudulent content.

Likewise, the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has codes that consider fake reviews as deceptive and will demand its removal - more egregious cases may be referred for more severe action. The ASA now also employs artificial intelligence in its Active Ad Monitoring system to weed out online offenders.

In Singapore, engaging in fake reviews is an unfair trade practice under the CPFTA, for which right of action is available to consumers as well as the CCCS.

LINE BETWEEN WRONG AND RIGHT

However, before we get to apply the letter (or hammer) of the law, we need to talk about trust.

Trust is not just drawing a line between criminal activity such as scams and fraud and non-criminal activity. Even unethical and dishonest but not necessarily illegal practices are frowned upon. An influencer who is found to have inflated his social media score by purchasing followers loses his reputation quickly despite all his other hard-earned efforts to build a following. 

Consumers vote with their feet when they find dishonest practice, even if this may not constitute criminally fraudulent activity.

In the gaming world, cheat codes and tools help players by getting them additional powers or by auto-targeting. Players use cheat codes in order to progress through that level that they had been stuck at for days. In one year, Tencent found more than 270,000 League of Legend players using cheat codes.

However, gaming streamers who make revenue by streaming themselves playing games to an audience have quickly found viewers leaving when they were exposed as using cheat codes and tools.

Building trust is an effort undertaken by all - the Singapore government has taken several concrete steps to build trust including introducing legislation such as the Personal Data Protection Act, the CPFTA, the Online Criminal Harms Act and its various codes of practice.

At the same time, the advertising industry through self-regulation by the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore sets out the expected standards in the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP) and its principles of legality, decency, honesty and truthfulness.

The SCAP’s social media guidelines set out some of the best practices and standards for the online space. Influencers and online marketeers are also urged to adhere to these best practices - they should not be seen as fetters but rather to validate and preserve the value of legitimate online efforts.

Similarly, advertisers should not seek to take short cuts. The short-term gains may seem attractive, but the long-term repercussions often make fake reviews a losing proposition.

Word of mouth is still a reliable referral tool and producing high-quality products or providing good service will result in favourable and honest reviews, an appropriate reward for such legitimate efforts. 

TRUST CAN BE LOST OVERNIGHT

We all know building trust takes a lot of effort, but losing trust can happen overnight.

Advertising mediums and social media platforms also have a part in this trust building. The last thing platforms would want to be known for would be as hosts of unscrupulous merchants - this turns away consumers and legitimate merchants not wanting to be unfairly tainted. That is why most platforms take steps to weed out unscrupulous merchants or have reporting channels where users can notify them.

Ultimately, it's up to consumers to remain vigilant. If the review sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Bryan Tan is a Technology, Media and Telecom partner at international law firm Reed Smith and vice chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore. All views expressed are his own.

Source: 鶹ý/yh(aj)

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