Is That Product Really Five Stars?

Christian GloverNews & Insights

By Christian Glover

Today, 77% of consumers regularly read customer reviews before making a purchase decision.[1] As such, companies have a strong incentive to have favorable customer reviews because these reviews can directly affect their reputation and bottom line.[2] With some companies attempting to bolster product or service sales by suppressing unfavorable reviews, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has had to step in to enforce penalities against companies engaged in deceptive business practices.[3] The FTC has the power to enforce penalties against this type of conduct through Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices . . . affecting commerce.”[4]

Recently, Amazon’s alterations to its customer review system have raised questions about how the FTC might respond to streaming services that suppress negative reviews. Amazon’s new show, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, has made headlines for purportedly falling victim to a flood of fake reviews due to its racially diverse cast, a behavior known as “review bombing.”[5] In response to these concerns, Amazon temporarily disabled new reviews on its website in an effort to ensure all were written in good faith.[6] While the desire to remove biased reviews is understandable, the exact methodology behind Amazon’s review monitoring system remains unclear as the company does not specify how it analyzes and verifies reviews.[7] This ambiguity surrounding Amazon’s review system stands out given the discrepancy when compared to similar shows on other streaming services. Notably, HBO Max’s House of the Dragon, a similar show that also includes a diverse cast, has not been affected by review bombs to the extent of Rings of Power and has had generally stronger ratings and critical reviews.[8]

If Amazon is removing fake or biased reviews, then those measures can help support shows that are being unfairly targeted; however, if Amazon is using the threat of review bombing as an excuse to alter its rating system for the purpose of suppressing negative reviews, then those measures could mislead and ultimately harm consumers. While addressing suppression of negative reviews is still new territory, the FTC recently settled a complaint with online retailer Fashion Nova on a similar issue which may be illuminating here.[9]

In January 2022, the FTC filed an administrative complaint against Fashion Nova for deceptive business practices following allegations that the company hid negative reviews of its products.[10] The company did this by utilizing a review management interface that automatically posted high-starred reviews but withheld low-starred reviews contingent on the company’s approval, which was never given.[11] Fashion Nova’s actions went against Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, and the FTC ultimately entered into a settlement agreement with retail giant, ordering the company to: (1) stop misrepresenting product reviews; (2) display all reviews related to its product and services; and (3) provide $4.2 million as monetary relief.[12] As this was the FTC’s first case addressing a company’s efforts to suppress negative consumer reviews, the $4.2 million settlement was a major warning to other companies engaged in similar behavior. Additionally, the FTC put 700 businesses on notice that they could incur $43,792 per violation if they used deceptive practices found unlawful in a prior FTC administrative order.[13]

In response to this issue, the FTC has developed a customer review guide for platforms to facilitate better transparency with their review systems.[14] With respect to review moderation, one of the FTC’s basic principles states that companies should “clearly and conspicuously disclose how [they] collect, process, and display reviews and how [they] determine overall ratings . . . to avoid misleading consumers.”[15] The FTC notes that “open” systems allow any customers to submit reviews, whereas other companies use “closed” systems that limit reviews to verified users.[16] As media companies attempt to navigate these challenges (while also staying in the good graces of regulators) the FTC has provided them with some wiggle room. For example, the FTC has stated an exception for companies that censor racist reviews, as well as “reviews that are unrelated to the product.”[17] However, for entities that are censoring reviews for other, less savory reasons, the recent actions by the FTC are a clear signal that the manipulation of customer reviews will not be tolerated by federal regulators.


[1] Jamie Pitman, Local Consumer Review Survey, Bright Local (Jan. 26, 2022), https://www.brightlocal.com/research/local-consumer-review-survey/?SSAID=314743&SSCID=61k3_f81sd#Q1.

[2] Ryan Erskine, 20 Online Reputation Statistics That Every Business Owner Needs to Know, Forbes Mag. (Sept. 19, 2017), https://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanerskine/2017/09/19/20-online-reputation-statistics-that-every-business-owner-needs-to-know/?sh=34a83d75cc5c.

[3] Fed. Trade Comm’n, Fashion Nova Will Pay $4.2 Million as Part of Settlement of FTC Allegations it Blocked Negative Reviews of Products (2022), https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2022/01/fashion-nova-will-pay-42-million-part-settlement-ftc-allegations-it-blocked-negative-reviews.

[4] 15 U.S.C. § 45.

[5] Paul Tassi, “Rings of Power” is Getting Review Bombed So Hard Amazon Suspended Reviews Entirely, Forbes (Sept. 5, 2022), https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2022/09/05/rings-of-power-is-getting-review-bombed-so-hard-amazon-suspended-reviews-entirely/?sh=7d34ba28762f; Isha Bassi, “The Rings of Power” Star Ismael Cruz Cordova Has Hit Back At Racist Trolls Amid The Series Being Review-Bombed, Buzzfeed (Sept. 4, 2022), https://www.buzzfeed.com/ishabassi/lord-of-the-rings-rings-of-power-review-bombing-racism; Adam Bankhurst, Amazon Introduced New Tactics to Combat The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power Review Bombing, IGN (Sept. 11, 2022), https://www.ign.com/articles/amazon-introduced-new-tactics-to-combat-the-lord-of-the-rings-the-rings-of-power-review-bombing.

[6] Amazon Suspends Reviews of “Lord of the Rings” Series on Rotten Tomatoes, ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/video/amazon-suspends-reviews-lord-rings-series-rotten-tomatoes-89366406.

[7] Understanding Customer Reviews and Ratings, Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/display.html/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_omni_lm_btn?nodeId=G8UYX7LALQC8V9KA.

[8] Tassi, Paul, “House of the Dragon is Just Better Than “Rings of Power,” Forbes (Sept. 11, 2022), https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2022/09/11/house-of-the-dragon-is-just-better-than-rings-of-power/?sh=137d5b3251be.

[9] Fashion Nova Will Pay $4.2 Million, supra note 3.

[10] Fed. Trade Comm’n, Fashion Nova Complaint (2022), https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/ftc_gov/pdf/1923138C4759FashionNovaComplaint.pdf.

[11] Fashion Nova Will Pay $4.2 Million, supra note 3.

[12] Fed. Trade Comm’n, Fashion Nova Order (2021), https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/ftc_gov/pdf/1923138C4759FashionNovaOrder_0.pdf.

[13] Fed. Trade Comm’n, FTC Puts Hundreds of Businesses on Notice about Fake Reviews and Other Misleading Endorsements (2021), https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/news/press-releases/2021/10/ftc-puts-hundreds-businesses-notice-about-fake-reviews-other-misleading-endorsements.

[14] Fed. Trade Comm’n, Featuring Online Customer Reviews: A Guide for Platforms (2022), https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/plain-language/1006a_featuring-online-customer-reviews-508_0.pdf.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Fashion Nova Will Pay $4.2 Million, supra note 3.