Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

TripAdvisor reviews under advertising watchdog's scrutiny

Out-Law News | 07 Sep 2011 | 2:12 pm | 2 min. read

The UK's advertising watchdog is to investigate whether a popular travel website has published fake reviews, it has said.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said it had received a complaint from KwikChex, a firm that accredits business standards, about the website TripAdvisor. TripAdvisor allows travellers to post reviews about holidays, hotels and restaurants as well as plan bookings.

KwikChex believes that claims made by TripAdvisor are misleading and cannot be substantiated. Under the UK Code of non-broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing (CAP Code), which sets out the rules on online advertising, it is prohibited for advertisers to make misleading claims and for those claims not to be supported by evidence.

TripAdvisor said that it has processes in place to ensure reviews are genuine.

"The Advertising Standards Authority has received a complaint from KwikChex about claims on TripAdvisor’s website," a statement from ASA said.

"KwikChex has challenged whether the claims 'Reviews you can trust', '...read reviews from real travellers', 'TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real travellers' and 'More than 50 million honest travel reviews and opinions from real travellers around the world' are misleading and can be substantiated, because they believe that TripAdvisor do not verify the reviews on their website and therefore cannot prove that the reviews are genuine or from real travellers," the statement said.

ASA said it had launched a formal investigation and will report is findings "in due course".

ASA can refer misleading advertisers to the Office of Fair Trading, the consumer protection watchdog, which has the power to bring legal proceedings for breaches of UK consumer protection laws, although such referrals are rare.

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations state that pretending to be a consumer and giving yourself a positive review is 'an unfair commercial practice'. This is a criminal offence and business proprietors are potentially liable for an unlimited fine and a prison sentence of two years.

The practice, known as 'astroturfing' as it fakes grass-roots support for a product or service, is also contrary to the CAP Code. Astroturfing breaches the CAP Code as the marketing is not fair, legal, decent, honest and truthful - the key principles of the self-regulatory CAP Code.

A spokesman for TripAdvisor said the company takes review authenticity seriously, according to the BBC.

"We have numerous methods to ensure the legitimacy of the content on TripAdvisor," Angus Struthers at TripAdvisor said, according to the BBC's report.

"We devote thousands of hours each year to battling fraud and improving our fraud detection efforts to ensure the integrity of our content," he said, according to the report.

In a separate survey of 120 websites, ASA reported that 95% of those reviewed did not contain an obvious breach of the CAP Code.

"The findings suggest that websites do not commonly and flagrantly feature ads that are obviously in breach of the CAP Code," ASA's Digital Media Survey 2011 report (Click through for 14-page / 62KB PDF) said.

"That’s not to say that that is necessarily true of all advertising sectors. Six of the 120 websites surveyed did include obvious breaches, so there is clearly room for an improvement in the overall compliance rate," it said.

The report said that it had found 22 web pages out of 600 reviewed that contained "marketing communications" that clearly breached the CAP Code. Four of the six websites found to have obviously breached the Code were from the Entertainment, Media and Leisure sector and all breaches related to misleading omissions about charges that were not quoted in the "headline price," it said.

The survey was conducted in January and February this year prior to company website advertising being included as part of ASA's regulatory remit in March.