A recent Associated Press report discusses how "a growing number of regulators, trade groups and site owners are cracking
down on so-called "AstroTurf" marketing — seeding the Internet with
seemingly grass-roots testimonials, reviews and comments that aren't as
organic as they seem."
The report notes that the Federal Trade Commission has already interceded in cases involving spurious claims sponsored by companies and individuals that had life threatening consequences for buyers of products and services. Further, the FTC plans to vote this summer on updating 29-year-old guidelines on endorsements, making it clear they ban phony online reviews. Truth in advertising rules were written circa 1980 well before the internet era much less the era of blogs and Twitter but as the FTC spokesman notes "the same principles about transparency and
truth in advertising apply."
Apparently the European Union too has directed "member countries to ban falsely representing
oneself as a consumer, and other trade groups and businesses are
deleting suspect reviews and issuing apologies." But as the AP report rightly notes "some
experts say it may prove difficult to enforce traditional
truth-in-advertising standards on the freewheeling, ever-expanding Web."
The hotel industry also found mention thanks to Tripadvisor's recent "red-flagging (of) a number of its 400,000 hotel reviews, saying it suspected
they came from hoteliers seeking to pump up their ratings or knock down
Wikipedia defines Astroturf marketing as "a form of propaganda
whose techniques usually consist of a few people attempting to give the
impression that mass numbers of enthusiasts advocate some specific
cause." while a Washington Post article of a couple of years ago refers to a Meat Puppet as "a fictional person that passes as an actual human being online." The former is arguably legal and can be ethical while the latter is borderline illegal and almost certainly unethical. Yet, a variety of producers (many of whom are reputable) and manufacturers regularly partake of these marketing tools.
Fortunately, the hotel industry generally appears not to embrace these methods. However, the power of user-generated content to influence on online buying obviously results in some wayward instances. Tripadvisor is smart to clamp down on it whenever it sees instances. That is good for both the industry and the UGC medium.