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I was hoping someone more knowledgeable would be able to help. I left a very honest three-star review online for the boarding facility where we have taken our dog several times.

It wasn't an overwhelmingly negative review being only three stars, but I did mention something that was very concerning to me. They keep forgetting to document our dog's rabies vaccination, which makes me wonder how well they are keeping vaccination records with all the other dogs that stay there. I simply made a note of it in the review, which again was just an honest summary of my experience.

Anyway, a mere few hours later, they call my husband regarding the online review. They asked him to ask me to update the review to five stars and basically retract everything I said. In exchange, they would offer us two free nights of boarding.

There's no way this is legal, right? I can't seem to find a lot on the internet in regards to a business actually asking you to update a review in exchange for goods. I've had businesses offer an incentive for leaving a review, but in those situations they did not specify whether the review needed to be positive or negative. I was also aware of the incentive prior to writing.

In this case, I am being offered free services that are contingent upon me changing (read: lying) and updating my review. Not only does that feel gravely wrong to me, but it really sounds alarms in regards to their boarding practices. I think they are concerned that I brought up their lack of vaccination record keeping. I don't know the legalities surrounding boarding facilities and what they are required to have, but their reaction to my review makes me think they are NOT engaging in legal business practice, and perhaps it is worse than I thought.

Does anyone have any more information on businesses soliciting customers to not only leave reviews, but to update negative reviews to positive reviews in exchange for goods or services?

Additionally, does anyone have any suggestions on taking further action? I am now genuinely worried that they are letting dogs stay there with zero vaccination records which is obviously a huge liability. I feel like I am in a position where I should do the right thing and pursue this further. I would want to know about this if I was any other customer here.

It's also important to note that the conversation regarding the exchange of goods was over the phone, so unfortunately I do not have written proof of this conversation.

Thanks in advance for your help!

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I only address the core legal question. The first question regards where the review appeared: on the facility's own web page, or on some third party web page? In the latter case, there is the possibility that soliciting a modified review in exchange for something of value violates the terms of usage for that web site. There are also US federal regulations pertaining to advertising, as well as state regulations. The federal regulations are here. The main question is whether what you say constitutes an endorsement, as specified here. They define an endorsement as:

any advertising message (including verbal statements, demonstrations, or depictions of the name, signature, likeness or other identifying personal characteristics of an individual or the name or seal of an organization) that consumers are likely to believe reflects the opinions, beliefs, findings, or experiences of a party other than the sponsoring advertiser, even if the views expressed by that party are identical to those of the sponsoring advertiser.

The regulation in fact gives some helpful examples (reading them helps to clarify what an "endorsement" is), the last of which involves a dog:

Example 8: A consumer who regularly purchases a particular brand of dog food decides one day to purchase a new, more expensive brand made by the same manufacturer. She writes in her personal blog that the change in diet has made her dog's fur noticeably softer and shinier, and that in her opinion, the new food definitely is worth the extra money. This posting would not be deemed an endorsement under the Guides.

Assume now that the consumer joins a network marketing program under which she periodically receives various products about which she can write reviews if she wants to do so. If she receives a free bag of the new dog food through this program, her positive review would be considered an endorsement under the Guides.

The distinction at issue is whether the suggestion of receiving something of value might influence a person's statements. You can pay for a positive review, as a reward for saying nice things, as long as the reviewer had no reason to think that they would get get something in return for a review.

Taking your review to be an endorsement, as required here,

Endorsements must reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the endorser.

The regulation does not require you to reveal every thing that came into your mind in writing the review, but it is pretty clear that suppressing the concern about vaccination paperwork and the star count constitutes a dishonest statement of opinion of the endorser.

Material connections must also be revealed:

When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed. For example, when an endorser who appears in a television commercial is neither represented in the advertisement as an expert nor is known to a significant portion of the viewing public, then the advertiser should clearly and conspicuously disclose either the payment or promise of compensation prior to and in exchange for the endorsement or the fact that the endorser knew or had reason to know or to believe that if the endorsement favored the advertised product some benefit, such as an appearance on television, would be extended to the endorser

In the 7th example under material disclosure, they describe a blogger who received something of value in connection with a review:

the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge

I should point out that these regulations are written by the FTC, and the implied interpretation (such as that the blogger should disclose... with no clearly stated penalty for failure to disclose) is an FTC interpretation. 15 USC 52 prohibits false advertisements for services affecting commerce. This is the jurisdictional aspect of their complaint against Cure Encapsulations, where defendants paid for reviews on a third-party website (this case involves a relationship between defendant and a fourth-party company that apparently hunts for and pays reviewers). This is apparently the first instance in which the FTC has gone against a business for paying for reviews on a third party web site, so it's not a foregone conclusion that they will prevail in court. Still, Chevron deference means that they will probably win at least on the jurisdictional question. The main difference is that in the Cure Encapsulation case, the violation was even more egregious in that the individuals were not even customers, and in this instance the would-(not)-be review was not the honest opinion of the endorser.

  • I see that if the ratings were on the business's site a review would be classed as advertising. Do you think there is an issue as to whether posting on a third party site by a consumer would even fall under this law regulating advertising? – George White Sep 25 at 0:26
  • Thank you both for your detailed responses and help. To clarify, the review was posted on Yelp. Based on my reading as well as communication with customer support, this company was in violation of Yelp's policies. However, they understandably need written evidence of this communication in order to pursue the issue further. I am hoping they call my husband back so I can ask them for this request in writing. If they have any brains at all, they won't do that, knowing that at the VERY least this is a bribe and is an unethical way to do business. I will update if there are any developments! – Lauren Geber Sep 25 at 15:30

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