The Federal Trade Commission took action today against a marketer of vitamins and other supplements called The Bountiful Company (Bountiful) for abusing a feature of Amazon.com to deceive consumers into thinking that its newly introduced supplements had more product ratings and reviews, higher average ratings, and “#1 Best Seller” and “Amazon’s Choice” badges.
The case against Bountiful marks the FTC’s first law enforcement challenging “review hijacking,” in which a marketer steals or repurposes reviews of another product. Bountiful carried out this deceptive tactic by merging its new products on Amazon with different well-established products that had more ratings, reviews, and badges, the FTC said.
“Boosting your products by hijacking another product’s ratings or reviews is a relatively new tactic, but is still plain old false advertising,” said Samuel Levine, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The Bountiful Company is paying back $600,000 for manipulating product pages and deceiving consumers.”
Bountiful, based in Bohemia, New York, manufactures vitamin, mineral, and other nutritional supplements. Its brands include Nature’s Bounty and Sundown. Bountiful sells its supplements to Amazon, which then sells them to consumers on Amazon.com.
According to the FTC, Bountiful took advantage of an Amazon feature that allows vendors to create or request the creation of “variation” relationships between some products that are similar but differ only in narrow, specific ways – such as color, size, quantity, or flavor. Products with a variation relationship share the same product detail page on Amazon.com and appear as alternative choices, so shoppers can compare and choose among similar products.
The product detail page of products that are in a variation relationship displays the total number of ratings, the average star rating, and the reviews for all of the products in the variation relationship, the FTC said in its complaint. They also share any “#1 Best Seller” or “Amazon’s Choice” badges.
According to the FTC’s complaint, during 2020 and 2021, Bountiful asked Amazon to create numerous variation relationships for its supplement products with different formulations. According to one internal Bountiful communication, the company created variations with some new products “to try and ramp them faster as they were NOT selling and we wanted to give them a little boost in R[atings]&R[eviews] to gain visibility and allow them to also borrow the ‘amazon choice’ badge and best seller badge which worked.”
For example, in March 2020, the company began selling two new products: Nature’s Bounty Stress Comfort Mood Booster and Nature’s Bounty Stress Comfort Peace of Mind Stress Relief Gummies. It requested that Amazon combine the new products in a variation relationship with three of its established products, all with different formulations. “Unfortunately people d[id] not love the [Stress Comfort] product[s],” but sales “spiked the second we variated the pages and they continue to grow,” according to one internal company email.
The FTC’s complaint alleges that by manipulating product pages, Bountiful misrepresented the reviews, the number of Amazon reviews and the average star ratings of some products, and that some of them were number one best sellers or had earned an Amazon Choice badge.
In addition to requiring that Bountiful pay $600,000 as monetary relief for consumers, the proposed order prohibits Bountiful from making similar types of misrepresentations and bars the company from creating a variation relationship – or using other deceptive review tactics – that distort what consumers think about its products or services.
Review hijacking is one of the clearly deceptive or unfair practices involving reviews on which the Commission sought comment in October 2022 when it announced an advance notice of proposed rulemaking.
The Commission vote to accept the proposed consent agreement was 4-0. The FTC will publish a description of the consent agreement package in the Federal Register soon. The agreement will be subject to public comment for 30 days, after which the Commission will decide whether to make the proposed consent order final. Instructions for filing comments will appear in the published notice. Comments must be received 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. Once processed, comments will be posted on Regulations.gov.
The lead staffer on this matter was Michael Ostheimer of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.
NOTE: The Commission issues an administrative complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated, and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. When the Commission issues a consent order on a final basis, it carries the force of law with respect to future actions. Each violation of such an order may result in a civil penalty of up to $50,120.