Dressed in a lab coat, a woman speaks to a camera and says she’s a licensed dietitian from the Kennedy Health Institute in Washington — and that the she has information on a “great and healthy” weight loss supplement.
It’s a glowing testimonial. The problem? It’s fake. The woman is not a dietitian and the Kennedy Health Institute doesn’t exist.
CBC’s Marketplace, which has probed the world of fake reviews before, decided to take another look at video testimonials, which have been on the rise as marketers try to reach customers online.
The woman in the video goes by the name Sanpan. It’s not her real name, but it’s her username on online marketplace Fiverr — where anyone can hire her, or hundreds of other freelancers, to make a testimonial video.
Marketplace first encountered Sanpan in its 2014 investigation of fake reviews, which showed how easy it is for a company to buy a good reputation online
She’s prolific, creating thousands of online testimonial videos for everything from private intelligence firms in the U.K. to a maid service in the U.S.
Marketplace compiled available data from people who use Fiverr, a popular website where anyone can get a service called a “gig” completed for as little as $5. Based on customer reviews on Fiverr, Marketplace estimated that more than 17,000 gigs have been completed in the video testimonial section alone.
But a blurry line between advertising and authentic online video testimonials can sometimes make it tricky for consumers to tell what they are watching.
“I’m here to help deliver you a casual video testimonial, something that seems like it may have come from one of your actual customers that has purchased your product or has used your service,” says one Fiverr seller in her video bio.
Another Fiverr seller says in his bio video: “If you are looking for a natural video testimonial that is going to drive traffic and convert to your website … then you’re in the right place.”
Andy North, vice-president of corporate branding and communications at Bazaarvoice, a company that authenticates consumer reviews for businesses, says video testimonials are the “next horizon” of marketing.
He says video reviews are a “much more personal way of providing feedback.”
“That said, can it be faked? Absolutely,” said North. “It does make it a little more difficult to confirm the authenticity of that particular user or provider.”
What are the rules?
False or misleading advertising is prohibited by the Competition Act. Any business, website, or person who makes, buys, or sells fake testimonials could be liable — both the actor providing the testimonial and the company that hires them.
As an actor, Sanpan may not know how the videos will be used, or what disclaimer will appear alongside them.
Individuals, including actors like Sanpan, could serve up to 14 years in prison and could be liable for penalties up to $750,000 under the Competition Act if they know they will be used in deceptive advertising. Corporations could face fines of up to $10,000,000.
The Competition Bureau won’t say if it’s investigating individuals like Sanpan. But the agency has taken action on fake written reviews online.
In 2015, the Bureau fined Bell Media $1.25 million dollars after its employees were caught posting reviews for its new app without disclosing their relationship to the company. Bell was the first company to have been fined for deceptive online reviews.
Fiverr says it’s up to companies to disclose that a video testimonial has a paid actor.
“With any script-driven testimonial delivered by an actor, it’s incumbent upon the advertiser to be transparent with consumers and consistent with the laws governing disclosures around that paid-for content,” said Fiverr in a statement.
After Marketplace contacted Fiverr, the company added a disclaimer to the testimonial section stating: “Sellers in this category are actors. The testimonials they provide on your behalf are paid, promotional materials, and you should indicate this to your customers.”
‘Nothing wrong’ with videos
Sanpan denies that there’s anything wrong with what she’s doing.
“Nothing I have done or anybody I know in that marketplace has done anything wrong,” she said.
“[There are] spokespeople advertising people all over the world, making claims, making statements. There is absolutely nothing wrong with what anybody does in that marketplace and if they want to advertise, they can advertise.”
Hours after Marketplace spoke to her, Sanpan Fiverr’s testimonial page was taken down.