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Sunday Riley’s fake review scandal hurts all beauty brands—and all consumers

Sunday Riley’s fake review scandal hurts all beauty brands—and all consumers
[Photo: Glow Repose/Unsplash]

Women around the country are reconsidering whether they should drop hundreds of dollars on the latest miracle skincare cream at Sephora after news that the cult brand Sunday Riley had been forcing employees to write fake reviews between November 2015 and August 2017.

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This week, the FTC officially settled the case. After its investigation, it confirmed a whistleblower’s claim: that employees had been coerced to write positive reviews using VPN networks to avoid detection and that Sunday Riley herself, the brand’s CEO, had spearheaded the scheme.

Sunday Riley has not issued a response to the FTC’s findings. We reached out to the company for comment and will update if we hear back.

While the Sunday Riley case has been a scandal in the beauty world and may very well result in the company losing sales, it does not look like the company will suffer any other consequences. The FTC did not require Riley to pay a fine or even admit to wrongdoing. Rohit Chopra, an FTC commissioner, put out a statement saying that this slap on the wrist would do nothing to deter other brands from doing the same thing.

“Today’s proposed settlement includes no redress, no disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, no notice to consumers, and no admission of wrongdoing,” the statement says. “Sunday Riley and its CEO have clearly broken the law, and the Commission has ordered that they not break the law again. Unfortunately, the proposed settlement is unlikely to deter other would-be wrongdoers.”

Reviews play an important role in the beauty world. It is very hard for beauty brands to scientifically prove claims about products, whether it’s eliminating the appearance of wrinkles, evening out skin tone, or any number of supposed benefits. Some brands conduct small studies, but it is very rare for these results to be validated by a third party or auditor. As a result, consumers rely on other people’s experiences. Sometimes this happens by word of mouth: If a friend of yours or a celebrity says she swears by a new anti-aging cream, you’re more likely to drop $100 on it. When shopping online, customers seek out products with lots of positive reviews.

In his statement, Rohit points out that we still don’t fully understand the impact of fake reviews and how they might distort the markets. He proposes that the FTC do more research to better quantify the impact of Sunday Riley-like schemes. But what is clear is this: Consumers are now becoming increasingly aware that it is easy for brands to systematically engineer positive ratings. And brands themselves have no incentive to stop doing this because even if they are caught red-handed, they are unlikely to face any significant consequences.

Basically, we can’t trust anything we read on the internet anymore, and that’s ultimately not good for the beauty industry or consumers.

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