If you’ve made any searches on the Amazon website recently, you might’ve noticed the top results are consistently cluttered with a growing number of ads featuring products from major brands. You also might not ever know they’re there—these so-called “sponsored” listings are virtually indistinguishable from the regular results you’d normally see, which means consumers are likely clicking those ads wholly unaware that their search results are full of big-name brands that paid Amazon for these coveted top spots, leaving smaller sellers in the dust.
It’s a practice that’s scummy at best and outright deceptive at worst. And now, a coalition of labor unions is taking the e-commerce giant to task. The Strategic Organizing Center (SOC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday, alleging that the company isn’t doing enough to distinguish paid ads from organic search results—and swindling customers in the process.
First reported by the Washington Post, the complaint is built off an SOC analysis of more than 130,000 search results for some of the most popular products on the platform, like air fryers, lawnmowers, and iPhone cases. The results were staggering—28% of the search results that cropped up were actually paid ads, according to SOC.
“The near-categorical noncompliance of Amazon’s advertisements with the FTC’s guidelines is egregious, but the pervasiveness of advertisements in Amazon’s search results, with the highest portion in the main body of those search results, adds significantly to the level of consumer harm likely caused by these violations,” the complaint reads.
Amazon certainly isn’t the first major tech company to try luring consumers into clicking more ads by gussying them up like search results—hell, Google got chewed out by users after trying to pull the same crap back in 2020. Google, for its part, quickly walked back on that redesign.
Unless Amazon does the same, there could be some serious FTC penalties involved. These sorts of scammy tactics might fall under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices,” in the commerce sector. The way the agency puts it, it all boils down to a consumer’s right to make informed decisions about what they buy. When those consumers get swindled by an ad that looks like a search result, they’re arguably losing some of the power to make those choices.
This is why the Commission’s had rules in place for roughly the past two decades specifically to keep search engine providers from weaseling hidden ads or paid-for products into their customer’s organic search results. In 2013, that guidance got a major overhaul in order to make ads even more distinct; aside from text labels like “sponsored,” for example, companies were also told to use other “prominent visual cues” to let customers know that a search result might be paid for. The top recommendations, at the time, were that search engine companies differentiate their ads by popping a prominent border around them, adding shading to those ads, or both.
In Amazon’s case, the SOC writes in its complaint, the measly “sponsored” label just doesn’t cut it. “Indeed, the overwhelming proportion of advertisements—advertisements which are not identifiable as ads—within Amazon’s search pages throws into question the fundamental integrity of ‘search’ on Amazon’s online platform, and indicates Amazon is engaging in a much broader deception of consumers by representing these pages as ‘search results’ at all,” the complaint reads.
Gizmodo’s reached out to Amazon for comment on the case and will update here when we hear back.