Vitamin and supplement maker, The Bountiful Company (owned by Nestlé), has to pay a $600,000 fine to the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly misrepresenting numerous products online. According to the FTC, Bountiful—which makes Nature’s Bounty supplements along with other brands—engaged in “review hijacking” on Amazon.com. In other words: The company misled consumers by combining multiple product pages into one, to artificially boost the number of reviews and star ratings on new or poorly performing items.
“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,” The federal watchdog wrote in a news release.
“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 Consumer Protection Bureau, in the same press statement.
To engage in this misleading advertising tactic, Bountiful took advantage of Amazon’s variation policy, which allows companies to lump products together on the same page if they only differ in small and particular ways like color, size, quantity, or flavor, according to the Commission. For instance, if a shirt comes in multiple colors, or if a multi-vitamin is available in bottles containing different numbers of tablets.
Yet in Bountiful’s case, the company went beyond those allowed variations and successfully petitioned Amazon to group together supplements containing different active ingredients and formulations, the FTC claims. By taking the Amazon listing for an older, well-loved product with high reviews, or even a “#1 Best Seller” badge and then inaccurately listing newer items as variants on that product, the lesser known items benefit from the established reviews, ratings, and Amazon badges.
The company allegedly used this tactic with multiple different new and poorly selling items between 2020 and 2021. In the first instance, the company grouped two variations of its newer “Stress Comfort” gummy supplements with more established relaxation-focused products. A company exec noted that the strategy boosted sales of Bountiful’s Stress Comfort line, and then suggested the company do the same with other products, according to internal emails included in the original FTC complaint.
“[U]nfortunately people d[id] not love the [Stress Comfort] product[s],” Bountiful’s ecommerce development director wrote in an August 2020 email, as quoted by the Commission. But sales “spiked the second we variated the pages and they continue to grow,” the exec added. Following that success, the company began taking the same tack with other products, like its zinc and “immune boosting” supplements—even though in every case the grouped items differed meaningfully in amounts or types of ingredients.
Though the FTC order and complaint don’t detail any particular instances of customer harm, it’s easy to see how the product-lumping practice could go beyond misleading and actually prove dangerous to consumers. What if someone had an allergy? What if a customer thought they were taking a much smaller dose of a vitamin than they really were, and overdoses?
In addition to paying the $600,000 fines (which is probably a pittance for parent company Nestlé), the FTC order also bars Bountiful from “review hijacking” moving forward—or acting “in any manner that distorts or otherwise misrepresents what consumers think of [its] products or services.”
One further aspect of the settlement is that “the facts alleged in the Complaint will be taken as true.” However, Bountiful still seemed to lightly deny the allegations of misleading customers in an emailed statement to Gizmodo.
“The Bountiful Company has settled with the FTC on this matter to avoid a lengthy and costly legal challenge. We stand behind our products and business practices and are convinced that consumers were neither deceived nor harmed by the variation practices implemented to assist consumers in finding similar products,” the company wrote. “Bountiful is already complying with the terms of the order and will continue to do so.”
In response to emailed questions, an Amazon spokesperson told Gizmodo, “There’s no place for fraud in Amazon’s store. We have proactive measure in place to prevent listing abuse and continuously monitor our store.” The company noted that it assisted the FTC in the agency’s investigation of Bountiful Co., and that it “will continue to assist enforcement agencies in holding bad actors accountable.”
Though this specific strategy of product rating manipulation may be relatively new, it’s far from the first time that shady listings and advertising practices have emerged on Amazon.com. Counterfeit products have abounded on the e-tailer’s site in the past, and many scam sellers have long used fake reviews to inflate sales. Add “review hijacking” to the long list of things online consumers now need to be wary of.
Update 2/22/2023, 12:13 p.m. ET: This post has been updated with comment from Amazon.