The agency that handles PR for Harmonix, 505 Games and other developers will settle charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission that its employees posed as ordinary consumers to post positive game reviews on the iTunes App store.
Reverb Communications, whose clients also include MTV Games, CDV Software Entertainment and Emergent Game Technologies, must remove from the iTunes Store all reviews that misrepresent the author as an ordinary consumer. The rest of the settlement is an agreement that Reverb and its owner, Tracie Snitker, won't post reviews without disclosing the relevant connections they have with the seller of the product or service concerned.
The specific products were not mentioned. Kotaku has contacted Reverb Communications for comment. Any statements will be updated here.
Update: Casey Lynch, the director of public relations and business development for Reverb Communications, gave this statement to Kotaku:
During discussions with the FTC, it became apparent that we would never agree on the facts of the situation. Rather than continuing to spend time and money arguing, and laying off employees to fight what we believed was a frivolous matter, we settled this case and ended the discussion because as the FTC states: 'The consent agreement is for settlement purposes only and does not constitute admission by the respondents of a law violation.'
Snitker, Reverb's owner, added this statement:
This issue was specific to a handful of small, independently developed iPhone apps that several team members downloaded onto their personal iPhones in their own time using their own money and accounts, a right and privilege afforded to every iPhone and iTouch user. This was neither mandated by Reverb nor connected to our policies. Bottom line, these allegations are old, this situation was settled awhile ago and had nothing to do with the clients that Kotaku unfortunately named in their post here.
An FTC news release said that, between November 2008 and May 2009, Reverb and Snitker "posted reviews about their clients' games at the iTunes store using account names that gave readers the impression the reviews were written by disinterested consumers, according to the FTC complaint.
"Reverb and Snitker did not disclose that they were hired to promote the games and that they often received a percentage of the sales," the statement said.
Last year, the FTC revised its endorsements and testimonial guidelines for online product reviews. The FTC said that anyone connected to the seller of a product or service, or anyone who receives cash or in-kind compensation for reviewing that product or service "should disclose the material connection the reviewer shares with the seller of the product or service." The guideline applies to both employees of the seller as well as any agency advertising on its behalf.
"Companies, including public relations firms involved in online marketing need to abide by long-held principles of truth in advertising," Mary Engle, Director of the FTC's Division of Advertising Practices, said in a statement. "Advertisers should not pass themselves off as ordinary consumers touting a product, and endorsers should make it clear when they have financial connections to sellers."
The FTC notes that an administrative complaint, which this is, is not the same as a finding that someone has actually violated a law. It's brought only when the commission thinks a law is being violated and a proceeding is in the public's interest.
The settlement between the FCC and Reverb also does not constitute any admission of a law violation by Reverb.