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The courts must not approach a written advertisement as if it were a commercial contract by reading it several times, going over every detail to make sure they understand all its subtleties.

Reading over the entire text once should be sufficient to assess the general impression conveyed by a written advertisement. Consider the recent case of the Commissioner of Competition v. Yellow Page Marketing B. Footnote 15 In that case, the advertiser faxed forms to businesses which gave the general impression that they had been sent by the recipients' usual yellow pages supplier who required the businesses to update their listing information by faxing the forms back.

In that case, the evidence indicated that the vast majority of complainants who received the fax did not read, notice or understand the fine print. The court concluded that the representations in the faxes were materially false or misleading, and that the fine print did not reduce its false or misleading nature. This case offers a concrete example of how a fine print disclaimer failed to cure an otherwise materially false or misleading representation.

Online advertising appears in many digital formats including banners, text based hyperlinks, interesting or entertaining content, email or text messages, short video or audio clips, and items shared on social media feeds, to name just a few.

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Furthermore, advertisements created in any one of these formats can appear across interconnected platforms, including social media sites, review platforms, news sites or aggregators and retailer or company websites. Consumers, often on the go, now encounter online advertising throughout the course of a typical day, and they are assessing this information on mobile devices and making decisions more quickly than ever before. If the chosen format allows advertising to unfold through a series of steps or pages, consumers may be misled if important information is relegated to a disclaimer that is not apparent or appears at a stage after the consumer has somehow committed or delved deeper into the advertisement.

Or the same advertisement, viewed on a certain platform or on a mobile device, may present the important elements in a way that is not obviously accessible. To complicate things further, online advertising is often intentionally designed to be shared online. Created in one format and loaded onto a specific platform, advertising will then travel across platforms and be viewed on many different browsing devices.

An advertisement created, even carefully, in one format and distributed through one platform, may be altered when it is shared among users and appears on different platforms. The risk is that any fine print disclaimers get lost or left behind depending on the formatting or technical constraints of the secondary platforms or devices. It is clear that the challenges associated with digital formats significantly limit the likelihood that disclaimers, as a general proposition, will be seen and understood in a way that is likely to alter the general impression of an online advertisement.

Digital media has changed the way that commercial representations are designed, distributed and consumed. These changes do little to increase the likelihood that disclaimers will be read and understood in such a way that they will likely alter the general impression of an otherwise materially false or misleading representation. If anything, it is easy to imagine the exponential increase in risk associated with a reliance on disclaimers to cure materially false or misleading representations.

As such, it appears that the guidance offered by the Bureau many years ago remains just as relevant today. Genuine product reviews, written by consumers who have had authentic user experiences, have become a crucial source of unbiased product information for consumers.

Footnote 16 Social media sites, for example, are often where consumers begin researching a new product or service. Authentic consumer reviews on digital platforms benefit both consumers and business, providing a wealth of unbiased product information to help consumers make informed decisions, and rewarding businesses that provide a superior product or service. The term "astroturfing", when used in an advertising context, refers to the practice of creating commercial representations that masquerade as the authentic experiences and opinions of impartial consumers, such as fake consumer reviews and testimonials.

We have noticed an increase in this practice that is often part of organized efforts by companies to boost their own ratings or lower the ratings of their competitors. For example, companies have been known to encourage their employees to post positive reviews on websites and review platforms, or to provide their customers with incentives to leave positive reviews. While these schemes are sometimes intended to promote a specific product or service, they are often part of efforts by companies to promote their business interests more generally.

For example, they may hope to build or protect brand loyalty or increase demand. If this practice continues unchecked, it will seriously erode consumer confidence in the authenticity of online reviews, at a cost to both customers and business. Social media is a major source of information for consumers seeking advice to guide their purchasing decisions, and a prime platform for fake online reviews. The misleading advertising provisions of the Competition Act the Act Footnote 18 prohibit advertisers from making a representation, by any means whatever, that is false or misleading in a material respect, Footnote 19 and further provide that the general impression conveyed by the representation be taken into account.

Consumers read online reviews to research the pros and cons of a product, and they highly value the genuine experiences of other shoppers. Insofar as the general impression is concerned, there can be little doubt that consumer reviews are seen to reflect the authentic experiences of impartial consumers. This makes perfect sense. Canadians expect consumer reviews to be just that: reviews expressing the real experiences of genuine customers. What would consumers make of glowing user reviews if they were revealed to have been written by people who had never used the product and, furthermore, may have been paid to write the reviews?

Clearly consumers would dismiss such opinions outright as false and deceptive. What if those same positive comments had been composed by employees of the company? Companies and their employees clearly have a vested interest in positive consumer reviews of their product, and are likely to be perceived as biased and lacking adequate impartiality, and therefore less likely to provide a balanced review.

As such, consumers may attach less weight to the reviews when they know that they lack independence. Surveys have shown, for instance, that a majority of consumers find online sources trustworthy for product reviews and have changed their minds about purchases based on online information or have had their decision to purchase confirmed by a favourable review. Footnote On the business side, research shows that an increase in review scores may allow businesses to raise prices and still maintain market share, and that an increase in online reputation can lead to an increase in customers. In terms of the authenticity of testimonials, Bureau guidance on the subject explains that consumers will assume that a consumer offering a testimonial had actually used the product before commenting on it, and indicates that " Advertisers, or those with whom they have a material connection, who are considering posting consumer reviews about their own products or those of a competitor may wish to ask themselves whether the reviews create the general impression that they represent the authentic experiences and opinions of impartial consumers.

In thinking about the impression created, advertisers are encouraged to consider the context within which the review is likely to be displayed.

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Part of the consideration of the context would include whether it allows the review to be separated from any disclosure of a material connection. Among the many and varied channels through which a person may receive information, it is hard to imagine any that carry the credibility and, thus, the importance of interpersonal communication, or word of mouth.

There is good reason to believe that it has more potential impact than any other communication channel. Astroturfing is a problem that crosses borders and threatens the integrity of online commerce globally. It occupies an increasingly central spot on the radar of most major law enforcement agencies and international organizations tasked with addressing issues associated with deceptive and misleading marketing practices.

The Bureau has excellent working relationships with its international partners and strives to keep informed of their experiences in this area, as well as participating in various international fora where the subject is addressed and discussed. The accompanying guidelines explain that a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product, that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, should be disclosed. Footnote 25 Significant enforcement activities have continued since the revision of the Guides.

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