NY AG: Facelift firm placed bogus online reviews

By Jennifer Peltz
Associated Press

July 14, 2009

NEW YORK -- The online journal gave a chatty account of a problem-free face lift. "You will never regret it," the patient wrote.

But the seemingly satisfied customer actually was an employee of the firm behind the Lifestyle Lift, writing as part of a company campaign to plant plugs for the procedure online, state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said in announcing a $300,000 settlement with the company Tuesday.

His office said the settlement appeared to be one of the first to address so-called astroturf marketing, or creating a bogus grassroots buzz about a product.

Troy, Mich.-based Lifestyle Lift Inc. said its informational material now accurately reflects actual patients' comments and is clearly labeled as coming from the company.

"We want to be acknowledged as a model of integrity and accuracy," company President Gordon Quick said in a statement.

Widely advertised through television infomercials as a relatively quick and inexpensive form of face lift, the Lifestyle Lift has been performed on more than 100,000 people since 2001, according to the company. It's affiliated with a network of doctors in New York and 21 other states.

The company has aggressively guarded its online reputation. In 2007, it sued an Arizona man who maintained a consumer-oriented Web site that included criticisms of Lifestyle Lift, saying the site's use of the procedure's name infringed on the company's trademark and amounted to false advertising. A federal judge in Michigan dismissed the case last year, saying the site was commentary protected by the First Amendment.

But Lifestyle Lift also came up with another new way to fight back: Having staffers post glowing reviews, comments and testimonials that appeared to come from clients.

"I need you to devote the day to doing more postings on the Web as a satisfied client," employees were told in one internal e-mail, according to the attorney general's office. Another internal message directed a worker to "put your wig and skirt on and tell them about the great experience you had."

The disguised workers did that and more, sometimes pushing to get message boards to remove critical posts and even setting up pro-Lifestyle Lift Web sites that masqueraded as independent views, Cuomo's office said. The postings dated back to early 2007, the attorney general's office said.

One such site featured a detailed "journal," stretching from a first consultation to two months after the procedure, and included photos and an exhortation to "GO FOR IT." Another supposed first-person account came complete with the names of the writer's children.

"This company's attempt to generate business by duping consumers was cynical, manipulative and illegal," Cuomo said in a release. He said the tactics violated consumer protection laws.

Lifestyle Lift said Tuesday the disputed endorsements were "representative of" real patients' comments but acknowledged they weren't rendered verbatim or labeled as coming from the company.

The company, which said it has since changed management, will pay the state $300,000 in penalties and costs. The settlement came as the attorney general's office investigated the company's practices, without any litigation in court.

The Federal Trade Commission is working on revising its nearly 30-year-old guidelines on the use of testimonials and endorsements to reflect the growth of online marketing. The review comes amid heightened attention to the role blogs and Internet comments can now play in a product's fortunes.

In the meantime, the American Advertising Federation, an industry group, has its own guidelines specifying that testimonials "shall be limited to those of competent witnesses who are reflecting a real and honest opinion or experience."

"We think the consumer has the right to know that an advertisement is an advertisement," spokesman Clark Rector said.

Copyright 2007