According to the FTC, The Bountiful Company, best known for its Nature’s Bounty and Sundown brands, allegedly deceived consumers into thinking that its newly introduced supplements had more product ratings and reviews, higher average ratings, and “#1 Best Seller” and “Amazon’s Choice” badges.
“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 Bureau of Consumer Protection. “The Bountiful Company is paying back $600,000 for manipulating product pages and deceiving consumers.”
The case marks the FTC’s first law enforcement challenging “review hijacking,” in which a marketer steals or repurposes reviews of another product.
A spokesperson for The Bountiful Company told NutraIngredients-USA: “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. Bountiful is already complying with the terms of the order and will continue to do so.”
According to the FTC, Bountiful took advantage of an Amazon feature that allows vendors to create or request the creation of “variation” relationships between some products that are similar but differ only in narrow, specific ways – such as color, size, quantity, or flavor. Products with a variation relationship share the same product detail page on Amazon.com and appear as alternative choices, so shoppers can compare and choose among similar products.
The product detail page of products that are in a variation relationship displays the total number of ratings, the average star rating, and the reviews for all of the products in the variation relationship, the FTC said in its complaint. They also share any “#1 Best Seller” or “Amazon’s Choice” badges.
According to the FTC’s complaint, during 2020 and 2021, Bountiful asked Amazon to create numerous variation relationships for its supplement products with different formulations. According to one internal Bountiful communication, the company created variations with some new products “to try and ramp them faster as they were NOT selling and we wanted to give them a little boost in R[atings]&R[eviews] to gain visibility and allow them to also borrow the ‘amazon choice’ badge and best seller badge which worked.”
FTC cited an example from March 2020 when the company began selling two new products: Nature’s Bounty Stress Comfort Mood Booster and Nature’s Bounty Stress Comfort Peace of Mind Stress Relief Gummies. It requested that Amazon combine the new products in a variation relationship with three of its established products, all with different formulations. “Unfortunately people d[id] not love the [Stress Comfort] product[s],” but sales “spiked the second we variated the pages and they continue to grow,” according to one internal company email.
The FTC’s complaint alleged that by manipulating product pages, Bountiful misrepresented the reviews, the number of Amazon reviews and the average star ratings of some products, and that some of them were number one best sellers or had earned an Amazon Choice badge.
In addition to requiring that Bountiful pay $600,000 as monetary relief for consumers, the proposed order prohibits Bountiful from making similar types of misrepresentations and bars the company from creating a variation relationship – or using other deceptive review tactics – that distort what consumers think about its products or services.
Attorney: Review highjacking is a legitimate issue
Commenting independently on the case, Marc Ullman, Of Counsel for Rivkin Radler, told us: “What you do with reviews matters.”
Review highjacking “seems like a legitimate issue”, he said. “What you’re dealing with is not just changing the labels, but the doses, and more. It’s really a different product and that’s a problem both for consumers and competitors.
“I’m surprised this was able to happen,” added Ullman. “I’ve had issues with clients where even relatively minor label or packaging changes has led to it being considered a new SKU. It’s baffling that The Bountiful Company was able to do this.”
An Amazon spokesperson told NutraIngredients-USA: “There’s no place for fraud in Amazon’s store and we will continue to assist enforcement agencies in holding bad actors accountable.”