The call for corporate transparency is one of the loudest in social media, and one could argue that social CRM has taken flight because customers demanded a way to get past the false front of advertising. That’s why the recent case of Lifestyle Lift drives me up the wall.
Background info: Lifestyle Lift is a cosmetic surgery company that engaged in a marketing practice known as Astroturfing—using false testimonials to give the impression of customer satisfaction. The fraud was discovered, and the New York State Attorney General fined the company $300,000 as part of a settlement. You can see coverage here (via Ars Technica).
Deceptive practices like this are nothing new, and neither is my outrage—I first heard about the Lifestyle Lift situation a couple of weeks ago, in a local newspaper article handed to me by my girlfriend—but I wanted to see how it turned out before venting on my blog. I’m angry for a number of reasons. The company president directed employees to create false online personae and write glowing reviews of Lifestyle Lift procedures, without identifying themselves as employees. They were also to argue with and discredit legitimate critics, since obviously the honest opinions of real people were bad for business. I can’t believe it came from a failure to understand how social media works, so the only alternative is an active desire to commit fraud, coupled with complete disregard and contempt for the public and the law.
What really galls me is that, rather than destroy the company, the AG allowed it to settle for a small fine and a promise to stop their deceptive practices. While $300,000 may seem like a lot of money to an individual, it’s likely a drop in the bucket for a business that offers cosmetic surgery. Their reputation will certainly take a hit, assuming anybody hears about this case, but it doesn’t seem likely. The closest the Lifestyle Lift site comes to admitting wrongdoing is the following bit of fluff, at the bottom of its main page:
The Lifestyle Lift Code of Internet Conduct and Assurance
Lifestyle Lift® pledges that all Internet communications accompanied by the trademarked Lifestyle Lift® logo are fair and accurately represent the latest in medical information about facial firming procedures. The comments and photographs are from actual patients and fairly represent the results and opinions of thousands of our patients. Lifestyle Lift® is proud to take a leadership role in establishing new standards of Internet conduct and communications. We promise that any Internet communication accompanied by our logo can be relied upon as true and accurate; and all communications originating from our practice will be clearly identified with the Lifestyle Lift® logo. If you have any questions or concerns about the authenticity of any internet content or postings, please contact Lifestyle Lift®.
Note the part about taking a leadership role (emphasis mine). They get caught in an institutionalized program of lying to the public and discrediting real people, and rather than admit to wrongdoing they claim to be leading the charge for open and honest communication? That’s chutzpah. Plus, there’s no clear way to enforce the claim, so all Lifestyle Lift has to do in order to keep Astroturfing is to be a little more careful about it. That just ain’t cool.
We have a responsibility, in this increasingly social and connected world, to fight against this sort of thing. To demand honesty and decry fraud. It’s bad enough to see sockpuppets on message boards where it’s all just talk—this is people’s money and appearance at stake. Don’t let Lifestyle Lift get away with it. Don’t let anybody get away with it. Do your part to make sure everybody knows about this bold dishonesty and the wrist-slap punishment it incurred. When you suspect Astroturf marketing is in play, make noise about it. If you’re in business, don’t do it. It’s up to us to create and maintain the honest dialogue we demand, and to make sure those who try to cheat are held accountable.