FTC approves $600,000 fine for Bountiful in ‘review hijacking’ case

The maker of Nature's Bounty products has been cited for misapplying consumer reviews on Amazon.

Hank Schultz, Senior Editor

April 10, 2023

3 Min Read
FTC approves $600,000 fine for Bountiful in ‘review hijacking’ case

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC or Commission) announced on Monday that it has approved a final order in a case that involved allegedly misleading use of reviews of products sold on Amazon.

The final agreement orders The Bountiful Company, a Bohemia, N.Y.-based manufacturer of supplements under the brand names of Nature’s Bounty, Sundown and others, to pay $600,000 in restitution and refrain from similar actions in the future.

Playing the variation game

The complaint hinged on Bountiful’s alleged misuse of an Amazon feature that allows marketers to create so-called “variation” relationships between products.

This feature allows marketers to create links to similar product pages for different colors of a T-shirt, or different flavors of a beverage, for example, making it easier for consumers to compare these slightly different offerings.

The key is the degree to which the products on the variation pages resemble the original. If the relationships are very close (such as a different shirt color), the reviews of the product by consumers can legitimately apply to both. To do otherwise might be construed as misleading, according to FTC guidance.

The FTC commissioners found the new products linked in this fashion by Bountiful (which is now owned by Nestlé) were different formulations, and the company was in effect “gaming” the system by allowing different products to tag on with the high-ranking reviews of some of Bountiful’s best sellers.

Related:FTC’s revisions to dietary supplement advertising guidelines: More of the same

The FTC complaint alleged consumers would thereby be misled into thinking variation products were also receiving high-ranking reviews.

The complaint details how the company deliberately tacked poor-selling products with low-ranking scores onto the pages of high-selling products.

The Commission said the Bountiful case marks the first time it has pursued an enforcement action over so-called “review hijacking.”

The complaint cited some internal company emails as proof of the practice.

One email, which was authored by an unnamed ecommerce director, said the company “got creative” by creating “variations with some of our [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.”

For example, Bountiful requested Amazon combine two gummy products— Stress Comfort Mood Booster Gummies and Nature’s Bounty Stress Comfort Peace of Mind Stress Relief Gummies—with three existing stress-related products in capsule and tablet form. The stress-related products were marketed as a combined Stress Comfort category.

The gummies were not particularly popular with consumers after they launched, according to the ecommerce executive’s emails, achieving only a 3.2 rating. But Bountiful applied to the entire combined category the average 4.5 ratings of the well-received tablet and capsule products (based on ashwagandha, valerian and other botanical ingredients), according to the Commission.

The executive’s email said sales for the laggard products “spiked the second we variated the pages and they continue to grow.”

Bountiful, the FTC complaint alleged, had created variation pages for unrelated products on numerous occasions in 2020 and 2021.

The final vote on March 28 to approve the consent decree was a unanimous 4-0.

In consenting to the decree, The Bountiful Company neither admitted to nor denied any of the specific allegations.

Question of fairness?

In an interview, attorney Marc Ullman, of counsel with the firm Rivkin Radler, said, “I think it’s incredibly deceptive. I could see how it would be something the Commission would take extreme exception to.”

Ullman also questioned the basic fairness of how Amazon dealt with certain online sellers.

“It’s shocking to me that Amazon allowed this to happen,” Ullman said. “I have had clients who have made minor formulation changes and Amazon has required them to get a new product number and start over with their reviews. How is it then that The Bountiful Company was allowed to reformulate products and keep their reviews?”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.

About the Author(s)

Hank Schultz

Senior Editor, Informa

Hank Schultz has been the senior editor of Natural Products Insider since early 2023. He can be reached at [email protected]

Prior to joining the Informa team, he was an editor at NutraIngredients-USA, a William Reed Business Media publication.

His approach to industry journalism was formed via a long career in the daily newspaper field. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and German, Hank was an editor at the Tempe Daily News in Arizona. He followed that with a long stint working at the Rocky Mountain News, a now defunct daily newspaper in Denver, where he rose to be one of the city editors. The newspaper won two Pulitzer Prizes during his time there.

The changing landscape of the newspaper industry led him to explore other career paths. He began his career in the natural products industry more than a decade ago at New Hope Natural Media, which was then part of Penton and now is an Informa brand. Hank formed friendships and partnerships within the industry that still inform his work to this day, which helps him to bring an insider’s perspective, tempered with an objective journalist’s sensibility, to his in-depth reporting.

Harkening back to his newspaper days, Hank considers the readers to be the primary stakeholders whose needs must be met. Report the news quickly, comprehensively and above all, fairly, and readership and sponsorships will follow.

In 2015, Hank was recognized by the American Herbal Products Association with a Special Award for Journalistic Excellence.

When he’s not reporting on the supplement industry, Hank enjoys many outside pursuits. Those include long distance bicycle touring, mountain climbing, sailing, kayaking and fishing. Less strenuous pastimes include travel, reading (novels and nonfiction), studying German, noodling on a harmonica, sketching and a daily dose of word puzzles in The New York Times.

Last but far from least, Hank is a lifelong fan and part owner of the Green Bay Packers.

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