Sunday, July 29, 2012

If you review content on the Internet, don't forget one thing

Do you take review comments from blogs or from Amazon and use them to promote your work? If so, do you feel you have a good sense for when people are trying to be sarcastic or ironic? And if you think reviews are sarcastic or ironic, do you avoid using them in your promotional materials?

Unless you've answered all of these with yes, you need to know about one aspect of the FTC Endorsement Guides that might come as a surprise.

Below, I've embedded and linked to the trailer for a film called Birdemic. Watch the whole thing if you like (and if you can) but in any event fast forward to 2:08 where you start to see review comments like:

  • "Our New, Crazy Movie Obsession" - Entertainment Weekly
  • "A towering achievement in human creative expression" - User review, IMDB
  • "Is James Nguyen [the producer] a budding John Carpenter?" - Simon Abrams, UGO Entertainment

If you've watched the trailer you can have almost mathematical certainty that every one of these comments is meant to be sarcastic, ironic, or otherwise humorous. But by the fact that they are included here in the trailer raises a second possibility: James Nguyen doesn't get the joke.

Believe it or not, that could create a problem for him. And that's the problem you need to know about too.

The FTC Endorsement Guides make it clear that people making comments aren't liable for misrepresentations if they didn't know their comments would be used as endorsements. So the reviewers are safe. But if these quotes ended up in the trailer because the producers thought viewers would legitimately believe this meant the film was good, then the producers have made a false or misleading advertisement.

One purpose for the Guides was to stop things like this: where a film production company would take quotes out of context from reviews to try to make you think a critic really liked a movie when the full context would tell you something different. Put another way: creators aren't supposed to misuse reviews to mislead potential purchasers.

To be clear: I think that Birdemic's use of these quotes is probably safe for a very simple reason. Birdemic is just objectively horrible. I mean, just look at that trailer. I make my students watch the whole thing when teaching this part of my class because I am not a good person. And that matters: under the Guides an endorsement is only misleading if a reasonable consumer is likely to believe that the statement is true. It's just not possible that any reasonable consumer could watch this trailer and think that EW, UGO, and the population of IMDB think this movie is good. So even if the producers think the endorsements are legitimate, the fact that they could be so wrong might save them. (Of course they might also fully get the joke and be using these ironically also, which would be another defense.)

If you use customer reviews in your promotional materials you also need to be aware of this issue. If you find negative ones, sometimes it's tempting to pull out a few words and "convert" them into a positive. In a word: don't.

Trailer for Birdemic
Example of 5-star review for a product the reviewer obviously hates: Diablo 3


  1. "I make my students watch the whole thing when teaching this part of my class because I am not a good person."

    Sharing this!

  2. Make them watch it. Twice. It's only sporting...

  3. I was wondering why anyone would compare this swill to John Carpenter. Thanks for your enlightening article. It would still be interesting to know if the director included the quotes because he seriously thought they were honest or if he is trying to be either ironic (unlikely) or genuinely misleading.


Thanks for commenting. Posts and comments aren't legal advice; requests for legal advice in the comment probably won't get answered. Sorry to have to do this but someone someday is going to make me glad I did...