August 2013 Bar Bulletin
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August 2013 Bar Bulletin

"Avenue Q": The Sock Puppet Problem

By Athan Tramountanas


"Avenue Q" is a play that first ran on Broadway between 2003 and 2009. It won three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It is a coming-of-age parable that is both heartwarming and incredibly profane. It is performed entirely with puppets. Apropos of the Bar Bulletin's Broadway edition, "Avenue Q" provides an opportunity to look into the subject of sock puppets.

A sock puppet is a person or company that appears online under a fictive name to post a review about a product or argue a point. Sock puppetry is a phenomenon that has probably been around in some form since the inception of the Internet, but has been in the news recently.

Last September, award-winning crime author R.J. Ellroy admitted to posting reviews pseudonymously on Amazon under names such as "Jelly Bean" and "Nicodemus Jones."1 Using these sock puppets, Ellroy posted glowing reviews of his own books. The review of his A Quiet Belief in Angels called it a "modern masterpiece" and noted, "there are paragraphs and chapters that just stopped me dead in my tracks." The review also told readers, "Whatever else it might do, it will touch your soul."2

Ellroy also posted unflattering reviews of his competitors' works. The review of Stuart MacBride's Dark Blood called it "routine and predictable," and noted, "The humour just isn't that humorous. The tension just isn't that tense. The gory bits are just ... well, gory I suppose, but what that matters I do not know."3

An online debate rages about whether Amazon and other online retailers are doing enough to stem the proliferation of sock puppet reviews. Amazon's review creation guidelines prohibit reviews by anyone on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a competing product, including publishers, manufacturers or third-party merchants selling the product.4 While the guidelines state that anyone who has purchased an item on Amazon may post a review for the item, Amazon does not seem to require a purchase as a condition precedent to posting a review; it is unlikely that 4,287 people have purchased (and reviewed) the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer. Sample review: "It works better than the hammer I've been using to slice my bananas."5

Comedic banana slicer reviews aside, positive sock puppet reviews may violate a website's terms and conditions, but are they illegal? It is unlawful under federal law to engage in "unfair methods of competition in or affecting commerce" or to engage in "unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce."6 The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforces this prohibition on unfair methods of competition.7 The FTC may issue fines of up to $10,000 for each violation of the law.8

In 2009, the FTC updated its Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising to reflect modern advertising messaging.9 These guidelines explain how an advertiser can endorse a product without running afoul of the prohibition against unfair or deceptive acts. They require that all endorsements or testimonials be truthful and not misleading in any way, and that an endorsing party disclose any relationship between the endorser and seller that would affect how people would evaluate the endorsement or testimonial.

The FTC has begun using these laws and regulations against sock puppeteers. Legacy Learning Systems is a company that sells the "Learn and Master Guitar" series. These materials were popular online sellers, with future shredders shelling out $249 or more for the chance to learn guitar.

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