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Influencers were paid by Google to promote a Pixel phone they’d never used


Enlarge / The Pixel 4.
Ron Amadeo

Google and iHeartMedia—the US’s biggest radio station operator—are being hit with a false advertising lawsuit for ads they ran about the Pixel 4 (which we found to be overpriced and full of half-working experiments). The FTC and four states say the companies aired “nearly 29,000 deceptive endorsements by radio personalities” during 2019 and 2020, with Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Samuel Levine saying that “Google and iHeartMedia paid influencers to promote products they never used, showing a blatant disrespect for truth-in-advertising rules.” The two companies have settled the lawsuit and will be required to pay $9.4 million in penalties.

Google’s ads had on-air personalities give first-hand accounts of how much they liked the Pixel 4, but, to quote the FTC’s press release, “the on-air personalities were not provided with Pixel 4s before recording and airing the majority of the ads and therefore did not own or regularly use the phones.” Therefore the first-person claims made in the ads, like, “It’s my favorite phone camera out there, especially in low light, thanks to Night Sight Mode,” “I’ve been taking studio-like photos of everything,” and “It’s also great at helping me get stuff done, thanks to the new voice-activated Google Assistant that can handle multiple tasks at once,” can’t be true.

It seems like everything would have been fine if these ads weren’t in first-person. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey explains: “It is common sense that people put more stock in first-hand experiences. Consumers expect radio advertisements to be truthful and transparent about products, not misleading with fake endorsements. Today’s settlement holds Google and iHeart accountable for this deceptive ad campaign and ensures compliance with state and federal law moving forward.”

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A Google spokesperson commented to TechCrunch, saying, “We are pleased to resolve this issue. We take compliance with advertising laws seriously and have processes in place designed to help ensure we follow relevant regulations and industry standards.”

As part of the settlement, Google and iHeartMedia are barred from “misrepresenting that an endorser has owned or used, or about their experience with, certain products.” The agreement is subject to a public comment period of 30 days, after which the commission will vote on whether to make the proposed consent orders final.