E-communication cannot be misleading
Examples of misleading e-communication
Before launch of the new product, Janssens-Quidam tried to see how it could encourage consumers to show their appreciation for the product. It thought of creating a digital ‘guest book’ on the website. To avoid displaying a blank page to clients and thus discouraging them from writing a note of thanks, Leon (Head of Marketing) wrote a little note: ‘Thanks JQ for the wonderful hat! –Olivia’, with a photo of a member of staff wearing the hat in front of the Eiffel Tower. After announcing the product launch on the ‘Travelling Gnomes & Such’ blog (with photos of garden gnomes and other products all over the world), he asked his friend Emma to add a comment as an unregistered visitor, under the pseudonym ‘Devil98’, in which Emma pretended that she had received her cat hat and that it was ‘SIMPLY ADORABLE’.
Such practices are prohibited commercial practices under Article 91 of the AMPC.
Indeed, according to Article 91(22) of the AMPC, ‘falsely representing oneself as a consumer’ [Note: English version of Directive 2005/29/EC.
French text: "se présenter faussement comme un consommateur."
Dutch text: "zich op bedrieglijke wijze voordoen als consument."] is a misleading practice.
Moreover, pursuant to Article 91(11) of the AMPC, ‘using editorial content in the media to promote a product where [the company] has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer’ [Note: English version of Directive 2005/29/EC.
French text: "utiliser un contenu rédactionnel dans les médias pour faire la promotion d’un produit, alors que l’entreprise a financé celle ci elle même, sans l’indiquer clairement dans le contenu ou à l’aide d’images ou de sons clairement identifiables par le consommateur."
Dutch text: "redactionele inhoud in de media, waarvoor de onderneming heeft betaald, gebruiken om reclame te maken voor een product, zonder dat dit duidelijk uit de inhoud of uit duidelijk door de consument identificeerbare beelden of geluiden blijkt."] is misleading.
In this respect, the European Commission stated that ‘[o]nline commercial practices occurring on social media […] are covered by the definition [of commercial practices]’. The European Commission further states that ‘cosmetic companies have paid bloggers to promote and advertise their products on a blog aimed at teenagers, unbeknownst to other users’ and that in such cases, ‘the authorities considered that the bloggers concerned were engaging in hidden commercial practices’ [Note: European Commission, Guidance on the implementation/application of Directive 2005/29/EC on unfair commercial practices, 3 December 2009, SEC(2009) 1666, p. 8 (view online).].
Though there has not yet been any Belgian case law on the topic, the same line of reasoning will (likely) apply.
Furthermore, Article 13 of the AISS is also applicable. The principles of identifiability and transparency were violated in the two examples given. Indeed, both the message written by the Head of Marketing of Janssens-Quidam and by his friend Emma on behalf of Janssens-Quidam must be considered as advertising under the AISS.
Importance of sincerity
As indicated previously, the impact of a message on a company’s e-reputation will depend (amongst other things) on the genuineness and sincerity of the message. As clearly appears from the examples of commercial practices deemed to be misleading, dishonesty can be contrary to law and thus entail legal consequences.