Marketing law – Online reviews

“We couldn’t be happier with not only the academic results our children are achieving, but with their overall happiness and personal growth since moving to [College]. The teachers we have had over the past few years are so amazing there are not enough stars to rate them.”

This is the sort of review you hope to see about your school on independent school review websites.

Are you tempted to generate such reviews for your school?

When marketing your school, it’s easy to get carried away and to forget that the law may have something to say regarding the way you go about it. You may not know that breaking the law can lead to costly penalties.

The Australian Consumer Law requires all Australian independent schools to be honest in the ways they advertise and market, whether online or offline. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) takes action against those who breach these consumer law obligations. Above all, when advertising, you mustn’t give an overall impression that is inaccurate, misleading or false.

A common way in which businesses breach their obligations when marketing online is by posting misleading reviews of their products or services on review platforms or their own websites. In the school context, an online review is only likely to be acceptable if it is independent and written by a parent or student because of their firsthand experience of the school. The ACCC says that reviews may mislead consumers if they are presented as impartial, but were written by:

  • the reviewed business
  • a competitor
  • someone paid to write the review who has not used the service
  • someone who has used the service but written an inflated review to receive a financial or non-financial benefit.

The ACCC considers the following conduct to be misleading:

  • encouraging family and friends to write reviews about your school without disclosing their personal connection with the school in that review
  • writing reviews when you have not experienced the school’s services
  • writing reviews which don’t reflect a genuinely held opinion
  • asking others to write reviews about your school or another school if they haven’t experienced the services.

Schools which encourage reviews but then selectively remove or edit them, particularly negative reviews, may be misleading those considering sending their children to the school. If the totality of the reviews doesn’t reflect the opinions of those who have submitted the reviews, potential enrolling parents may be misled.

A case between the ACCC and property developer Meriton illustrates how the law about online reviews can be broken. Meriton inserted the letters “MSA” at the front of the email address for guests who had complained (or were otherwise considered likely to have had a negative experience at a Meriton property) before sending it to TripAdvisor, so that the email address provided to TripAdvisor was invalid. The guests therefore did not receive an invitation prompting them to provide a review through the Review Express system. Meriton also withheld email addresses from TripAdvisor for any guests who had stayed at certain Meriton properties for a particular period when the property had been affected by a major service disruption.

This reduced the number of negative reviews on the TripAdvisor web pages dedicated to those Meriton properties, with the effect of improving the relative number of favourable reviews compared with those that were unfavourable. This conduct created a more positive impression of the quality and amenity of Meriton’s serviced apartments, and had the effect of reducing, in the minds of consumers, awareness of the prevalence of service disruptions at those properties. Further, in some cases, the conduct affected the ranking of Meriton’s properties across the TripAdvisor website.

Meriton was ordered to pay a penalty of $3 million for its conduct, was restrained from engaging in such conduct and was made to undertake staff training programs.

I am confident enough in the integrity of Australian independent schools to believe that none would intentionally engage in such conduct. Nevertheless, enthusiastic school marketers need to be aware of the law in this area lest they be tempted to err even on the margins.

David Ford is a Partner of Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers (formerly of Emil Ford Lawyers), known for his expertise in education law. With over 30 years’ experience advising Australian educational institutions, he also advises school boards on governance and conducts workplace investigations for schools.
SMJ David Ford

enewsletter sign up

Get the latest marketing news. It’s free!