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Bell staffers warned not to write online reviews ... about Bell

BCE Inc. Bell Canada signage is displayed outside the company's office building in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012.

Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

BCE Inc. is warning its employees not to write customer reviews about the company online, after staffers were discovered doing just that.

The problem was highlighted by Scott Stratten, author and founder of the Oakville, Ont.-based firm Unmarketing. On his blog this week, Mr. Stratten pointed out that some of the reviews for Bell Canada's "MyBell Mobile" application on the Apple AppStore appeared to have been written by Bell staffers.

Asked for the company's response, Bell confirmed that its employees had been "overzealous."

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"The postings were the result of an overzealous effort on the part of our service team to highlight the app," Paolo Pasquini, director of communications and social media, wrote in an e-mail. "It's certainly not Bell's practice to encourage employees to rate our products, and we're sending a clear message out to the team to that effect."

The names associated with the reviews included Mike McEnery, a Bell associate director; Steph Steen, a marketing manager; Charbel Nassif, a performance manager, and others. Many of those users, Mr. Stratten wrote, had reviewed only the Bell app or only one other app.

The reviews were all glowing, praising the application's user-friendly design and calling it "awesome" and "excellent." They contrasted sharply with one- and two-star reviews by other users, which called it "shameful" and called out the other "fake reviews."

This practice is known in marketing as "astroturfing" – reviews written to sound as though they are from regular customers, when they are actually written by the business whose product or service is being reviewed. It is more common than many consumers realize – with companies that exist entirely to write positive fake customer reviews for brands.

This summer, Canada's Competition Bureau released a bulletin reminding consumers to be wary of online endorsements, and encouraging people to report cases of astroturfing to the Bureau.

In this case, not much effort seems to have gone into masking the reviews: the Bell staffers seem to have used their real names or initials and last names. But the company is now reminding employees to stay away from the temptation to engage in this particular type of advertising.

Editor's note: BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail. This information was not included in a previous version of this article.

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