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Bell Canada signage is displayed outside the company's office building in Toronto on Aug. 8, 2012Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

BCE Inc. has agreed to pay a $1.25-million penalty after the company's staffers wrote online reviews of Bell products and services without disclosing their ties to Bell. It is the first penalty of its kind imposed by the Competition Bureau in response to deceptive online reviews.

The decision is part of an agreement the company has reached with Canada's Competition Bureau, affirming "its commitment not to direct, encourage or incentivize employees or contractors to rate, rank or review apps in app stores." The penalty for these types of reviews sends a strong signal to the industry, that marketers will be expected to police deceptive practises and make employees aware of the standards that exist in online marketing.

The Competition Bureau began looking into the matter after Bell confirmed that some of its employees were "overzealous" in posting reviews for Bell Canada's "MyBell Mobile" application on the Apple AppStore. Scott Stratten, author and founder of Oakville, Ont.-based firm Unmarketing, was the first to notice the reviews, which were posted under the names of some Bell employees but did not disclose their corporate affiliation. Mr. Stratten pointed this out on his blog. According to the Competition Bureau, other reviews were also posted of Bell's Virgin My Account application, and were posted in the Google Play Store as well as the AppStore.

"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 to The Globe and Mail last November. "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 reviews posted by the employees were all extremely positive.

In marketing, this type of review is called "astroturfing" – when representatives of a business post online comments about the company's own product or service, while attempting to appear to be customers as opposed to those with a conflict of interest.

The practice is widespread enough that the Competition Bureau sent out a bulletin last year, reminding consumers not to "buy into fake online endorsements" and to report any cases to the watchdog.

According to the Competition Bureau, Bell "acted quickly" to remove the ratings and reviews once it was made aware of them, and co-operated with the bureau's inquiry.

"Nevertheless, the bureau determined that these reviews and ratings created the general impression that they were made by independent and impartial consumers and temporarily affected the overall star rating for the apps," the bureau said in a release.

In addition to the $1.2-million penalty, Bell has also agreed to improve its "corporate compliance program" with a special focus on ensuring that employees and contractors know not to rate or review any of the company's applications online. And Bell will hold a workshop on "Canadians' trust in the digital economy."

"I commend the shared compliance approach taken by Bell to resolve this matter, which will benefit both consumers and the digital marketplace," Commissioner of Competition John Pecman said in a statement.

"Bell doesn't support astroturfing of course," spokesperson Mark Langton said in an e-mail. "We took immediate action when this incident came to our attention, including making our policy clear to the entire Bell team."

That includes additions to the code of conduct for employees and to Bell's social media guidelines, he added, among other measures.

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