Five Stars and a Violation of Competition Law

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Behind the stars must actually be customer ratings.

Star ratings on the internet are common and can influence purchasing decisions. However, advertising a product with five stars is only permissible if there is actually a customer review for it. This was decided by the Berlin Regional Court (Ref.: 16 O 139/21). Otherwise, it constitutes a violation of competition law, the court clarified with its ruling.

Competition law is intended, among other things, to ensure fair competition and protect consumers from misleading advertising. Violations of competition law can lead to warnings, injunctions, and claims for damages, according to the commercial law firm MTR Legal Lawyers, which advises, among other areas, on competition law.

Five Stars for Bicycles, but No Customer Review

In the case at the Berlin Regional Court, an online bicycle retailer had depicted several bicycles with five yellow stars on a product overview page. Consumers could thus assume that customers had given a positive rating. However, it was only one click further that it became apparent this was not the case. Because a click on the offer still showed the five stars, but now also a zero in brackets appeared, and further down under the category customer reviews, it was noted that there were no customer reviews for this bicycle yet.

For the Federation of German Consumer Organizations (vzbv), advertising with five stars without customer reviews constituted misleading consumers and thus a violation of the Act against Unfair Competition (UWG). The Berlin Regional Court agreed with this view. An average informed and attentive consumer would understand the depiction of the five stars with the products as meaning that customers who have already purchased this product have rated it positively in every respect. Since there are actually no customer reviews behind the stars, consumers are thus deceived, the court said.

Consumer is Misled

The prospect’s expectation is disappointed when, despite the stars, there are no customer reviews. He is led to make a business decision he would not have made otherwise. This applies not only when he actually buys the bicycle but also when he engages with the offer due to the stars, the court further explained.

The term “business decision” should be interpreted broadly according to the case law of the European Court of Justice. It includes not only the decision to buy a product or not to buy it but also decisions directly related to it, such as entering a store. The Federal Court of Justice further clarified that calling up a sales portal on the internet constitutes a business decision. Therefore, calling up a subpage to engage more closely with a product purportedly rated positively by customers is equivalent to entering a store or calling up a sales portal, the Berlin Regional Court further emphasized.

No Adequate Clarification of the Error

Moreover, the further design of the product overview page does not clarify the customer’s error. It might be possible that a number in brackets indicates the number of customer reviews. However, it cannot be assumed that the prospect pays any attention to this information at all since the star rating is already visible on the overview page – but without the number of customer reviews. The note that unfortunately no customer review is available yet, like the number in brackets, which is also in small and thin font, is easy to overlook, the court continued. This does not meet the requirements for a clear and unambiguous hint that must be associated with a misleading statement, the Berlin Regional Court decided.

The Act against Unfair Competition (UWG) is a pillar of competition law. Accordingly, an action is considered unfair if “someone carries out a misleading business action that is likely to induce the consumer or other market participant to undertake a business action that he would not have otherwise taken.”

Advertising is often a fine line, and a violation of competition law can quickly occur. MTR Legal Lawyers provides comprehensive advice in competition law.


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