Federal regulators have settled with Google and iHeartMedia over a marketing promotion concerning a Google-made smartphone.
The promotion saw Google and iHeartMedia pay influencers to promote the Google Pixel 4 phone and offer testimony on their purported use of the device, according to a spokesperson with the Federal Trade Commission.
In reality, none of the paid influencers actually used the devices. Among those who made false statements about their experience with the phones were radio personalities, who were included in around 29,000 commercial spots that ran on iHeartRadio stations across the country, the FTC said.
According to an administrative complaint reviewed by Radio Ink, Google paid iHeartMedia more than $2.6 million to record and broadcast the commercial spots, many of which included their radio personalities. Separately, Google spent another $2 million for commercial spots that were produced and aired by smaller radio networks, the complaint said, though the other radio broadcaster was not named by the FTC.
The complaint alleged Google provided a script to iHeartMedia to have their talent read, in which they touted the Google Pixel 4’s unique camera and photography software. Talent were told to say that they took photos inside radio studios, captured family events and even photographed a “rare spotted owl that landed in my backyard.”
“Pics or it didn’t happen, am I right?” the script read.
But the FTC said it didn’t happen, and at least one iHeartMedia employee expressed concerns about having radio personalities offer anecdotal testimony on the phone’s photography features that they never actually used. When the employee asked Google if it would be possible to give radio talent devices, a Google staffer reportedly wrote back that “this is not feasible…as the product is not on shelves yet,” the complaint alleged.
The FTC and seven states sued Google and iHeartMedia in federal court over the matter. A settlement was announced on Monday, in which Google and iHeartMedia will pay $9.4 million in penalties. The settlement doesn’t prevent Google and iHeartMedia from partnering on future promotions, but does prevent the companies from making “similar misrepresentations,” a FTC spokesperson said.
The states that joined the FTC in their lawsuit were Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and Texas. The promotional spots ran on more than 40 iHeartMedia stations that are licensed in those states, including outlets in the San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago markets.
“It is common sense that people put more stock in first-hand experiences,” Maura Healey, the attorney general for Massachusetts, said on Monday. “Consumers expect radio advertisements to be truthful and transparent about products, not misleading with fake endorsements. Today’s settlement holds Google and iHeart[Media] accountable for this deceptive ad campaign and ensures compliance with state and federal law moving forward.”
An official in the office of California’s attorney general said Google will bear the brunt of the fine. iHeartMedia will be on the hook for $400,000, the official said.
A spokesperson for iHeartMedia told Radio Ink the company had no comment on the FTC settlement. A spokesperson for Google told technology website The Verge that the company was “pleased to resolve the issue.”