Autism treatment start-up blames ‘unfortunate bug’ for misleading reviews on its website

Elemy was using the same three parent testimonials to market its services in 24 different cities and removed locations after an investigation by Forbes.

Janice B, a mother in San Francisco, was satisfied with the services provided by the autism treatment start-up Elemy. “The care the staff show my son and me has been incredible,” according to a testimonial on the Elemy website. It appeared that Janice B was also happy with the company’s services in Austin, Orlando and 21 other cities in California, Florida and Texas. Likewise, parents Maria G and Michael C appeared to have 24 different sons in 24 different cities who were all happy with the care they received.

SoftBank-backed Elemy, valued at $1.15 billion last year, used the same three parent testimonials — the same quotes and the same names with the location changed — in 24 different cities, according to a Forbes review of the Miami-based startup’s website. Tuesday, after Forbes Asked about reviews and possible violations of Federal Trade Commission rules that prohibit false, misleading, and misleading testimonials, Elemy removed references to locations.

“Found an unfortunate bug in a recent rollout of our website location pages,” Amanda Taggart, Elemy’s director of communications, wrote in an email. “The quotes are real, but they were unintentionally propagated on each of the location pages with a city designation. We’ve updated the site now to correct this error. Thanks for reporting.

All three reviews now appear on the website without any location mentioned. Taggart said the new whereabouts pages went “live last week,” but didn’t specify a date. She did not respond to follow-up questions about which cities Janice B, Maria G and Michael C are actually located in, or why the company no longer lists any cities in testimonials given that geographic location could matter. for consumers who want to know the quality of services in their particular area.

Janice B.

The Federal Trade Commission has been crack down about fake reviews and misleading recommendations and is currently in the process of updating its guidelines. “Whether it’s fake reviews or influencers hiding they’ve been paid to post, this type of deception makes people pay more money for bad products and services, and it hurts competitors. honest,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau. , said in a May press release. In an email, FTC spokesman Mitchell Katz said the agency “cannot comment on specific companies or their conduct,” although experts Forbes spoke said Elemy’s reviews with fake pitches likely violated FTC rules.

“The implication of changing the geographic location of this supposed endorser suggests that the testimonial may not be from a genuine or real user, or what the FTC calls a ‘bona fide user’ of the advertised therapy services” , says Laura Smith, legal director of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Truth In Advertising. “If so, using a testimonial that is not from a bona fide user is a violation of FTC law.”

Mary G.

Launched in 2019, Elemy experienced a period of rapid growth and expansion into 14 states, before returning to five states earlier this year. In July, Forbes reported that Elemy abruptly halted services for families in Illinois and Georgia, while co-founder and CEO Yury Yakubchyk announced the company would focus on California, Texas and Florida, blaming the inflation, the war in Ukraine and market uncertainty.

One of Elemy’s offerings that sets it apart from some competitors is a combination of virtual and in-person care to provide a special type of autism therapy called applied behavior analysis. Testimonials speak directly to these care teams, which experts say is problematic if locations are tampered with, as parents depend on them to assess the quality of care in their particular location.

Michael C.

EEven if Janice B, Maria G and Michael C are real parents in a city where Elemy provides services, it cannot be assumed that the services are the same in all cities, as a reviewer cannot guarantee that the services on the market in which they are located.

“Consumers most likely want to know what’s happening in their area, how this particular service is delivered where I live, and so the experiences of people who live where they live are important to them,” says Mary Engle, executive vice president of policy at BBB National Programs and former associate director of the advertising practices division at the FTC. Engle could not speak directly about Elemy’s practices, but said, in general, “it is misleading to present testimonials obtained in one market as having been in another market.”

Smith and Engle argue that the FTC does not have to prove intent to deceive for infringement. “An advertiser is responsible for all claims, express and implied, that are reasonably conveyed by the advertisement,” Smith says.

Elemy has now removed the testimonial locations entirely. Whether this can be considered misleading depends on the facts of the particular case, which neither Smith nor Engle could speak to directly. “It is not necessarily misleading not to include the location of testimonials, even if the location is important to consumers. Advertisers are not obligated to include all potentially important information in their advertising,” says Engle “The absence of material information can be misleading, however, if the ad says something that is true as far as it goes – a half-truth – but is misleading without the additional information.”

Deceptive and unfair trade practices are also applied at the state level. Kylie Mason, assistant director of communications for Florida State Attorney General Ashley Moody, said false claims could violate Florida law, but would require review by the Consumer Protection Division. “At this time, we have not received any complaints regarding Elemy,” Mason wrote in an email.

There are varying levels of harm from false and misleading advertising and testimonials depending on the product, but the FTC is also particularly concerned about the health and safety implications. ‘The FTC doesn’t have to go after fake products for it to be a fake product,’ says former FTC official who was not authorized to officially discuss specific companies . “Fake reviews are always very misleading. They cause this company to get business over other companies and they interfere with consumer decision-making about a product that is really important to vulnerable consumers.

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