Before we start, since this is a post all about reviews, conspiracy, and hiding shit: an account of my involvement with the luxury skincare brand Sunday Riley. I reviewed Ceramic Slip 1.0 unfavorably in November 2016. [Added after hitting publish because I forgot about it: In the same month, I wasn’t blown away by Blue Moon Tranquility Cleansing Balm, but didn’t hate it.] I reviewed Good Genes favorably in March 2017, but didn’t like the price. Later in March 2017, the brand’s PR reached out and offered to send me press samples of some of their products. I accepted. I published a comparison of 17 lactic acids — a post attempting to find a Good Genes dupe — in April 2017. I tested the press sample products briefly and didn’t end up reviewing any of them because I couldn’t commit to using them long enough to form an opinion. I think most of them live in my skincare cabinet or a box nearby. I always intended to test them systematically and write reviews, but then things happened and yeah. I’m a deadbeat press sample recipient, sorry world.
As a whole, I think the Sunday Riley brand is geared more toward convincing consumers via sensory experience (weird fragrance combinations, tingling, tightness) that something good is going on in their skin than actually delivering results in line with the price. I mean, that’s a lot of brands, but the SR hype would suggest otherwise. The fact that the brand is helmed by a cosmetic chemist has convinced people that they make good stuff and that the price tags are somehow justified (but aren’t all brands…connected…with a cosmetic chemist??). I like Good Genes, but I think it’s wildly overpriced (to the point that I spent something like $500 of the blog’s budget to try to find a dupe). Outside of Good Genes, I can’t find a Sunday Riley product that I like enough to use two nights back to back.
I haven’t had contact with Sunday Riley’s PR since mid-2017, when the brand announced the launch of the Saturn mask, which is where the real tale begins.
Round 1: The Presentation of Sunday Riley fake review scandal receipts by an anonymous whistleblower
When Jude over at Fifty Shades of Snail dropped a link proclaiming “[PSA] Sunday Riley Employee: We Write Fake Sephora Reviews” into the group chat on Monday, I poured a steaming cup of coffee (come now, tea is too predictable) and took a seat at the desktop to enjoy the spectacle in all its glory.
An ex-employee at Sunday Riley dropped the ultimate receipt: an email that seemed to show that the brand at some point engaged in coordinated efforts to write fake reviews on Sephora.com. The whole thing has a whiff of troll farm tactics.
The email seems to demonstrate that:
Sunday Riley encourages employees to write positive fake reviews
The subject line of the email was “Homework Time – Sephora.com Reviews.” Pro tip: maybe don’t put the keywords of your fake review conspiracy in the subject line of the email? I’m disappointed. The email mentions writing “at least three reviews for Saturn,” the mediocre sulfur mask launched in mid-2017, and reviews for the Space Race set the week later. Moreover, employees were told in step 7 to email screenshots of their reviews to Sunday Riley employee “H” (name redacted for privacy reasons) for approval before posting them.
Sunday Riley coaches employees on how to appear credible in their fake reviews
The email writer told employees to leave reviews for 3 or 4 other, non-Sunday Riley products before reviewing Saturn and Space Race. Employees were also instructed to talk about their acne woes in order to seem relatable.
We need to pause for a moment because this is some bullshit. There are people on the Accutane subreddit who are in a very bad place in terms of their mental health due to intractable acne, and this company is giving fucking brown bag lectures on how to write reviews that tap into those sorts of feelings to sell real consumers overpriced products? TRASH
Sunday Riley gives employees talking points to use in their fake reviews
The brand didn’t merely tell employees to leave three reviews based on their experience with the product, but gave them talking points such as the cooling properties, green color, and non-drying effects. If Sunday Riley had asked employees to leave one review based on their own experience, good or bad, this wouldn’t be a big story. Sure, employees need to disclose their material connection to the product/brand they’re reviewing, but that’s not in the same league as a whole employee-run fake review project.
Sunday Riley instructs employees on how to shoot down points made by other reviewers
Employees were encouraged to monitor the theoretically real reviews on Sephora.com and counter them. By this point, my eyes have rolled firmly into the back of my head.
Sunday Riley encourages the use of a company VPN to hide IP addresses before leaving fake reviews
Sephora clearly has some sort of IP address monitoring going on, leading Sunday Riley to spring for a VPN account.
I just want to ask a question: have you ever done anything 100% legal while using a VPN? Last time I used a VPN (Tunnel Bear), I think I was trying to watch EXO Next Door maybe, which was region blocked due to a licensing agreement with the now defunct Dramafever. So, yeah, not totally legal. If your company is doing something so shady that it requires a 3-user VPN account, please skip to the bottom of this post where I give ideas for how to blow the whistle on the shadiness.
Round 2: Sunday Riley admits that the email is real, issues weak statement
Sunday Riley’s verified Instagram account confirmed that the email posted to r/SkincareAddiction is real. An account called “SundayRileyOfficial” left the same comment on the “[PSA] Sunday Riley Employee: We Write Fake Sephora Reviews” post (click the image to see the context) and got shot down by the whistleblower:
I don’t even know what to say. Like, if you’re already engaged in massive non-transparency, maybe the moment you’re caught isn’t the moment to suddenly get transparent? Like, do you remember the scandal where kpop artist and company owner JYP was connected to the cult that owned the Sewol Ferry? Yeah, probably not bc 1) you don’t know who JYP is or 2) you’ve forgotten about that massive scandal because he said he’d make an announcement about the situation later and then never bothered to. There’s a reason he’s the boss of megastar girl group TWICE and Sunday Riley is stuck using just one VPN account for a whole fake review enterprise.
I’m joking, but seriously, how is it possible to fumble the response this badly?
Also don’t issue terrible statements anywhere in the wake of shit going down, my god, this is WEAK. Workshop that shit! Hire a freelance crisis team, my god!
Round 3: Sunday Riley employees are still leaving fake reviews and the brand is deleting negative comments on Instagram
Reddit’s SkincareAddiction comes through yet again with receipts (by now Sunday Riley’s ineptitude is just funny):
The company is reportedly deleting negative comments about the fake review scandal from their IG:
Keep the “this is in the past” rhetoric, the fake reviews and lack of transparency are very much alive at Sunday Riley.
By this point, I think we’ve seen enough.
Why fake reviews matter
In case you haven’t caught on, I’m pissed about this. I realize that review manipulation by brands happens all the time, but this case is getting attention because someone leaked real proof, confirmed by the brand.
Part of my frustration and anger comes from the fact that there’s proof of a coordinated effort to create fake reviews in order to talk over real reviews and devalue them. One of the responses I’ve seen in the wake of this scandal is that people say they trust online reviews less. I’m wary, too, but it makes it hard to get it up to sit at the desk and review products after work — which seems more necessary than ever due to all the misinformation planted by brands.
The other problem is that Sunday Riley products just cost a lot of money. In my review, I calculated how many bags of plasma I’d have had to “donate” (sell) back in the day in order to buy a bottle of Good Genes and I don’t think it’s bad to think about the value of the labor (or bodily fluids lol) we trade for products when making a purchase decision. Every purchase involves a choice. For a very long time, I chose products that gave me joy and clearer skin over building an emergency fund and paying off my student loans. I don’t regret buying a lot of stuff, but I’m glad I only learned about the fake reviews after rebalancing my financial priorities.
What I’m doing
- I’ll be editing posts that mention Sunday Riley to include a link to this post so readers can be aware of possible review manipulation elsewhere.
- I’ve filed a report with the US FTC. If you live in the US, you can do it, too.
Live in the US? File a report with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Sunday Riley is violating US FTC regulations that require anyone with a material connection to the product they’re reviewing or endorsing to “clearly and conspicuously disclose their relationships to brands when promoting or endorsing products through social media.” This isn’t an individual influencer or paid review writer acting as a freelancer, but a concerted marketing plan carried out by employees, designed to shape public opinion in the brand’s favor. It’s big. Brand have been fined by the FTC for less organized campaigns. It’s not legal, it erodes trust, and any brand doing this should receive FTC warning letters and maybe even fines.
The Fashion Law has great coverage on FTC actions against fashion brands and retailers, if you’d like to learn more about regulations. TFL also posted on the Sunday Riley fake review story today and explained more about which laws the company could be breaking by asking employees to create fake positive reviews.
Call the FTC (877-382-4357) or file an online complaint using the FTC Complaint Assistant (in this case, select OTHER, click to the second page, select NO MATCH FOUND, and fill out the form as best as possible). I confirmed with the FTC that you can file a complaint even if you’re not a whistleblower working at the company. Filing a complaint took just a few minutes.
Are you a beauty industry insider with knowledge of illegal or unethical business practices? BLOW THE WHISTLE
Seriously, thank you to throwawayacctSRiley, the OP who blew the whistle on this trash. The proofshots were devestating and I hope the risk involved in sharing this information will pay off with more actual transparency in the beauty industry.
We know that e-commerce is a mess — but journalists and beauty fans need hard info in order to agitate for change. “Everything sucks and is bad” is a sad spiral that goes nowhere, give us something to work with. I’m aware, for example, that Drunk Elephant has been called out for bashing Glossier in Glossier’s IG comment section, but the conspiracy level and documentation weren’t up to this standard. Without your help, the leads are weak.
Leak to the press: I trust my colleague Cheryl Wischhover at Vox.
Leak to beauty fans: fire up that VPN, cover any private citizens’ full names/emails/phone numbers on the screenshots, and make posts on relevant subreddits.
Leak to the FTC: call the FTC (877-382-4357) or file an online complaint using the FTC Complaint Assistant.
Collect them all!