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Healey settles with Google and iHeartMedia over deceptive ad campaign

"Consumers expect radio advertisements to be truthful and transparent about products, not misleading with fake endorsements."

Governor-elect Maura Healey. Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe

Before officially taking the reins as governor in January, Attorney General Maura Healey announced that her office reached a settlement with Google and iHeartMedia to resolve an investigation into a deceptive ad campaign. 

Healey, the Federal Trade Commission, and five other states announced the settlements on Monday. Both Google and iHeartMedia will pay more than $1 million to Massachusetts for allegedly staging an ad campaign for the Google Pixel 4 smartphone in 2019. 

Google allegedly contracted radio personalities employed by iHeartMedia to record advertisements endorsing the phone that year. The companies arranged for ad campaigns to run in various media markets around the country, including in Boston. The ads ran on certain radio stations operated by iHeartMedia and on internet streaming services. 

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Prosecutors allege that the radio personalities falsely claimed that they used the Google Pixel 4, and found that the devices worked well. The radio personalities allegedly never owned or operated the phones prior to making their endorsements. 

“It is common sense that people put more stock in first-hand experiences. Consumers expect radio advertisements to be truthful and transparent about products, not misleading with fake endorsements,” Healey said in a statement. “Today’s settlement holds Google and iHeart accountable for this deceptive ad campaign and ensures compliance with state and federal law moving forward.”

iHeartMedia operates eight radio stations in the Boston market: Kiss 108, 100.7 WZLX, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, JAM’N 94.5, 101.7 The Bull, WRKO, Rumba 97.7, and Talk 1200.

Although the Pixel 4 was not yet available for sale, Google allegedly hired iHeartMedia to have its employees use scripts that described their supposed personal experiences with the phone. Google allegedly refused to provide the phones to the iHeartMedia personalities in advance of them recording their ad reads. 

Healey’s office said this occurred in 10 markets: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Denver/Boulder, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, and San Francisco/Bay Area. The false ads aired almost 1,900 times in Massachusetts between October and December 2019, including 1,300 ads on iHeartMedia radio stations in the Boston media market, Healey’s office said. 

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“Google and iHeartMedia paid influencers to promote products they never used, showing a blatant disrespect for truth-in-advertising rules,” said Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Samuel Levine in a statement. “The FTC will not stop working with our partners in the states to crack down on deceptive ads and ensure firms that break the rules pay a price.”

Under the terms of the settlements, both Google and iHeartMedia will pay a total of $9.4 million to the states, including more than $1 million to Massachusetts. The companies also agreed to comply with FTC guidelines regarding advertising testimonials and to provide compliance reports to the states. 

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