Fake Testimonial Photos No Smiling Matter

Testimonials—written recommendations about a product by a user or celebrity—are among the most effective marketing tools. But a recent scandal has put the practice in the headlines, shedding light on some unethical behavior.

Many testimonials include a photograph of a happy customer who has purchased the product and wants to share his or her positive user experience. Advertisers claim that testimonials without photographs don’t offer the same level of persuasion as ones with photographs, so these images play a large part in the efficacy of the advertisement.

Such was the case for a product sold by uBiome, a lab-testing company. On the company website, a picture of a young, handsome, smiling man was accompanied by his purported testimonial that said uBiome’s product helped him learn that “a lot of my immunity issues stemmed from the lack of bacteria in my microbiome.”

The problem was that the same man’s face can be found on multiple websites with different names and marketing a variety of products and services. An investigation revealed that the uBiome photograph was actually a stock image taken from Shutterstock.com, although the testimonial itself came from a customer account page or a survey. Government rules require that endorsements feature actual customers unless the advertising company reveals where the substitute image was obtained.  That was not, however, what uBiome did. Subsequently, the company’s co-founders and co-chief executives were placed on administrative leave.

Using a stock photo the way uBiome did is quicker and easier than tracking down customers and obtaining permission to use their photos. But just because it’s easier doesn’t mean it’s legal.


  1. Why is it unethical to use a fake photo in a testimonial?
  2. Who should be held responsible for such lapses—the marketing manager, advertising director, CEO or all?
  3. Would you be more likely to use a product after reading a testimonial with a photo or without a photo?



Leave a Reply