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The FTC and seven states sue Google over deceptive Pixel radio ads

During the beginning of this year, we told you that led by Texas state attorney general Ken Paxton, the state of Texas was suing Google over radio ads broadcast in 2019 and 2020 promoting the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL. Google had signed deals with media companies to promote its new handsets including iHeartMedia, to record and broadcast advertisements in the Dallas-Fort Worth ("DFW") and Houston, Texas markets.

Google wrote scripts forcing on-air talent to lie about their experience with the Pixel 4

The problem is that Google wanted radio personalities to give their first-hand experience with the Pixel 4 line even though the phones had yet to be released. And when iHeartMedia asked Google to give a Pixel 4 to each of its on-air talent involved in the promotion, Google refused. The company did write scripts that required the DJs to say that they used the devices and that they loved the Night Sight feature that allows users to take photos in low-light environments without flash.

The scripts included dialogue like this: "The only thing I love more than taking the perfect photo? Taking the perfect photo at night. With Google Pixel 4 both are a cinch. It’s my favorite phone camera out there, especially in low light, thanks to Night Sight Mode." Another script had the DJs say, "I’ve been taking studio-like photos of son’s football game... a meteor shower... a rare spotted owl that landed in my backyard. Pics or it didn’t happen, am I right?"

And the ads also promoted Google Assistant: "Pixel 4 is more than just great pics. It’s also great at helping me get stuff done, thanks to the new voice-activated Google Assistant that can handle multiple tasks at once. I can read up on the latest health fads, ask for directions to the nearest goat yoga class (yes, that’s a thing), and text the location to mom hands-free." Remember, the on-air talent had never actually held a Pixel 4 in their hands.

The action against Google has spread as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced today that it and the attorneys general from seven states are commencing a lawsuit against both Google and iHeartMedia. The press release accuses both defendants of airing 29,000 deceptive ads for the Pixel 4 series in 2019 and 2020. The suit demands that Google and iHeartMedia refrain from making deceptive claims about device ownership in future ads.

The FTC says that the proposed order will prohibit Google from misrepresenting that the person endorsing a product has owned or used, or about their experience with, certain products. It also will prohibit iHeartMedia from misrepresenting that an employee promoting a product has owned or used, or about their experience with, any consumer product or service. And it will require both Google and iHeartMedia to distribute the order to certain people, file compliance reports with the Commission, and keep records thus allowing the FTC to monitor both firms for compliance.

The seven states involved are proposing that Google and iHeartMedia pay $9.4 million in penalties

The states involved in the legal action, Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas, have also issued judgments requesting $9.4 million in penalties be paid by the search giant and the nation's largest radio broadcasting firm (with more than 850 AM and FM radio stations). Including its internet radio service, more than 245 million people listen each month to the broadcaster's shows. It isn't known how many happened to hear one of the Pixel 4 advertisements.

Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Samuel Levine said, "Google and iHeartMedia paid influencers to promote products they never used, showing a blatant disrespect for truth-in-advertising rules. 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."

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey added that "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. Today’s settlement holds Google and iHeart accountable for this deceptive ad campaign and ensures compliance with state and federal law moving forward."

Besides iHeartMedia, the FTC says that 11 other broadcast networks in ten states were paid by Google to promote the Pixel 4 series.

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