Google sued by FTC and seven states over 'deceptive' Pixel 4 ads

Google and iHeartMedia allegedly paid influencers who never used the phone.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

You're not the only one wondering if that social media star really used a hot new phone. The Federal Trade Commission and seven states have sued Google and iHeartMedia for running allegedly "deceptive" Pixel 4 ads. Promos aired between 2019 and 2020 featured influencers that extolled the features of phones they reportedly didn't own — Google didn't even supply Pixels before most of the ads were recorded, officials said.

iHeartMedia and 11 other radio networks ran the Pixel 4 ads in ten large markets. They aired about 29,000 times. It's not clear how many people listened to the commercials.

The FTC aims to bar Google and iHeartMedia from making any future misleading claims about ownership. It also asks both companies to prove their compliance through reports. The states, including Arizona, California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and Texas, have also issued judgments demanding the firms pay $9.4 million in penalties.

Google spokesperson José Castañeda told Engadget in a statement that the company was "pleased" to address the situation and took advertising laws "seriously." He added that Google didn't see this as a lawsuit (it's technically a proposed FTC order and state judgments), and that the tech giant was only settling with six out of the seven states.

Misrepresentative phone ads are far from new. Huawei and Samsung have both been caught passing off stock DSLR photos as representative of their phone cameras. There's also a history of celebrities marketing phones it's not clear they use. Gal Gadot had to defend herself against claims she pitched Huawei phones while posting on Twitter from an iPhone, for instance (it was her publicist).

However, the accusations here are more serious. The FTC and participating states are contending that Google set out to use false testimonials. It had a "blatant disrespect" for truth-in-ads rules, according to FTC consumer protection director Samuel Levine. While the punishment is tiny compared to the antitrust penalties Google has faced so far, it could damage trust in the company's campaigns for newer Pixels and other hardware.