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Devoted customers may post (fake) negative reviews ... because they care too much

Sometimes people post negative online reviews for products they never even used, not because they really hate a company, want to make a competing product look better or because they're just bored — but instead, a study suggests, these folks are actually customers who are a little bit too devoted to the brand they're criticizing.

Eric Anderson and Duncan Simester, professors of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management and the MIT Sloan School of Management, respectively, analyzed reviews posted about an unnamed apparel company's products. Since the company does not sell any products through third-party retailers, it was possible for the professors to identify which individuals purchased the items they reviewed and which didn't.

They found that reviews posted by customers who did not purchase an item had a tendency to not only be negative, but to include claims that the individuals did indeed purchase the items. As if that's not enough to make alarm bells ring, the reviews also tended to include signals of deception, the professors say, such as a higher word count, longer words, irrelevant mentions of family members, and repeated exclamation marks (!!!). The reviewers didn't include details about the product's physical attributes, suggesting that the customers never handled them.

So, why the heck would anyone go through the trouble of writing long, complicated reviews knocking a product he or she never touched? The reviews were coming from individuals who had purchased plenty of other products from the retailer (and continued to purchase more items following the review).

The professors took a closer look.

"What was surprising to us was that many of the comments tend to use phrases that we think of as directed to the company rather than to [fellow] customers," Anderson tells NBC News,

This means that rather than using phrases which offer advice (such as "if you are looking," "if you need," "if you want," if you like," and so on), the writers of these reviews tend to use phrases which make requests (such as "bring back," "offer more," "go back to," and so on).

In essence, the professors explain in their report, the customers were acting as "self-appointed brand managers."

"They are loyal to the brand and want an avenue to provide feedback to the company about how to improve its products," the report explains. "They will even do so on products they have not purchased."

The professors' conclusion: "Your best friends are your hardest critics."

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