Investigation into Amazon Prime’s “dark patterns” may affect publisher subscription funnels

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the U.S. is now investigating Amazon Prime, saying it “used manipulative, coercive, or deceptive user-interface designs known as ‘dark patterns’ to trick consumers into enrolling in automatically renewing Prime subscriptions” and also kept customers from cancelling. 

Why does this matter for you? Because the design tools that are used for subscriptions are under investigation, and a severe result here may restrict the ways that you use UX for sign-up, onboarding, and cancelling, in the U.S. at least.

Don’t worry just yet as this isn’t imminent, but I do think it warrants a moment’s thought. 

What exactly is a dark pattern?

It’s defined as using “design practices that trick or manipulate users into making choices they would not otherwise have made and that may cause harm.” And what may cause harm on our sites you may ask? People parting with money or stopping their ability to stop paying with money. It may also refer to content that is disguised advertising. Effectively, it’s using UX to lead consumers down a certain path, which may either not be what they want to do or something they don’t understand. 

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is looking into how Amazon Prime leads customers toward subscriptions, which may affect news media funnels as well.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is looking into how Amazon Prime leads customers toward subscriptions, which may affect news media funnels as well.

It’s a balance for us because we want to use tools that encourage people to sign up, but we also have to be clear about what they are signing up for. Trial pricing moving to standard subscription pricing is likely to be a target, as well as people’s ability to cancel, at least in the Amazon case. 

Here are the three main elements of the dark patterns policy: 

  • Disclose clearly and conspicuously all material terms of the product or service, including how much it costs, deadlines by which the consumer must act to stop further charges, the amount and frequency of such charges, how to cancel, and information about the product or service itself to stop consumers from being deceived about the characteristics of the product or service. The statement provides detail on what clear and conspicuous means, particularly noting that the information must be provided up front when the consumer first sees the offer and generally as prominent as the offer itself.

  • Obtain the consumer’s express informed consent before charging them for a product or services. This includes obtaining the consumer’s acceptance of the negative option feature separately from other portions of the entire transaction, not including information that interferes with, detracts from, contradicts, or otherwise undermines the consumer’s ability to provide their express informed consent.

  • Provide easy and simple cancellation to the consumer. Marketers should provide cancellation mechanisms that are at least as easy to use as the method the consumer used to buy the product or service in the first place. 

Europe’s Digital Services Act (DSA) is bringing a similar rule into effect in February 2024, stating: “Providers of online platforms shall not design, organise, or operate their online interfaces in a way that deceives or manipulates the recipients of their service or in a way that otherwise materially distorts or impairs the ability of the recipients of their service to make free and informed decisions.”

In some ways, this is more strict. Here are three of the points they make:

  • Presenting choices in a non-neutral manner — such as giving more prominence to certain choices through visual, auditory, or other components — when asking the recipient of the service for a decision.

  • Making the procedure of cancelling a service significantly more cumbersome than signing up to it.

  • Making certain choices more difficult or time consuming than others.

At best, this is to help consumers navigate online payments and subscriptions. At worst, regulation may restrict the way we advertise and move people through the funnel, onboarding, and cancellation processes. If I was running a product team right now, I would check to see which parts of the products need more scrutiny or adaption before these rules come into play. 

If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Jodie Hopperton

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.