FTC Compliance in Advertising

Blogger and Consumer Endorsements of Commercial Goods: Is Your Company in Compliance with FTC Guidelines?

Whether on your company’s website, Facebook, Twitter or third party blogs, endorsements of your products are subject to FTC guidelines issued in 2009.

General Considerations, 16 CFR § 255.1

FTC rule and guidelines require that before a company publishes an advertisement of a product — and this applies to all advertising, online or off — it must have a “reasonable basis” for each claim being made about the product. Both advertisements which make claims about the efficacy of a product (e.g., “you will achieve noticeable results in a few weeks”), and statements by bloggers and consumers attesting to that efficacy (e.g., “I used the product and felt results within a few days!”) are subject to the rule.

“Reasonable basis” means that the company must have objective evidence to support each claim. For medicine, remedies, vitamins, food supplements, reparative cosmetics and diets, “objective evidence” means “competent and reliable scientific evidence,” i.e., studies conducted by qualified persons, using methods that are generally accepted as scientifically valid. Furthermore, any claim regarding the results of using a product must be based on what consumers may generally expect. The matter obviously gets quite tricky when, for example, a study reveals a wide range of outcomes, particularly with regard to varying body types, skin types, ages, etc. But the FTC guidelines provide no further guidance on what will pass the test. The onus, if the FTC comes knocking, will be on the company.

If a claim is not supported by “objective evidence,” the company must conspicuously (i.e., not in fine print) state what the “generally expected results” of the product are, but even these generally expected results must, according to the FTC, be supported by objective evidence. Testimonials from satisfied customers are not considered objective or adequate evidence to support a claim about a product. Moreover, the FTC does not distinguish between claims made (1) directly by your company; (2) via consumer testimonials which appear on your company’s websites, blogs, Facebook pages, etc., or any other website at your company’s behest; and (3) by bloggers if the blogger has been provided with the product by the company, or reviews the product at the company’s request, or receives any kind of compensation, monetary or otherwise. In all three cases, the claims must be supported by objective evidence.  Claims which are not supported by objective evidence may be considered “deceptive” by the FTC.

Rules Applicable to Consumer Endorsements, § 255.2

As noted above, the FTC makes no distinction between consumer and blogger endorsements. They carry the same burdens and are treated as statements by the company whose product is being endorsed. Where a blogger makes a claim about the efficacy or curative properties of a product, the Company may be held responsible by the FTC even if the claim appears only on the blogger’s blog. Companies must therefore be aware of what bloggers (with whom they have been in contact) write and must take steps to correct claims which are not what consumers will generally achieve and are not supported by objective evidence. The FTC, by the way, disfavors the use of disclaimers such as “the results attested to by [the endorser] are not typical” or “may not be achieved by you.” FTC cites research on these disclaimers demonstrating that they have no effect on consumer expectations. However, the FTC doesn’t rule out the possibility that such a disclaimer might be sufficient in some circumstances. It just doesn’t say what those circumstances are.

There is a further rule which companies must heed for advertisements which contain consumer endorsements. Whenever an endorser represents that s/he uses a product, the company may run the advertisement only during the time the endorser actually uses, and continues to use, that product and to have the same opinion about it. (Companies have the obligation to contact the endorser from time to time to find out.) Dated testimonials in a section devoted to consumer comments is likely the best way to sidestep this potential problem –that is, where endorsement are conspicuously dated, there is no implication that product use is either current or ongoing. Videoclips with endorsements should also be conspicuously dated. Companies should ensure that the bloggers they contact also conspicuously date their product reviews.

§§ 255.1 and 255.2 contain several examples which are useful in understanding how the rules are applied:

If, in the alternative, the advertisement simply features “before” and “after” pictures of a woman who says “I lost 50 pounds in 6 months with WeightAway,” the ad is likely to convey that her experience is representative of what consumers will generally achieve. Therefore, if consumers cannot generally expect to achieve such results, the ad should clearly and conspicuously disclose what they can expect to lose in the depicted circumstances ( e.g., “most women who use WeightAway for six months lose at least 15 pounds”).

If the ad features the same pictures but the testimonialist simply says, “I lost 50 pounds with WeightAway,” and WeightAway users generally do not lose 50 pounds, the ad should disclose what results they do generally achieve ( e.g., “most women who use WeightAway lose 15 pounds”).

Material Connections, § 255.5

This section of the regulations requires that companies disclose any material fact that might influence a blogger’s opinion about the product. This applies both to compensation, the promise of compensation, employment by the company (as when an employee posts on a board anonymously, touting his company’s products) and claims that an opinion is candid when it isn’t. “Compensation,” in this context, does not need to be monetary for the disclosure requirement to be triggered. The promise of publicity or some non-monetary reward for a favorable review is also “compensation.”

Again, the FTC provides some nuanced examples:

FTC Enforcement

The FTC can subpoena companies and hold them accountable for violating FTC guidelines. It can issue cease and desist orders, require corrective advertising and impose civil penalties. By all accounts, FTC enforcement is focused on products which are ingested (particularly supplements) and products which claim to cure conditions or diseases (especially cancer). The use of consumer and blogger endorsements which make claims not substantiated by objective evidence is common practice in the health supplements and cosmetics industries, but “everybody does it” is not a defense to an FTC action.

The FTC is not particularly proactive, but responds primarily to consumer complaints. Still, any proceeding — administrative or civil — can be an expensive process and is best avoided by following the guidelines carefully and in good faith.

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