When hoping to resolve advertising concerns or disputes quickly and easily, companies should not only consider utilizing the National Advertising Division (“NAD”), but also the potentially lesser-known Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program (“ERSP”).  ESRP is a self-regulatory program administrated for the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council (“ASRC”) by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.  The program was established in 2004 and its mission is “to enhance consumer confidence in electronic retailing by providing a quick and effective mechanism for resolving inquiries regarding the truthfulness and accuracy of claims in direct response advertising.”

Like actions before the NAD, ERSP actions provide guidance regarding certain advertisements.  ERSP is focused on reviewing direct-to-consumer advertising campaigns—largely infomercials but also radio ads, internet marketing efforts, TV shopping channel marketing, and pop-up advertising—for substantiation of claims, with the goal of preventing continued dissemination of deceptive claims.  ERSP members, as well as consumer or advocacy groups, can refer campaigns to ERSP for review, and ERSP reviews approximately 7-10 per month.  After review, ERSP may recommend that marketers discontinue making certain claims and may even alert the Federal Trade Commission about non-compliant companies.  ERSP reports that it has worked with companies to modify or discontinue use of almost 200 advertisements.

For more information, visit the Electronic Retailing Association’s website or read the ASRC’s blog posts regarding recent ERSP actions.

Although they may not immediately connote a traditional form of advertising, food menus and labels serve as a form of advertising in the minds of many consumers and are regulated by Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”).  Read below for two important updates/reminders in the food-related space.

62909081 - calorie dessert for each piece. problem with obesity. popular dessert menu.Menu Labeling:  As a follow up on a prior blog post and as detailed in today’s Consumer Update from the FDA, the FDA is requiring this month that certain types of food establishments post calorie information on menus and menu boards and provide nutrition information upon request in order to help consumers make informed choices in ordering food items.  The FDA’s requirement applies to chain restaurants as well as eating establishments with more than 20 locations, and the FDA’s Consumer Update provides examples of the types of locations where consumers should expect to now see calorie posting, if they don’t already.

Nutrition Facts Label:  Following up on another prior blog post, the FDA recently announced that it is extending the deadline to comply with its Nutrition Facts Label rule and its Serving Size rule by 18 months.  Instead of requiring compliance by certain manufacturers this summer, the FDA will now require compliance by January 1, 2020 for larger food manufacturers and January 1, 2021 for smaller food manufacturers.  This extension is intended to provide sufficient time to ensure industry compliance.

When marketing products or services to children, companies should be aware of applicable statutes and guidance and should be particularly cautious with their advertising claims.

Lanham Act & FTC Act

The prohibitions against false, misleading, and deceptive advertising under the Lanham Act and Section 5 of the FTC Act of course apply to advertising claims directed at children.  It’s important to remember that the advertisements may be viewed by a court or by the FTC as ordinary children would view them (not as the actual buyers, i.e. parents or other adults, would view them).  Therefore, companies should ensure that any advertising claims directed at children do not have the tendency to mislead or deceive those children.

FTC Guidance

The FTC advises companies to comply with truth-in-advertising standards when advertising directly to children or when marketing kid-related products to parents.  For example, the FTC is concerned with child privacy, marketing violent entertainment to children, and, given the rise in childhood obesity rates, food advertising to children.

COPPA

38772807 - little girl hand touch touch pad notebookThe Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a federal statute meant to protect children’s privacy and safety online by prohibiting unfair or deceptive practices relating to the collection of personal information from internet users under the age of 13.  COPPA requires providing certain information in privacy policies, giving parents direct notice, and obtaining parental consent before collecting personal information from children.  The FTC’s step-by-step COPPA compliance guide can help a company determine if it is covered by COPPA and, if so, how to comply with the rule.

CARU

The Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) is an investigative unit of the advertising industry administrated by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.  CARU monitors advertisements (tv, print, radio, and online media) with the goal of advancing truthfulness, accuracy, and consistency and eliminating deceptive or inappropriate advertising directed toward children.  CARU publishes self-regulatory guidelines for advertisers and relies upon voluntary cooperation and change by advertisers themselves.

Though apparently not when it comes to suing for copyright infringement.  Earlier this week, the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling in a case involving photographs taken by a monkey on a camera left unattended by a nature photographer in Indonesia—aptly deemed the “Monkey Selfies.”  The copyright infringement case was filed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc. (PETA) as “Next Friends” of the monkey named Naruto against the photographer and entity that published the Monkey Selfies in a book that identified themselves as the copyright owners (although also noting that Naruto took the photographs).  After a lengthy dispute, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling and held that animals like Naruto cannot sue for copyright infringement because, as nonhumans, they lack the required standing under the Copyright Act, which does not expressly authorize animals to sue.

March Madness always brings about trademark enforcement-related news.  What we generally don’t see is news about a participating school submitting trademark applications while the basketball tournament takes place.  But according to numerous articles last week, including this one in the Baltimore Sun, the University of Maryland Baltimore County hadn’t sought trademark registrations prior to securing the first upset of a #16 seed over a #1 seed two weeks ago.  After that historic victory, however, the University asked attorneys to file trademark applications for the phrases “16 over 1,” “UMBC Retrievers,” and “Retriever Nation”—which the Baltimore Sun poignantly characterized as capitalizing on the University’s “skyrocketing commercial cachet.”  Given the immediate increase in university bookstore apparel sales, the University’s quick response to that newfound cachet is more than timely.

Contrast UMBC’s recent trademark enforcement efforts with those of Iowa State University, which we’ve previously covered on this blog.  As a reminder, Iowa State University had refused to continue to license university trademarks to two of its students and their chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws because the organization was using the university’s mark on pro-marijuana t-shirts.  That dispute raised issues of the interplay between trademark licensing principles for public universities and students’ First Amendment rights, the latter of which the federal court found was trump.  Last week, in addition to the $150,000 emotional distress damages and $193,000 in legal bills already awarded, the judge approved another $598,208 in attorneys’ fees and costs, bringing the total cost to state taxpayers to almost $1 million.

These quite varying anecdotes serve as a reminder that it isn’t just public and private companies that think and care about trademark enforcement—universities do too, even if they’re late to the party.

Failing to have adequate substantiation for advertising claims can land companies in hot water.  Case in point: The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) recently announced that it had settled charges against a company and its CEO related to their advertising of anti-aging products using what the FTC believed were false or unsubstantiated claims.  According to the FTC’s Complaint, Telomerase Activation Sciences, Inc. and Noel Patton (“TA Sciences”) lacked scientific evidence to support claims that their topical cream product and capsule/power product provided certain anti-aging and other health benefits.  Specifically, the FTC alleged that it was false, misleading, or unsubstantiated for TA Sciences to make the following representations about one or both products:

  • reverses aging;
  • prevents and repairs DNA damage;
  • restores aging immune systems;
  • increases bone density;
  • reverses the effects of aging, including improving skin elasticity, increasing energy and endurance, and improving vision;
  • prevents or reduces the risk of cancer;
  • decreases recovery time of the skin after medical procedures.

Additionally, the FTC alleged that TA Sciences made misrepresentations related to a paid program being independent and educational, related to consumers in its ads being independent users, and in promotional materials provided to other marketers.

The FTC alleged that TA Sciences’ conduct violated section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive acts, thus allowing the FTC to bring suit to enjoin such conduct.  The FTC’s suit alleged counts of (1) false or unsubstantiated efficacy claims, (2) false establishment claims, (3) deceptive format, (4) deceptive failure to disclose material connections with consumer endorsers, (5) false independent users claims, and (6) means and instrumentalities to trade customers.  The FTC’s proposed settlement order prohibits TA Sciences from making a number of representations related to these counts.  It also requires TA Sciences to notify purchasers of the products at issue about the FTC settlement order.  After a period of public comment, the FTC will decide whether to make the order final.

Of course, companies should ensure that they have adequate substantiation for advertising claims, whether health-related or otherwise.  As a reminder, the FTC requires that advertisers have a reasonable basis for advertising claims before disseminating them.  For more information regarding claim substantiation, review the FTC Policy Statement Regarding Advertising Substantiation.

Social media bots may seem like a futuristic phenomenon or something belonging only in the TV series “Homeland,” but they’re already here affecting businesses and individuals online.

Last month, the New York Times reported on its investigation into the selling of fake Twitter followers and retweets by an American company named Devumi, which it estimates has at least 3.5 million automated Twitter accounts and at least 55,000 of which that impersonate real people.  These individuals probably have no idea that Devumi purportedly uses their names, profile pictures, etc. to create automated accounts to sell to celebrities, politicians, businesses, and others looking to boost their following online.

According to a related New York Times article, there have been a number of both federal and state inquiries into fake social media account practices such as these, including an investigation that the New York Attorney General’s office opened last month into Devumi’s practice of using stolen identities to sell fake accounts, which it believes would constitute illegal impersonation and deception.  Social media companies, on the other hand, appear to be grappling with how to best enforce their policies and handle fake user accounts, which can have a significant influence on businesses, politics, and consumer behavior.  And influencers themselves, who may believe they are buying legitimate followers, are likely left with questions of their own.

Today’s presence of social media bots requires companies to be even more cognizant of certain practices online.  Although social media can be a powerful tool in any company’s advertising or marketing plan, companies need to be careful for example when considering whether and how to purchase social media followers.  And, as always, companies should avoid any online practices that appear illegal or fraudulent.

It was that time of year again—when everyone looks forward to watching commercials and debating which companies hit and which companies missed.  Yes, Super Bowl LII happened yesterday and there was no shortage of funny, sad, strange, and intriguing ads during the commercial breaks.  What those of us in Minnesota also learned was that advertising surrounding the Super Bowl is not limited to those made-for-tv commercials.  Indeed, the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee planned a 10-day extravaganza in downtown Minneapolis that featured not only NFL and Super Bowl-related advertising, but a number of company-sponsored ads, tents/booths, and activities.  The Host Committee also created the “Bold North” tagline, which was featured all over downtown and on various types of merchandise.  According to a recent article in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, a small group of Host Committee members came up with the tag line three years ago and it stuck.  To see how the Host Committee utilized this tag line as a brand, take a look at the Minnesota Super Bowl website.

In what may be the final installment of a series of blog posts related to the Lanham Act’s disparaging trademark ban and its effect on the Washington Redskins’ trademarks, the Fourth Circuit finally issued a decision in the Redskins’ case.  When the United States Supreme Court ruled last June in a case involving the Slants rock band that section 2(a) of the Lanham Act was unconstitutional, the fate of the Washington Redskins’ trademarks became clear.  But it took until yesterday for the Fourth Circuit to officially weigh in.

68951198 – washington redskins nfl team on white

In yesterday’s simple one-page decision, the Fourth Circuit vacated the lower court’s ruling (which affirmed the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s earlier order) that six of the team’s trademarks violated section 2(a) of the Lanham Act.  In other words, as expected, the Fourth Circuit issued an order in line with the Supreme Court’s decision that the disparaging trademark ban is unconstitutional and cannot bar the registration of an allegedly disparaging trademark.  As part of its ruling, the Fourth Circuit dispensed with oral argument and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision.  Given that the remand is merely a formality at this point, the Washington Redskins may now finally feel closure on the issue (though in true procedural fashion, the Fourth Circuit’s Notice of Judgment does confirm that there is 90 days to file a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court).

To trace this blog’s history of this interesting trademark issue, check out blog posts here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here.

At most public universities, student organizations are permitted to license various university trademarks to designate the organization’s involvement with the university and the organization’s status as a registered student organization.  My colleague Chris Beall previously wrote blog posts here and here about a dispute stemming from this practice that involved the First Amendment, Iowa State University, two of its students, and their chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (“NORML”).  As a reminder, the case involved Iowa State University’s refusal to continue to license university trademarks to NORML because the organization was using the university’s mark on pro-marijuana t-shirts.  The federal district court, and later the Eighth Circuit (twice), ruled in favor of the students, finding that the First Amendment trumps normal trademark licensing principles for public universities and that Iowa State University violated the students’ First Amendment rights.

According to the Des Moines Register last week, the State of Iowa agreed to pay $150,000 to the two students as emotional distress damages and $193,000 in legal bills to their two law firms.  But apparently this agreement only resolves attorneys’ fees related to the Eighth Circuit aspect of the parties’ dispute, not the district court work for which the students plan to request an additional amount in attorneys’ fees from the court.

As my colleague previously wrote, this case stands as an important reminder that trademark licensing principles are different for governmental organizations because of the overarching constraints of the First Amendment.