The FTC filed a lawsuit earlier this month in the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah charging telemarketers with violating the FTC Act and the Telemarketing Sales Rule.  The FTC alleges that defendants deceptively claimed their “business coaching” would help consumers earn thousands of dollars a month by starting a home-based Internet business.

According to the complaint, the defendants’ telemarketing operation relied on “leads” supplied by other companies.  Typically, these were consumers who had purchased some work-from-home-related product or service online for less than $100. For a fee or a percentage of defendants’ sales, the company that sold the product or service would encourage the buyer to contact an “expert consultant” or “specialist” to see if they qualify for an “advanced” coaching program.  However, when the consumer called to speak to a “specialist” they were merely routed to defendants’ telemarketers.

According to the lawsuit, the defendants then charged consumers up to $13,995 for their purported business coaching program, which merely provided information that was already freely available on the Internet.  Ultimately, most people who bought the service did not develop a functioning business, earned little or no money, and ended up deeply in debt.

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.

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.

The FTC filed a lawsuit this week against Lending Club, a peer-to-peer lending company that operates an online marketplace for personal loans.  The lawsuit accuses Lending Club of luring consumers to its website with online advertisements promising “no hidden fees,” only to go ahead and deduct significant “up-front” origination fees from the loan proceeds.  As a result, customers were surprised when the amount that actually showed up in their bank account was less than the “Loan Amount” they thought they had signed up for.

According to the FTC, this deception is made worse by the fact that Lending Club never adequately discloses the up-front fee to consumers during the entire online application process.  The fee is only mentioned once—inside an explanatory “pop-up bubble” that only appears if the applicant happens to click or tap on a relatively small and inconspicuous icon. Because applicants are not required to click or tap on the icon in order to move forward with their loan application, many applicants never saw the disclosure at all.

“This case demonstrates the importance to consumers of having truthful information from lenders, including online marketplace lenders,” said Reilly Dolan, acting director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a statement. “Stopping this kind of conduct will help consumers make informed choices about loan offers.”

This case is a reminder of advertisers’ responsibility to ensure that advertisements are honest and forthcoming, especially in the ever-changing landscape of online advertising.  Some key takeaways:

  • If a disclosure is needed to prevent an online ad from being deceptive or unfair, it must be clear and conspicuous. This rule applies to all forms of online advertising, including paid blog posts or ads on social media platforms.
  • The “clear and conspicuous” rule also applies across all devices and platforms that consumers may use to view the ad. Advertisers must therefore ensure that required disclosures function properly on all programs and devices.
  • Putting necessary disclosures in hyperlinks or “pop-up bubbles” is strongly discouraged, particularly where the disclosure involves important information like additional costs or consumer safety. Where they are used, ensure the link is labeled accurately and that it functions properly regardless of device or platform.

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.

Following up on my blog post related to the Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) prohibition on illegal sales calls and robocalls, today the FTC issued its National Do Not Call Registry Data Book for Fiscal Year 2017.  Now in its ninth year, the 2017 fiscal year Data Book contains “statistical data about phone numbers on the Registry, telemarketers and sellers accessing phone numbers on the Registry, and complaints consumers submit to the FTC about telemarketers allegedly violating the Do Not Call rules.”  New this year, according to the FTC, is a breakdown of robocalls versus live calls, information about the topic of those calls as reported by consumers, and a state-by-state analysis of consumer complaints.

In its press release issued today, the FTC reported that the Registry now contains over 229 million phone numbers and that there were over 7 million consumer complaints about unwanted telemarketing calls in 2017.  Of those, over 4.5 million were complaints about robocalls, which is a marked increase from the prior year.  Notably, the most frequent topic that consumers identified when submitting a robocall complaint was “Reducing Debt,” which accounted for over 700,000 of the complaints received in 2017.

As a reminder, companies should make sure to follow proper procedures when making sales calls, particularly pre-recorded sales calls, to consumers.

Last month, the Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”) sent a lengthy warning letter to Nashoba Brook Bakery, a bakery based in Massachusetts, identifying a number of alleged violations of food regulations and labeling regulations.  One such allegation was that the bakery’s Nashoba Granola product improperly listed “love” as an ingredient on its label.  Specifically, the FDA alleged, “Your Nashoba Granola label lists ingredient ‘Love’.  Ingredients required to be declared on the label or labeling of food must be listed by their common or usual name [21 CFR 101.4(a)(1).  ‘Love’ is not a common or usual name of an ingredient, and is considered to be intervening material because it is not part of the common or usual name of the ingredient.”

The FDA’s love-related allegation has garnered some press both locally and nationally and is a good reminder regarding labeling regulations and the FDA’s enforcement authority.  Other FDA warning letters can be found here.

 

 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) regulates dietary supplements as food, not as drugs.  In general, dietary supplements are taken orally and contain a dietary ingredient such as a vitamin, mineral, amino acid, herb, botanical, or other substance used to supplement the diet.  The FDA warns consumers that dietary supplements may be harmful, may contain hidden or deceptively-labeled ingredients, and are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or alleviate the effects of any disease.  In fact, the FDA has recalled numerous products containing potentially harmful ingredients.

Although federal law requires that dietary supplements be labeled as such (either as a “dietary supplement” or with “[ingredient description] supplement”) and that products be labeled correctly and advertised fairly, the FDA does not pre-approve dietary supplements or require that they be proven safe before they are marketed and sold.  Nor does the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) pre-approve any advertising related to dietary supplements.  As a result, there is no requirement that manufacturers/sellers prove that their products are safe or that all advertising claims are accurate before they market or sell the products.  Instead, it is the company’s responsibility to ensure product safety and truthful advertising, and the FDA and FTC only get involved after such products have already entered the market—with the FDA regulating safety issues and the FTC regulating advertising issues.

To bolster its ability to regulate such safety issues, the FDA requires that sellers of dietary supplements report any serious adverse events reported by consumers or health care professionals within 15 days of receipt and that the FDA monitor and investigate those reports.  Likewise, the FDA monitors and investigates any adverse event voluntarily reported by consumers or health care professionals and encourages such voluntary reports to be made directly to the FDA as soon as possible.

As always, manufacturers/sellers of dietary supplements should make sure that their products are safe, properly labeled, and advertised truthfully.  In addition, companies should make sure to report any serious adverse events to the FDA within the required time frame.

Moonlight Slumber, LLC, an Illinois company that advertised its baby mattresses as “organic,” has agreed to settle FTC charges that it misrepresented or could not support these and other claims to consumers.

The FTC’s administrative complaint alleged that in marketing and advertising its baby mattresses, Moonlight Slumber misrepresented a range of claims on its website and in its packaging.  For example, the complaint charged the company represented that two of its lines of its mattresses are “organic.”  According to the FTC, however, very little of the mattresses were made from organic material.

The proposed settlement order prohibits Moonlight Slumber from making misleading misleading representations regarding whether any mattress, blanket, pillow, pad, foam-containing product, or sleep-related product is “organic,” “natural,” or “plant-based,” among other things.  The order also requires the company to have competent and reliable evidence, including scientific evidence when appropriate, to support any claims in these areas.

This is the FTC’s first case challenging “organic” product claims, and could be a signal that more are to come.  Companies using this language to market or promote their products should take note and ensure that they can support any such claims.

When done correctly, sweepstakes and prize contests can be an effective tool for building brand awareness and gaining customers.  However, businesses that fail to abide by applicable statutes and regulations when using these promotional devices can suffer disastrous consequences, including civil enforcement actions, government inquiries, or even criminal penalties.

For instance, earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced it had sent more than $532,000 in restitution payments to victims of a vacation prize scheme.  The scheme, conducted primarily by VGC Corp. of America between 2008 and 2011, involved a promotion offering expensive vacation packages to callers who correctly answered a simple trivia question.  All callers (regardless of whether they answered correctly) were told they had won the vacation package but had to pay an “administrative fee” before they could collect.  Callers were later informed of several limitations and restrictions to the offer, but only after they had already paid between $200 and $400 in fees.

This case serves as a reminder of the need for businesses that implement these kinds of marketing tactics to have at least a basic understanding of the statutory and regulatory framework.  A number of federal laws require that certain disclosures be “clear and conspicuous” in contest promotions, including but not limited to all rules and conditions of the promotion and the odds of winning any given prize.

Additional regulations may apply depending on the particular type of contest or giveaway at issue.  Promotions in which prizes are awarded to members of the public on the basis of skill or knowledge (“skill contests”), or where the gift or prize is available to all recipients who respond according to the companies’ instructions (“premium offers”), can typically require payment in order to participate.  However, promotions that award prizes to consumers by pure chance (“sweepstakes”) cannot require payment of any kind, as whenever a sweepstakes-style contest requires a payment, it risks crossing the line into an illegal lottery.

Any businesses considering implementing these kinds of promotional devices should take the time to understand these distinctions and abide by all disclosure requirements.  If the past is any indication, the FTC and other federal agencies will continue their strict enforcement of these rules.