Earlier this week, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) announced a settlement with PayPal, Inc. over allegations that Venmo, a PayPal-owned mobile payment and social networking application, misled customers on issues relating to account transfers and privacy settings and enabled fraud through inadequate security practices.

Founded in 2009, Venmo lets users easily transfer money to one another and share information regarding such payments through a social network feed.  From a user perspective, Venmo operates a lot like any other major social media network, letting users “pay” each other in the same way you “tag” a friend in an Instagram post.  Thanks to its familiar social media-style interface and the ease with which it lets users split everyday expenses like bar tabs and rent payments, Venmo quickly became a favorite among millennials and college students.

According to the FTC, however, Venmo’s perceived simplicity was deceptive.  In a complaint originally filed against Venmo-parent PayPal in 2016, the FTC alleged that Venmo’s notification policy misled consumers and constituted a “deceptive or unfair practice” under Section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Commission Act.  Under the policy, Venmo notified users that funds were credited to their account before Venmo had reviewed and verified the underlying transaction.  According to the complaint, this practice resulting in unexpected delays and reversals.  It also created an ideal environment for fraud.  By falsely conveying to sellers that transactions had cleared, scammers were able to buy goods and services with fake or fraudulent information, leaving sellers with nothing when the transactions were ultimately reversed.

The FTC further charged that Venmo misled consumers about the privacy of information about their transactions.  Under the application’s default settings, whenever a user pays or is paid through the application, a description of the transaction and its participants is shared with all of the user’s “friends” in a social networking feed.  While Venmo offers privacy settings that let users limit who can view their transactions, it failed to accurately explain to users how those privacy settings actually work.

Additional charges alleged that Venmo misrepresented the extent to which consumers’ accounts were protected by “bank grade security systems” and violated the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act’s Safeguards and Privacy Rules.

“This case sends a strong message that financial institutions like Venmo need to focus on privacy and security from day one,” acting FTC chairman Maureen Ohlhausen said in a statement.  “Consumers suffered real harm when Venmo did not live up to the promises it made to users about the availability of their money.”

For businesses dealing directly with consumers, this case underscores the importance of taking your duty to educate consumers about your product seriously, especially when it comes to how customer information will be used.  Such businesses should regularly review disclosures and other consumer-facing messages to ensure they are not only accurate but also consistent with reasonable consumer expectations.  And whenever costumers are given options as to how their information will be used, make sure those options are clearly conveyed and, perhaps most importantly, honor their choices.

You’ve done your due diligence and you are sure that the content of your advertisement is accurate and fully substantiated with reliable data. All good, right? Not necessarily.

It’s a good first step – but the FTC and advertising laws are not limited to content, they also require that the context and presentation of the advertisement not be misleading or deceptive. The FTC recently re-affirmed this rule in explaining its standards for so-called “native advertising.”

Copyright: adiruch / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: adiruch / 123RF Stock Photo

Native advertising is advertising that matches the design, style, and behavior of the digital media in which it is disseminated. One aim of a native advertisement is to blend in with the organic content of a website. Native advertising has been on the uptick in the past several years as advertisers try to convince increasingly savvy internet users to click on their advertisements. According to the FTC, however, a well-designed native advertisement may well be impermissibly deceptive.

In its recent pronouncement, the FTC did not rewrite the rules applicable to contextual advertising; but it made clear that the rules apply to native advertising just like all other advertising.

So what are the rules and what should be done to ensure compliance with them?

According to the FTC, the rule is as follows:

“Deception occurs when an advertisement misleads reasonable consumers as to its true nature or source, including that a party other than the sponsoring advertiser is the source of an advertising or promotional message, and such misleading representation is material.”

Pretty simple – all expect for what qualifies as “material.” Fortunately, the FTC provides a definition of what they consider material:

“[A] misleading representation is material if it is likely to affect the consumers’ choices or conduct regarding the advertised product or the advertisement, such as by leading consumers to give greater credence to advertising claims or to interact with advertising with which they otherwise would not have interacted.”

In other words, if the context and design of the advertisement misleads consumers into believing it is not an advertisement paid for by the advertiser, it very well may be deceptive under the FTC’s rule.

So what factors can an advertiser consider in developing a native advertisement?

Consider the entire context surrounding the advertisement. In assessing whether an advertisement is misleading, the FTC will consider the net impression of the advertisement, not just the statements in isolation. The FTC will “scrutinize the entire ad, examining such factors as its overall appearance, the similarity of its written, spoken, or visual style to non-advertising content offered on a publisher’s site, and the degree to which it is distinguishable from such other content.”

Consider the target of the advertisement. In some circumstances, the target audience for an advertisement will be an important consideration. For example, the FTC may apply different considerations to advertisements directed at children versus those directed at educated, sophisticated consumers.

Consider using a clear disclosure. Time and again, the FTC has suggested or required the use of a clear disclosure that an advertisement disguised as something else is, in fact, an advertisement. The classic example is the use of the word “ADVERTISEMENT” in sufficiently large and clear text on an advertisement in a newspaper that is disguised as a news article. Such disclosures will not always be sufficient – it will always depend on the full context of the advertisement.      

Don’t rely on the consumer “figuring it out” later on. The FTC considers deception harmful and illegal even if the consumer can later figure out that what he or she just clicked on was an advertisement by, for example, looking at the landing page or speaking to a sales representative. Curing the deception after the fact is, under the FTC’s guidelines, likely insufficient.

Read and know the rules. A good starting place is to read the FTC’s Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements. And when in doubt, consult with an attorney experienced in advertising law.