The Federal Trade Commission didn't place a lot of trust in SmartClick Media's "Doctor Trusted" certification program when it reached a deal with the company and owner Robert Vozdecky to stop their misleading claims.
The defendants marketed and sold a certification seal to hundreds of websites that offered health-related products and services (such as dietary supplements). The "Doctor Trusted" seal featured a photo of an individual in a white coat with a stethoscope, an "active" date that implied that the recommendation was current, and a "click to verify" link.
When consumers clicked on the link, a pop-up box appeared, stating that: "[Website name] was carefully evaluated by an independent medical doctor who reviewed its medical information, claims, products, terms of service, and policies, and has found the site to be trustworthy and safe for purchases as of the time of the review." The certification was issued by the "DoctorTrusted.org Consumer Protection Organization."
In reality, the seal and certificates were meaningless, the FTC alleged. The defendants did in fact hire doctors, but their review of the products on the websites was superficial, the agency said, and they made no determination as to whether the advertising claims for the products were supported.
Despite this, the defendants promoted the "Doctor Trusted" program as "one of the most effective ways to increase sales with the least amount of effort," claiming that the seal will "give visitors a new level of confidence to purchase your product." About 800 seals and certifications were sold to different websites over the course of three years at a price of $99.95 plus $39.95 per month, including websites that appeared as defendants in other FTC actions.
The defendants also operated their own websites—such as betterlivingjournal.org—that were deceptively formatted to appear to be health product review sites or independent lifestyle blogs, the agency said, when they were actually advertising vehicles and the defendants received a commission each time a consumer clicked on the site or purchased an advertised product.
Pursuant to the proposed stipulated final order, the defendants will be prohibited from misrepresenting the extent to which medical or other expertise is used to evaluate a product, that they are a consumer protection or nonprofit organization, the frequency with which they evaluate, certify, or review a product or service, and that any website is an independent resource for products or services.
The defendants will also be required to take affirmative action, including disclosing when the content of any website or other publication is not written by an objective source, but is instead an ad or paid placement, as well as disclosing any material connection between themselves and any product or service being discussed, reviewed, or evaluated on a website or other publication.
A judgment of $600,000 will be partially suspended upon payment of $35,000.
To read the complaint and proposed stipulated order in FTC v. SmartClick Media, click here.
Why it matters: "Consumers should be able to rely on seals and certificates for accurate information on how products are tested and evaluated," Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement about the action. "Unfortunately, in this case, they were completely misled by the sellers of the 'Doctor Trusted' program." The case reminds marketers to proceed with caution when using seals, certifications, and reviews, particularly in the context of health claims, to ensure that the formatting of a site does not imply independent content or reviews, and to disclose any material connections that consumers may not expect.