The FTC has stepped up its advertising related enforcement activity in recent months, particularly focusing on companies that fail to clearly and conspicuously disclose underlying connections between testimonial providers and product sellers. Summarized below are several recent FTC enforcement actions involving online reviews and social media, as well as some key takeaways for companies considering online advertising and social media campaigns.
Recent FTC Enforcement Actions
First, in its complaint against a skincare company, the FTC alleged that the company misled consumers by posting reviews written by company employees. Specifically, the FTC’s allegations included assertions that (i) product reviews posted on a retailer’s website were not “independent experiences or opinions of impartial ordinary users of the products” and therefore, were false or misleading under Section 5 of the FTC Act; and (ii) the failure to disclose the reviews were written by the owner or employees constitutes a deceptive act or practice under Section 5 of the FTC Act, because the information would “be material to consumers in evaluating the reviews of [the company] brand products in connection with a purchase or use decision.”
In a 3-2 vote the Commission approved an administrative consent order, which notably does not include any monetary relief for consumers. The order prohibits the company from misrepresenting the status of an endorser, which includes misrepresentations that the endorser or reviewer is an “independent or ordinary user of the product.” requires the company and owner to “clearly and conspicuously, and in close proximity to that representation, any unexpected material connection between such endorser and (1) any Respondent; or (2) any other individual or entity affiliated with the product.”
In dissent, two Commissioners objected to the lack of monetary relief, stating, “[t]hat monetary relief can be difficult to calculate should not deter the FTC from seeking it. When the agency’s estimates are uncertain, the Commission sometimes demands no monetary relief whatsoever, which leads to under-deterrence of blatant fraud and dishonesty. This needs to change.”
Second, the FTC also charged a now-defunct company and its owner with selling social media followers and subscribers to motivational speakers, law firm partners, investment professionals, and others who wanted to boost their credibility to potential clients, as well as to actors, athletes, and others who wanted to increase their social media appeal. According to the FTC, the company “provided such users of social media platforms with the means and instrumentalities for the commission of deceptive acts or practices,” in violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act.
The Commission unanimously voted to file the proposed court order, which bans the company from selling or assisting others in selling “social media influence.” The order, which was later approved by a federal district court, imposes a $2.5 million monetary judgment against the company owner, but suspends the majority upon the payment of $250,000.
In a business-focused blog post released in conjunction with the enforcement actions noted above, the FTC:
- Reminds marketers that when “people at the helm” are “calling the illegal shots,” the FTC will name them in their individual capacities in actions;
- Emphasizes that companies must instruct their employees and agents to clearly disclose in reviews any material connection to the product; and
- States that the truth-in-advertising provisions of the FTC Act apply to companies that claim to be “strictly B2B,” if they are providing others with the means and instrumentalities for deception.
Relatedly, in February 2019, the FTC approved final consent orders with two marketing companies for, among other things, misrepresenting paid endorsements as independent consumer opinions. The companies allegedly hired Olympic athletes to endorse a mosquito repellent on social media and formatted advertisements to appear as independent statements of impartial publications. The FTC argued that the company failed to disclose, or disclose adequately, that (i) the Olympians were paid to endorse the mosquito repellent; and (ii) the online consumer reviews were by individuals who were reimbursed for buying the product and included statements by the owner and employees of the public relations firm hired to promote the product.
The final consent orders (here and here) require that each company to cease the misrepresentations and notify future endorsers of their responsibility “to disclose clearly and conspicuously, and in close proximity to the endorsement, in any print, radio, television, online, or digital advertisement or communication, the endorser’s unexpected material connection to any Respondent or any other individual or entity affiliated with the product or service.”
Key Takeaways for Online Advertising and Social Media Campaigns:
- These complaints and consent orders incorporate the basic concepts of the FTC’s Endorsement Guides, which address how the prohibition against deceptive practices in section 5 of the FTC Act applies to endorsements and testimonials in advertising. As an FTC blog post puts it:
Suppose you meet someone who tells you about a great new product. She tells you it performs wonderfully and offers fantastic new features that nobody else has. Would that recommendation factor into your decision to buy the product? Probably.
Now suppose the person works for the company that sells the product – or has been paid by the company to tout the product. Would you want to know that when you’re evaluating the endorser’s glowing recommendation? You bet. That common-sense premise is at the heart of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Endorsement Guides.
- The dissenting commissioners in the skincare product case suggested that the FTC should have obtained “monetary relief” for consumers rather than simply order the company to comply with the law in the future, implying that the company should have been required to make refunds to consumers. The FTC doesn’t have the power to obtain civil penalties for deceptive practices unless the practice violates a specific regulation or order, but many states do have that power.
- The FTC Endorsement Guides don’t have the force of law of a formal regulation but they influence enforcement decision of not only the FTC, but also other federal and state and local agencies. Some of the principles in the Guides have very wide application. For example:
- An endorsement “relating the experience” of one or more people is considered to be a representation that their experience is typical of what most people can achieve with a product or service.
- For example, an ad in which a consumer says “I saved $100 a month on my mortgage by going through XYZ Mortgage” is deemed to be a claim that most consumers will experience the same result.
- A statement that “results not typical,” or even “based on the experiences of a few people—you probably won’t have similar results” usually won’t cure the deceptive impact of a claim by an endorser that he or she achieved certain results, unless the advertiser can provide empirical testing “demonstrating that the net impression of its advertisement with such a disclaimer is non-deceptive.”
- As with any advertising claim, the implied claim of typicality in an endorsement must be substantiated, i.e., the advertiser must have data showing that the results actually are typical.