In This Issue:

Animal Advocacy Group Has Beef With American Heart Association Claims About Red Meat

The American Heart Association (AHA) has been hit with a lawsuit alleging that its labeling of some red meat brands as heart healthy is merely corporate-sponsored hogwash, and contrary to the AHA's mission to protect Americans' heart health.

AHA is a large non-profit organization based in Dallas, Texas. It has been in operation since 1924 and is focused on cardiovascular health.

In the complaint, nonprofit animal rights organization Animal Outlook takes issue with the "widely trusted" AHA's use of its "Heart-Check" label, which it says is intended to guide consumers towards better food choices for heart health, on certain red meat food products.

Getting to the heart of the matter, Animal Outlook calls the AHA's actions deceptive, false and misleading advertising in violation of the District of Columbia's Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA) and also asserts claims for negligent misrepresentation and unjust enrichment against the AHA. The nonprofit alleges that the AHA is taking money from beef manufacturers in exchange for providing the certification on red meat products, "even though doing so runs directly counter to AHA's stated mission and its own admissions that eating beef is not, in fact, heart healthy."

The complaint alleges that the AHA conveys the meaning of the Heart-Check Certification program to consumers through a "series of broad and unqualified representations suggesting that consumption of products marked with the AHA Mark or otherwise approved through the Heart-Check Certification program, including beef, lead to a healthy heart." The complaint further alleges that the AHA makes additional statements on its website and social media accounts representing that meat is healthy.

Animal Outlook alleges AHA knows that these claims are false and go against both what it has stated in the past and what the science says about eating red meat. In fact, alleges Animal Outlook, the AHA has published articles and peer-reviewed studies stating that beef consumption is not healthy and recommending limited beef consumption. Now, Animal Outlook asserts the AHA is taking advantage of its well-respected reputation as a science-driven advocate for consumer health to offer what it characterizes are paid endorsements, without any sort of disclosure that these are paid endorsements.

According to Animal Outlook, the AHA misleads consumers into thinking that the red meat marked with the "Heart-Check" label adheres to its "own independent scientific and nutritional guidelines" and to the government's minimum guidelines, when, in fact, these products merely meet the government's minimum guidelines.

"By allowing the use of the AHA Mark on certain beef products and making claims on its website and in its promotional materials about the Heart-Check Certification program and the health benefits of eating beef, AHA is actively and knowingly misleading consumers regarding the cardiovascular risks associated with eating beef," alleges Animal Outlook.

Key Takeaways

Animal Outlook has sued under D.C.'s CPPA, which authorizes nonprofit organizations to sue on behalf of the general public. The law has been a recent favorite of animal rights organizations suing companies over allegations of greenwashing and animal abuse, as we have covered previously on Stay ADvised. Here, the animal rights group has taken on a stalwart nonprofit, acknowledging that in addition to correcting "deceptive claims," it "seeks to raise awareness to the falsity and deception surrounding AHA's advertising and endorsement of beef products in order to decrease the number of animals slaughtered for food." It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact on the case Animal Outlook's stated animal protection mission will have.

Clean Up Your Claims, Says UK Ad Regulator Decision Banning Persil Ad Over Greenwashing

The U.K.'s advertisement enforcement agency has issued a ruling banning a television ad by consumer goods giant Unilever making claims about the sustainability of its Persil cleaning products, saying the commercial was misleading and not substantiated by the evidence.

The ad in question was brought before the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which enforces advertisement claims in the U.K. and has wide authority to ban ads that violate the Committee of Advertising (CAP) Advertising Codes. The ASA looked into the ad following a consumer complaint.

Superimposed over images of children playing and a planet beset by the effects of global warming, the commercial exhorted consumers that real environmental change has to come from more than social media posts, then went on to state what it claimed was Persil's contribution to this change. A voiceover states: "For real change, we all need to roll up our sleeves and get dirty. That's why Persil deeply penetrates the fibers of clothes to remove tough stains the first time … and our bottles are made with recycled plastic." The voiceover then went on to say "TOUGH ON STAINS, KINDER TO OUR PLANET."

Persil argued that in myriad ways it implemented product and brand features that encouraged sustainability. As evidence, it said that testing had been conducted on a full variety of stains showing that its product worked well when washing clothes in lower temperatures, which was known to use less energy. The company further said that its plastic bottles contained "at least 50% post-consumer recycled plastic," which also reduced carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

Persil further averred that its initiatives are part of a wider "Clean Future" program at Unilever "aimed to eliminate fossil fuels and ensure net zero emissions in cleaning products by 2030." Finally, it backed up its claims via Clearcast, the company that clears ads for airing on U.K. television. Clearcast backed up Persil's claims and said that "the basis for why Persil as kinder to the planet was very clear."

Despite Unilever's evidence, the ASA concluded it was not enough to meet the high bar required to make sustainability claims. In this case, the ad breached the advertising code provisions on misleading advertising, substantiation and environmental claims. The BCAP code requires that "the basis of environmental claims must be clear." Absolute claims require a high level of support, and claims such as "greener" or "friendlier" require a showing that the product "provided a total environmental benefit over that of the advertiser's previous product or competitor products, and the basis of the comparison was clear."

Analyzing the "kinder to our planet claim," the ASA found that although the claim was backed up by claims in the ad about the product effectiveness in cold washes and about the use of 50% recycled plastic, it would be ambiguous to consumers. The ad did not state the basis for the comparative claim, nor state whether these were recent changes to the product, applied to these specific detergents or more widely across the range of Persil products.

The ASA further noted that to clearly substantiate general environmental claims the Code requires that they be based on the full cycle of the advertised product. While Persil showed actions it was taking to reduce the environmental impact of its products, it had not provided evidence to demonstrate the "overall impact" of the detergents over their "full life cycles," as compared with Persil's or other similar products.

Key Takeaways

This case should serve as a warning to U.S. companies that seek to make general environmental claims. The FTC's Green Guides, FTC cases, and cases from the industry self-regulatory watchdog the National Advertising Division (NAD) have been clear that unqualified "sustainability" and "environmentally friendly" claims face a bar likely higher than they can support—and that related "aspirational" claims require demonstrable action, not just a desire to do good.

Joint FTC + States' Complaint Against Roomster Makes Clear They Mean Business About Fake Reviews

A collection of state attorneys general joined forced with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to file a lawsuit alleging that online rental site Roomster posts "mass quantities" of fake positive online reviews and engages in other deceptive advertising.

The complaint against Roomster and its owners John Shriber and Roman Zaks alleges that the company, an online marketplace where users pay to access rental listings, misled consumers by posting fake reviews purporting to rent out affordable homes, then charging for access to the "phony listings."

Attorneys General for California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York, together with the FTC, alleged that the Roomster defendants advertised "verified" and "authentic" living arrangements while paying a third party for posting fake reviews and fake listings. The complaint charges that the alleged fraud has netted Roomster windfall profits as it caused mostly low-income consumers "who can least afford to lose their money and who need reliable housing the most" millions of dollars. In a type of domino effect, the alleged ruse led to additional fraudsters joining the site with more fake and unverified listings.

According to the complaint, Roomster also misled consumers about the "millions of verified listings" on the site. Although they promoted as much, the Roomster defendants did not verify that listings were authentic, instead merely posting the listings immediately. The fake reviews only served to bolster those misrepresentations, says the government.

Plaintiffs alleged that Roomster orchestrated this fraud deliberately, and with the help of third-party Jonathan Martinez, who allegedly sold Roomster thousands of fake reviews. Martinez used over 2,500 fake accounts to post fake reviews on Roomster apps and frequently strategized with the owner defendants as to how best to make the reviews work for Roomster. Martinez has agreed to sign an order requiring him to pay $100,000, cooperate with the FTC investigation, and stop selling reviews and making misrepresentations.

The complaint further alleges that to "bait" consumers to pay for Roomster, the defendants create fake advertisements on sites like Craigslist to induce those looking for apartments to visit the site. It alleges multiple violations of state and federal law, including the FTC Act's prohibition on false endorsements.

Key Takeaways

The FTC's recently released proposed updates to the Testimonial and Endorsement Guides make very clear that fake reviews remain a major enforcement priority for the FTC. Clearly, that is the case for the states as well. Advertisers would do well to take heed.