The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) today published its updated rules governing the publication of endorsements and testimonials by “consumers, experts, organizations, and celebrities” (in other words, everybody). The updated rules governing online testimonials and endorsements arguably now cover bloggers, Internet marketers, affiliates, and others who promote (including through endorsing or testimonial) products or services on the Internet.
And the bottom line is, if you talk about a product or service, and if you put it out on or via the Internet, and if you stand to gain on it, you’d better disclose that relationship.
In addition, the revised rules, referred to as “Guides” or “The Guides” by the FTC, and which were last updated nearly 30 years ago, in 1980, now require that “advertisements that feature a consumer and convey his or her experience with a product or service as typical when that is not the case will be required to clearly disclose the results that consumers can generally expect.”
In other words, you must make very clear what the actual, typical results that the average person can expect are likely to be.
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Previously you could get away with simply saying that the results were “not typical.”
However, by far, the changes that most directly affect the majority of people who publish anything on the Internet, be it a blog, other type of website, newsletter, or other mailing, are those requiring full disclosure of a material relationship between the publisher and an advertiser. And by “advertiser” we mean anyone who may provide anything to the publisher in exchange for – or with the expectation of – a positive recommendation (and by “recommendation” we mean endorsement, suggestion, hint, implication, or even hoped-for inference).
The bottom line is that if you put anything out on the Internet which may lead someone to purchase a product or service, and if you in any way stand to gain from that transaction, you need to disclose it up front.
Not only that, but if you have already received something – anything – of value from the provider or purveyor of that item or service – then you need to disclose that in whatever you put out on the Internet about that product or service.
Did you get a free or discounted item or service in exchange for your reviewing or even just talking about the product? You’d better diclose it! In fact, if you are hoping to get a discounted or free item or service in exchange for what you are saying about it – you’d better disclose that, too.
Perhaps one of the most surprising refinements to the rules is the crystalizing of the fact that both the advertiser and the endorser can be held liable for false, misleading, or unsubstantiated claims made in an endorsement. And both the endorser and the advertiser can be held liable for the failure of the endorser to disclose any relationship with the advertiser (again, meaning the entity which benefits commercially from endorser’s endorsement or testimonial regarding the item or service).
In the case of a celebrity endorsement, says the FTC, “celebrities have a duty to disclose their relationships with advertisers when making endorsements outside the context of traditional ads, such as on talk shows or in social media.” And just who is to say who is and who isn’t a celebrity in the context of the Internet?
Not to put too fine a point on it – but just don’t take a chance – if anyone could ever say that you stood to gain in any way from something you are saying about a product or service – disclose it.
Explains the FTC, “Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization.” (As they explain elsewhere, “an advertiser should disclose its payment of expenses to an outside entity that conducts a study subsequently touted by the advertiser.”)
The FTC very kindly has promulgated several examples of scenarios in which someone making a statement about a good or service would need to disclose their relationship with the entity commercially related to that good or service. Note that these include expert testimonials and endorsements, “consumer” (non-expert) testimonials and endorsements, and even entities involved with a good or service which is the subject of a study.
Here are the examples:
A consumer who regularly purchases a particular brand of dog food decides one day to purchase a new, more expensive brand made by the same manufacturer. She writes in her personal blog that the change in diet has made her dog’s fur noticeably softer and shinier, and that in her opinion, the new food definitely is worth the extra money. This posting would not be deemed an endorsement under the Guides. Assume that rather than purchase the dog food with her own money, the consumer gets it for free because the store routinely tracks her purchases and its computer has generated a coupon for a free trial bag of this new brand. Again, her posting would not be deemed an endorsement under the Guides. Assume now that the consumer joins a network marketing program under which she periodically receives various products about which she can write reviews if she wants to do so. If she receives a free bag of the new dog food through this program, her positive review would be considered an endorsement under the Guides.
A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or “blog” where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. Because his review is disseminated via a form of consumer- generated media in which his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious, readers are unlikely to know that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact likely would materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge. The manufacturer should advise him at the time it provides the gaming system that this connection should be disclosed, and it should have procedures in place to try to monitor his postings for compliance.
A manufacturer of automobile tires hires a well-known professional automobile racing driver to deliver its advertising message in television commercials. In these commercials, the driver speaks of the smooth ride, strength, and long life of the tires. Even though the message is not expressly declared to be the personal opinion of the driver, it may nevertheless constitute an endorsement of the tires. Many consumers will recognize this individual as being primarily a racing driver and not merely a spokesperson or announcer for the advertiser. Accordingly, they may well believe the driver would not speak for an automotive product unless he actually believed in what he was saying and had personal knowledge sufficient to form that belief. Hence, they would think that the advertising message reflects the driver’s personal views. This attribution of the underlying views to the driver brings the advertisement within the definition of an endorsement for purposes of this part.
A television advertisement for a particular brand of golf balls shows a prominent and well-recognized professional golfer practicing numerous drives off the tee. This would be an endorsement by the golfer even though she makes no verbal statement in the advertisement.
A well-known celebrity appears in an infomercial for an oven roasting bag that purportedly cooks every chicken perfectly in thirty minutes. During the shooting of the infomercial, the celebrity watches five attempts to cook chickens using the bag. In each attempt, the chicken is undercooked after thirty minutes and requires sixty minutes of cooking time. In the commercial, the celebrity places an uncooked chicken in the oven roasting bag and places the bag in one oven. He then takes a chicken roasting bag from a second oven, removes from the bag what appears to be a perfectly cooked chicken, tastes the chicken, and says that if you want perfect chicken every time, in just thirty minutes, this is the product you need. A significant percentage of consumers are likely to believe the celebrity’s statements represent his own views even though he is reading from a script. The celebrity is subject to liability for his statement about the product. The advertiser is also liable for misrepresentations made through the endorsement.
In order to limit its potential liability, the advertiser should ensure that the advertising service provides guidance and training to its bloggers concerning the need to ensure that statements they make are truthful and substantiated. The advertiser should also monitor bloggers who are being paid to promote its products and take steps necessary to halt the continued publication of deceptive representations when they are discovered.
An advertisement disseminated by a company that sells heat pumps presents endorsements from three individuals who state that after installing the company’s heat pump in their homes, their monthly utility bills went down by $100, $125, and $150, respectively. The ad will likely be interpreted as conveying that such savings are representative of what consumers who buy the company’s heat pump can generally expect. The advertiser does not have substantiation for that representation because, in fact, less than 20% of purchasers will save $100 or more. A disclosure such as, “Results not typical” or, “These testimonials are based on the experiences of a few people and you are not likely to have similar results” is insufficient to prevent this ad from being deceptive because consumers will still interpret the ad as conveying that the specified savings are representative of what consumers can generally expect. The ad is less likely to be deceptive if it clearly and conspicuously discloses the generally expected savings and the advertiser has adequate substantiation that homeowners can achieve those results. There are multiple ways that such a disclosure could be phrased, e.g., “the average homeowner saves $35 per month,” “the typical family saves $50 per month during cold months and $20 per month in warm months,” or “most families save 10% on their utility bills.”
An advertisement purports to portray a “hidden camera” situation in a crowded cafeteria at breakfast time. A spokesperson for the advertiser asks a series of actual patrons of the cafeteria for their spontaneous, honest opinions of the advertiser’s recently introduced breakfast cereal. Even though the words “hidden camera” are not displayed on the screen, and even though none of the actual patrons is specifically identified during the advertisement, the net impression conveyed to consumers may well be that these are actual customers, and not actors. If actors have been employed, this fact should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed.
An endorsement of a particular automobile by one described as an “engineer” implies that the endorser’s professional training and experience are such that he is well acquainted with the design and performance of automobiles. If the endorser’s field is, for example, chemical engineering, the endorsement would be deceptive.
An endorser of a hearing aid is simply referred to as “Doctor” during the course of an advertisement. The ad likely implies that the endorser is a medical doctor with substantial experience in the area of hearing. If the endorser is not a medical doctor with substantial experience in audiology, the endorsement would likely be deceptive. A non-medical “doctor” (e.g., an individual with a Ph.D. in exercise physiology) or a physician without substantial experience in the area of hearing can endorse the product, but if the endorser is referred to as “doctor,” the advertisement must make clear the nature and limits of the endorser’s expertise.
A manufacturer of automobile parts advertises that its products are approved by the “American Institute of Science.” From its name, consumers would infer hat the “American Institute of Science” is a bona fide independent testing organization with expertise in judging automobile parts and that, as such, it would not approve any automobile part without first testing its efficacy by means of valid scientific methods. If the American Institute of Science is not such a bona fide independent testing organization (e.g., if it was established and operated by an automotive parts manufacturer), the endorsement would be deceptive. Even if the American Institute of Science is an independent bona fide expert testing organization, the endorsement may nevertheless be deceptive unless the Institute has conducted valid scientific tests of the advertised products and the test results support the endorsement message.
A woman who is identified as the president of a commercial “home cleaning service” states in a television advertisement that the service uses a particular brand of cleanser, instead of leading competitors it has tried, because of this brand’s performance. Because cleaning services extensively use cleansers in the course of their business, the ad likely conveys that the president has knowledge superior to that of ordinary consumers. Accordingly, the president’s statement will be deemed to be an expert endorsement. The service must, of course, actually use the endorsed cleanser. In addition, because the advertisement implies that the cleaning service has experience with a reasonable number of leading competitors to the advertised cleanser, the service must, in fact, have such experience, and, on the basis of its expertise, it must have determined that the cleaning ability of the endorsed cleanser is at least equal (or superior, if such is the net impression conveyed by the advertisement) to that of leading competitors’ products with which the service has had experience and which remain reasonably available to it. Because in this example the cleaning service’s president makes no mention that the endorsed cleanser was “chosen,” “selected,” or otherwise evaluated in side-by-side comparisons against its competitors, it is sufficient if the service has relied solely upon its accumulated experience in evaluating cleansers without having performed side-by-side or scientific comparisons.
A medical doctor states in an advertisement for a drug that the product will safely allow consumers to lower their cholesterol by 50 points. If the materials the doctor reviewed were merely letters from satisfied consumers or the results of a rodent study, the endorsement would likely be deceptive because those materials are not what others with the same degree of expertise would consider adequate to support this conclusion about the product’s safety and efficacy.
A mattress seller advertises that its product is endorsed by a chiropractic association. Because the association would be regarded as expert with respect to judging mattresses, its endorsement must be supported by an evaluation by an expert or experts recognized as such by the organization, or by compliance with standards previously adopted by the organization and aimed at measuring the performance of mattresses in general and not designed with the unique features of the advertised mattress in mind.
During an appearance by a well-known professional tennis player on a television talk show, the host comments that the past few months have been the best of her career and during this time she has risen to her highest level ever in the rankings. She responds by attributing the improvement in her game to the fact that she is seeing the ball better than she used to, ever since having laser vision correction surgery at a clinic that she identifies by name. She continues talking about the ease of the procedure, the kindness of the clinic’s doctors, her speedy recovery, and how she can now engage in a variety of activities without glasses, including driving at night. The athlete does not disclose that, even though she does not appear in commercials for the clinic, she has a contractual relationship with it, and her contract pays her for speaking publicly about her surgery when she can do so. Consumers might not realize that a celebrity discussing a medical procedure in a television interview has been paid for doing so, and knowledge of such payments would likely affect the weight or credibility consumers give to the celebrity’s endorsement. Without a clear and conspicuous disclosure that the athlete has been engaged as a spokesperson for the clinic, this endorsement is likely to be deceptive. Furthermore, if consumers are likely to take away from her story that her experience was typical of those who undergo the same procedure at the clinic, the advertiser must have substantiation for that claim. Assume that instead of speaking about the clinic in a television interview, the tennis player touts the results of her surgery – mentioning the clinic by name – on a social networking site that allows her fans to read in real time what is happening in her life. Given the nature of the medium in which her endorsement is disseminated, consumers might not realize that she is a paid endorser. Because that information might affect the weight consumers give to her endorsement, her relationship with the clinic should be disclosed.
An online message board designated for discussions of new music download technology is frequented by MP3 player enthusiasts. They exchange information about new products, utilities, and the functionality of numerous playback devices. Unbeknownst to the message board community, an employee of a leading playback device manufacturer has been posting messages on the discussion board promoting the manufacturer’s product. Knowledge of this poster’s employment likely would affect the weight or credibility of her endorsement. Therefore, the poster should clearly and conspicuously disclose her relationship to the manufacturer to members and readers of the message board.
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