FTC advertising guidelines

The developments surrounding the regulation of cannabis products, and the impact of that regulation on the ability of broadcasters and other media companies to run ads for these products, continue on an almost daily basis.  Of course, the developments don’t all point in a single direction.  As described below, at the same time as the FDA schedules a hearing to look at cannabis products and the rules that should apply to them, the FTC and FDA together have written warning letters to CBD marketers advising them to stay away from making specific health claims about their products and to avoid promoting edible products.  What does this mean for media companies that have been approached to advertise these products?

We very recently wrote about the murky state of the law on CBD advertising (mentioning our continuing concerns about marijuana advertising even in states where it has been “legalized”).  In that article, we warned that broadcasters should be particularly concerned about selling advertising that markets CBD products to be ingested, or advertising which makes unsupported health claims.  In a joint action announced last week, the FTC and the FDA wrote letters to three sellers of CBD products, warning those companies that their marketing raised legal issues.  In these letters, the FTC expressed concern that the marketing contained health claims that could not be substantiated, and the FDA was concerned about the marketing of supplements and other CDB products to be taken orally that had not been approved by the FDA as either foods or medicines.  At least one of the letters cited a “salve” that presumably was not to be ingested, so the concern there seemed to be solely the specific health claims made for the product.  These letters reinforce the concerns that we expressed about advertising that contains specific health claims or which deals with products to be taken by mouth (either as dietary supplements, medicines or in other foods) – so stations should be especially wary of such ads. 
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On December 1, 2009,  FTC revised Guidelines went into effect updating policies dealing with advertising using testimonials and endorsements, specifically affecting celebrity endorsements and sponsorship disclosure.  These revised guidelines directly impact the established practices of broadcasters and new media companies.  These revised endorsement and testimonial guidelines effectively ban the old standard “results not typical” disclaimer so commonly in use in connection with a great deal of testimonial advertising, confirm independent liability for the “endorser” (including celebrities) for false product or service claims, and expand and clarify the need for disclosure of “material connections”, that is consideration (money and other “freebies”) received by new media companies in connection with reviews or other online coverage of products or services.  It is vital that media companies, in particular new media, understand the key provisions of these guidelines to make sure that they don’t become a target of any FTC enforcement action.  The FTC has indicated that for now at least, its focus will be on enforcement in the new media world (bloggers, social media, viral campaigns) and other “non-traditional” advertising (celebrity guests on news and entertainment shows, endorsements by media personnel such as on-air DJ’s).

Like all FTC Guidance concerning advertising, the revised guidelines are specific regulations, but instead they set out standards (in essence a safe harbor) that outline how the FTC will review advertising to determine if it is “false and deceptive” or otherwise misleading to the consumer in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act.  The revised guidelines provide specific examples as to how they will apply to insure sufficient disclosure so that the listener has all the background necessary to be able to evaluate the strength of the endorsement for him or herself.  For broadcast advertising, the new guidelines make clear that endorsers can themselves be liable for misleading statements made during a product pitch.  So a radio announcer paid to try a diet plan or some other product and to report about its results on the air needs to be sure not only that his statements are truthful, but that the “results” claimed are in line with what the advertiser can actually prove for the product through clinical study and research.  The radio pitchman cannot turn a blind eye to claims that are inherently incredible.  In the past, a simple disclosure that "your results may vary" or "these results are not necessarily typical" was sufficient.  Today, that disclaimer is no longer enough.  Instead, the new guidelines state that any testimonial about the results of using a product be accompanied with a disclosure of the results that a typical user can expect to get from the product.  So the announcer must be informed as to what results can be expected by the typical user, and that these results are objectively verifiable, so that the proper disclosure can be made.  As the announcer (or the station) can now be liable for statements made in such testimonials, stations should take care to be prepared to make the required disclosures. 


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