Darren S. Cahr counsels clients and litigates disputes relating to intellectual property and marketing practices. For 25 years Darren has helped clients develop and defend their most critical intangible rights, providing daily counsel on brand strategy, marketing law, design rights, transactions, competitive positioning, and the legal implications of new technology. Darren litigates and tries cases in courts and administrative agencies around the country, and serves as co-chair of the firm’s Advertising and Promotions Team.
Even before COVID-19 had turned each of us into an amateur epidemiologist, companies in nearly every industry had begun to recognize the magnetic appeal of health and wellness claims in consumer advertising. Marketers of everything from cleaning products to apparel to furniture to homes were suddenly making claims touting the health and wellness benefits of their products. It wasn’t just better, it was better for you and your family. It will surprise no one to learn that the pandemic year of 2020 only intensified this trend, as consumers focused as never before on the ways that their purchases might not only help them live better lives, but perhaps even keep them alive.
Predictably, competitors, regulators and the plaintiff’s bar have all taken notice of this trend, and moved aggressively in response. In 2020, for example, the BBB National Programs’ National Advertising Division (NAD), the nation’s premier forum for competitor initiated advertising challenges, recorded an extraordinary 50% uptick in challenges to health-related advertising. Similarly, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and state regulators across the country have focused intense scrutiny on companies claiming to offer health benefits to consumers often desperate for help. It is natural to predict that class actions and Lanham Act activity will soon reflect these trends as well.
So with the undeniable power of these claims balanced alongside the risks of a misstep, how should brand messaging communicate the health and wellness benefits of a product in the “right” way? And what are the red flags to look for in the advertising of your competitors? Here are a few hints:
Identify the Claims. Advertisement and marketing claims are intended to communicate characteristics of a good or service designed to entice a purchase. Claims are present in all forms of branded communication, from TV commercials, to print ads, radio announcements, pop-up ads, and social media influencer posts. Keep in mind it isn’t just about what you are saying, but what can be implied from the images, graphics and pictures.So whether looking to substantiate your own claims, or to challenge the claims of a competitor, the first step is to systematically identify the statements that actually qualify as a “claim.” For many marketers this can seem daunting, but in fact this initial analysis involves asking just a simple question: what exactly are you promising? Claims are promises and comparisons presented as facts: you should buy this product because it will improve your memory. You should buy this chair because it will reduce your back pain. You should use this cleaning product because (unlike the products sold by our competitors) it does not contain toxic chemicals. Performance claims, superiority claims, comparative claims – all of them are, in the end, statements which are either true or false, accurate or misleading. And it isn’t enough to say “everybody knows X is true” – all claims must be substantiated before you make them. And remember, it isn’t just what you say directly: you can be held accountable for what your spokesperson or influencer says, too.
Substantiation. What kind of evidence would substantiate the claim? How much data is necessary? Do I need a clinical trial? Is my evidence enough?The simple answer is…it depends. The level of scientific evidence necessary to support a claim always depends on the claim that is being made. Moreover, specific regulatory requirements may apply depending on the claim. If the product claims to ‘sanitize,’ for example, then it is possible that EPA approval may be necessary or it must meet certain FDA requirements. Of course, if the product is not regulated, the standard may differ. This is where talking things through with your counsel is most critical: the same type of claim on a different kind of product may not be subject to the same requirements. In any event, the science must closely match the requirements of the claim language. Don’t let your claim outpace the science – anecdotes from happy customers, or enthusiasm for your product, can never substitute for systematic evidence.
Magic Language. We all love puffery – and we all think we know it when we see it. But, that isn’t always the case. Statements that are specific, quantifiable or purport to describe objective facts may not constitute puffery, regardless of how over the top the language may seem. Claims about the ‘safest’, ‘best’, ‘highest quality,’ can all require substantiation under certain circumstances. Perhaps it is just enough to merely offer the “finest” of all puffery….
Is this a Regulated Claim? Is it possible that the product “sanitizes”, has “antimicrobial” properties, or somehow prevents or reduces the likelihood of contracting COVID-19?These statements are important ones as they may transform the product from an ordinary consumer product to a regulated product. Sanitizing and antimicrobial properties may trigger EPA review and treatment or prevention of a disease may render a product a ‘drug’ regulated by the FDA. Of course, the FTC may also assert its authority particularly if these statements are disseminated on a product website or in other forms of advertisement. It is possible that the mere existence of these words invite enforcement activity.
Is this a Comparative Claim? The most, the best, the mostest, the bestest, the… mostest bestest? We all want to be on top, but sometimes that means a “head-to-head” comparison is necessary to substantiate the claim. Even then, it is necessary to understand that an unqualified comparison may trigger a greater level of substantiation because consumers may understand it to mean “as compared to all leading products nationwide.” Our advice: “Think before you compare” and determine the basis for your comparison – don’t just assume that everyone will understand it in the same way.
While health and wellness claims are subject to an increasingly intense level of scrutiny by competitors and regulators alike, there is little question that consumers want to know whether the products they buy are in alignment with the health and wellness goals they have set for themselves and their family. A well-crafted campaign supported by properly substantiated claims is not only a way to stay out of trouble, but a way of building deeper and more lasting engagement with educated consumers.
For many companies this simple request is surprisingly difficult to answer. Sure, maybe they have a few registration certificates in a drawer, or a docket sheet from their outside counsel, but what exactly does it mean to “have” a trademark? And how many of them do you have? And why do so many companies only notice they have a trademark after a competitor starts to infringe it?
Last month, in her fantastic post on trademark audits, our colleague Emily Bayton discussed the critical first step any company must take in order to answer those questions: understanding the scope of the official parts of your portfolio. What registrations are in your name? What jurisdictions do they cover? What rights do you license? How is your portfolio managed, and should your approach be changed? Without a real inventory – married to a regular analysis of needs and future plans – trademark portfolios can remain stuck in the past, designed to fight old competitive battles and failing to capitalize on new opportunities.
In a year too often filled with unforeseen developments of every kind, a final surprise for many who were not paying close attention has emerged from December’s marathon stimulus and budget negotiations. This week, Congress included a trio of notable and hotly debated intellectual property measures in its multi-trillion-dollar spending and relief package. These bills, if signed into law as expected, could fundamentally alter the manner in which intellectual property owners protect and enforce their rights.
In a world where social media influencers can wield more power over consumers than network media buys, the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Endorsement Guides felt increasingly like a relic from an earlier era. While not wholly ineffective, the FTC’s formal guidance to businesses on the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising was still a policy with roots in the limited media environment of the 1970s, the decade when the Guides originated. There were no Instagram influencers, no sponsored posts, and no hashtags in 1980, when the Guides were finally enacted, and even cable television was in its infancy. And despite important and well-intentioned 2009 amendments crafted during the early days of social media, so much has happened in the intervening years that the Guides never seemed fully engaged with the radical implications of a marketing environment where blurring the lines between advertising and reality is more often a feature rather than a bug.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is not hitting “like” on your influencer engagement campaign, and is down-voting your disclosures.
Earlier this month, the FTC released important new guidance targeted at social media influencers, in language designed to be read by non-lawyers, framing an often confusing legal issue for the people who need to understand it the most: the influencers themselves. These new guidelines, “Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers,” were accompanied by a video “Do you endorse things on social media?”, and are designed to show influencers how and when they must disclose material connections to brands to their followers.
This month’s dramatic announcement by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that all foreign domiciled trademark applicants, registrants and parties to USPTO trademark proceedings will now be required to retain U.S. counsel is expected to result in the most significant practical change to domestic trademark prosecution practice in years.
For casual observers, this new rule — set to be effective on Aug. 3, 2019 — may have arrived as an unexpected, or even shocking, development. After all, with this announcement, literally tens of thousands of active, foreign-domiciled participants in the trademark processes of the USPTO will suddenly now require representation by a U.S. attorney, altering years of common practice.
Moreover, the time from announcement to implementation — only 32 days — is remarkably short for agency action of any kind, let alone a new rule set to transform the role of trademark practitioners in relation to a massive class of new clients.
When people talk about data privacy, or data collection, or tracking technology, or analytics, or click farms, or bots, or data brokers, or geolocation, or mobile apps, or social media, or influencers, in the end what they’re really talking about is digital advertising. Yet while we may feel comfortable using the phrase to broadly describe any online marketing efforts, the purpose of digital advertising is quite different from the goal of a 30 second radio spot, and shares little with its Mad Men-era ancestors beyond the name.
But today, faced with a variety of new laws and regulations designed to protect consumer privacy, lawyers and their clients are obliged to take a much deeper and more nuanced dive into modern methods of digital advertising. And many are surprised at what they find.
The ability of any individual, without access to sophisticated technology, to decipher the “authenticity” of any experience is diminishing daily. Moreover, this threat to the integrity of the law goes beyond digital impersonation and “deep fake” software driven by artificial intelligence. The famous Marx Brothers line, “Who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” was once funny because it was ridiculous. Soon, it will be a description of our jobs and our lives.
As we mentioned last month in our kickoff post on this topic, we are excited to dive deeper into the world of sweepstakes and promotions law. This post explores several key elements to keep in mind when formulating the official rules and abbreviated rules for a promotion.
The main goal of the official rules in any promotion is two-fold: (a) to inform participants and the public regarding the details of the promotion, and (b) to comply with a series of federal and state laws and regulations. Both of these goals are critical – no company wants to face either disgruntled participants or angry regulators.
The rules must be in place and finalized before the promotion begins. If you are running a U.S.-based sweepstakes with a total prize value of over $5,000, you may also be required to register and bond the promotion with various state agencies up to thirty days before the promotion begins. Registration will require you to submit a copy of the promotion rules, so keep in mind that in those cases, the rules must be finalized at least thirty days before the beginning of the promotion. That means the clock is ticking! Depending on the type of promotion, other state laws and regulations may also be implicated, so be sure to check well before the beginning of the promotion. Continue reading →
As we proudly admit on this blog’s “About Us” page, we’re passionate about all things brand related – and what better way to promote your brand than by running a sweepstakes or contest? At a time when we are seeing the “gamification” of every part of our lives, it should come as no surprise to see that many brands now include prizes and rewards as a significant component of their consumer outreach. Where once upon a time this was a niche explored by only a handful of large companies or fly-by-night operators, today, prize promotions are seen by many of our clients as among their most effective forms of advertising.
The concept is wonderfully simple: in a prize promotion, someone enters the promotion, and someone wins a prize. Yet this basic formulation encompasses a nearly endless number of variations, including sweepstakes, contests, games, trade promotions, sales incentives and viral engagement. Some of these variants are legal; some are not. And because we have been so passionate about sweepstakes and contests for so long, we’ve decided to explain the basics in a helpful, multi-post series on the topic. There’s a lot of nuance, and it would be impossible to cover it all in one place, but we think that once we’re done you’ll be as excited about this area of the law as we are. Continue reading →
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