Since the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic began, many companies have continued to develop antimicrobial products and devices to address health and safety concerns. Many of those companies are surprised to learn that the way in which they are marketing their products may subject them to regulation by EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).
It’s April, which means it’s time for Earth Day. But for so many consumers, sustainability is top of mind all year. Consumers are constantly seeking out products and services that they can feel good about using and purchasing. And marketers want to tout what their company is doing to be good to the environment. As a result, the marketplace is flooded with claims that our household cleaners are “non-toxic” and our packaging is “recyclable” along with many other environmental benefit statements for products and services.
To avoid what’s commonly known as “greenwashing,” marketers need to ensure that statements made about the environmental benefit of their products or services are clear, truthful, and evidence-based. A top resource in this area is the Federal Trade Commission’s “Green Guides,” which can help companies avoid making environmental benefit claims that can attract regulators and mislead consumers. While the Green Guides are not FTC regulations, they provide detailed guidance on the types of claims that the FTC considers deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which broadly prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” (15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(1).) Although these Guides have not been updated in almost 10 years, they remain instructive when it comes to a review of environmental benefit claims.
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.
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.
Companies in 2020 must comply with more data privacy laws than ever before. Effective on January 1, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) contains the most complex data privacy compliance requirements in U.S. history. Some other states have their own requirements, and more states are following suit; many are considering data protection laws while their legislatures are in session.
Compliance with the CCPA and other relevant privacy laws and industry standards involves much more than a brief privacy law update and presents multiple opportunities for customer engagement. Consider using those opportunities to enhance your relationship with your customers. How companies handle consumer data has already become one way in which consumers evaluate whether to do or continue doing business with a particular company. Poorly handled data privacy issues quickly create negative customer experiences, online reviews, and bad press. Differentiate your company by handling customer data — and customer relationships — with intentionality and care.
As many brand owners know, WHOIS data is the publicly available information on who has registered a particular internet domain name. In layman’s terms, WHOIS records are akin to land title or property tax records: a record of who owns the internet property of domain names available in .com, .net and other generic top-level domain (gTLD) spaces. Each WHOIS record contains basic contact information for the domain name registrant: name, address, phone number, email address and certain other technical attributes. Since the dawn of the internet, gTLD registrars and registries – those companies who sell domain names – have collected contact information from all registrants at the time of registration.
As a trademark attorney, devoted Baltimore Ravens fan, and furtive TMZ reader, I couldn’t help but notice this story authored recently, describing how Mark Ingram’s aspirations of registering BIG TRUSS in the US Trademark Office are (potentially) being blocked by someone who applied to register the phrase first.
For those uninitiated, “Big Truss” is the pet name for Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, coined by Mark Ingram, Ravens running back. Mark and Lamar’s well-documented bromance is one for the ages. The phrase first captured public attention when Mark Ingram uttered it in a November 21, 2019 press conference, although the origins of “Truss” appear to date back much further, to a 1991 album by Public Enemy, as this fascinating Baltimore Sun article explains. The BIG TRUSS application blocking Mr. Ingram’s attempts to register the phrase was filed on December 13, 2019 – 3 weeks after the aforementioned press conference, and candidly, a lifetime in the trademark world.
The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Iancu v. Brunetti will likely not be the last word on the subject of scandalous trademarks being granted registration. That certainly suggests there is room for further interpretation in the future, especially if Congress elects to amend the Lanham Act. Further, four Justices voiced some degree of concern about scandalous marks being granted registration.
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 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