In November 2005, Legal Bytes told you about how branded entertainment and product placement was one of the forces shaking up the world of advertising and marketing. We add to these forces even more creative innovations that are challenging the advertising and marketing world, as well as the legal and regulatory experts. “Buzz” or “viral” marketing is word-of-mouth advertising that promotes a product without disclosing any direct connection between the advertiser and the message. If you are a marketing professional, of course you want to identify people who will be interested in a particular message, and deliver the message in a way that makes it enjoyable and encourages them to share it with more people—you remember the hair color commercial on TV that ends with something like “she tells two friends and they tell two more friends and so on and so on….”
Now clearly, if an individual makes deceptive or misleading statements that weren’t induced, authorized or controlled by the advertiser, it’s hard to hold that advertiser responsible. But now advertisers are paying buzz “agents” to relay messages and encourage further word-of-mouth advertising. Thus, if the advertiser pays, it is hard to argue the advertiser is not liable for the truthfulness of authorized statements. But what happens if the buzzer’s unscripted message (i.e., their own message in their own words) is deceptive? Are their words similar to testimonials, regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, or a form of social spam, requiring disclosure like that mandated in the CAN SPAM Act? False testimonials have been the subject of state and federal actions for years. In some cases, actors in commercials looked so real, some Attorneys General required them to superimpose the words “dramatization” as a disclaimer on the TV screen. Years ago, a motion picture studio had billboards and commercials praising their movies. Unfortunately, the quotes and the purported journalist were invented by marketing staff at the studio.
These cases clearly establish that an advertiser is responsible for deceptive or misleading net impressions created by its advertising. Similarly, the FTC’s Guides Concerning Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising provides that, “When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product which might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement (i.e., the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience) such connection must be fully disclosed.” There is no reason to believe these same standards do not apply to buzz marketing.
If an otherwise ordinary consumer becomes a buzz agent and is paid or given free products or other consideration in exchange for creating “buzz,” appropriate disclosure is likely to be required. Keep in mind, that to prevail in an action alleging a violation, the FTC must still show the activity was deceptive or misleading under Section 5 of the FTC Act—recall from November’s issue, that to make advertising actionable under Section 5 of the FTC Act depends on whether there is a representation or omission likely to mislead the consumer, viewed from the perspective of a reasonable consumer in the situation involved, and the representation or omission must be “material.” As noted in that issue, “if the consumer knew or was told the truth, is it likely to affect a consumer’s behavior in connection with the product.”
The FTC has proposed rules under the CAN-SPAM Act, in which an advertiser is not subject to the Act’s technical requirements if the “send this to a friend” forwarding or sending feature on the website or in the e-mail is not “procured” by the advertiser. In other words, the advertiser hasn’t paid or provided other consideration or induced anyone to initiate the message on behalf of the advertiser—otherwise, the advertiser must comply with all of the CAN-SPAM Act requirements, including disclosing that the message is an advertisement.
While traditional advertising law principles apply, in fact there has been very little actual regulation of viral or buzz marketing. Don’t feel complacent. We should expect the lack of enforcement activity to change reasonably quickly as more advertisers turn to non-traditional avenues to get their message across. New approaches to buzz or viral marketing and, as mentioned in prior issues, product placement, serve to only increase legislative concerns and pressure from consumer advocacy, protection and other groups. As these marketing techniques become more sophisticated and advertisers become more involved in the creative surrounding the medium and the message, the risks increase. Are consumers deceived by information that appears to reflect independent views, when the relayers are actually being compensated for delivering an advertiser’s message? The law appears quite clear that lack of disclosure could violate state and federal law, depending upon the materiality of the statement to a reasonable consumer and corresponding consumer harm.
Psssssst—pass it on.