Whatz Gnu

Many thanks to the International Law Office (ILO) for publishing a derivative of our Legal Bytes article. You can download and read a personal copy of the ILO posting FTC Targets Ads That Target Kids, or you can read the original Legal Bytes blog posting at "Mom, is it OK for them to follow me?" FTC Targets Ads That Target Kids.

Advertising: Misleading? Deceptive? What Do Consumers Think?

I have to thank Carl Bialik, The Numbers Guy writer and blogger for The Wall Street Journal, for including a quote in his recent (September 23, 2011) column, Bag Battle Takes a Statistical Turn.

The column focuses on the use of statistics by competitors and analysts alike – in this case statistics that related to claims made by Chicobag about the environmental impact of reusable plastic bags that many retail stores use to bag items, from groceries to clothing, when you check out with your purchases. It seems that Chicobag made some claims – citing statistics – about its products. Mr. Bialik’s column notes that Hilex Poly and some other competitors challenged the claims being made by Chicobag, and were unable to come to grips with either the numbers or the claims; litigation ensued.

Although Mr. Bialik focuses on the way numbers are used and the difficulties inherent in accumulating and using statistics – often when the subject matter may actually be a moving target – the legal issue is similarly complex. More often than not, false, misleading, deceptive advertising claims challenge the explicit veracity of a claim and whether that claim can be substantiated or whether the “net impression” or implicit claims (e.g., pictures or activities) can mislead or potentially deceive consumers. This claim, brought as an action under the Lanham Act – seeking an injunction and damages for false advertising and unfair competition for both a violation of section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), and under a state statute (South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act, South Carolina Code Annotated § 39-5-10, et seq.) – really revolves around whether the veracity or inaccuracy of claims (even if they can be substantiated or derived from facts that were believed to be true when stated) makes any difference at all in the minds of consumers.

Without giving away The Numbers Guy’s secrets (or forgetting the Federal Trade Commission Act that prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce”), the legal claim, in my view, hinged not on whether the statistics claimed by Chicobag were incorrect or even in some cases materially inaccurate, but whether the particular claims as made using those statistics, were material to a consumer. Whether a consumer was likely to make a different purchasing decision – or might at least be informed enough to consider doing so – based on the degree of inaccuracy.

So when you think of my blog Legal Bytes, I’ll close with a claim that everyone sees on those pizza cartons around the country – maybe the world: “You’ve tried the rest. Now try the best!” Can you say “puffery”?

“Mom, is it OK for them to follow me?” FTC Targets Ads That Target Kids

Many of us remember when kids were actually worried about being caught misbehaving. Back in those days, parent’s concern over children’s behavior dealt with whether the kids were ‘fresh’ or ‘mischievous’ or talked too much in school. I was perennially the subject of “he would do so much better in class if he just stopped horsing around and paid attention.” Dear Mrs. Frohman, Mrs. Handel, Mrs. Flynn and Mrs. Bernstein – thanks! It took me several decades, but I finally got the message. Today, however, when we hear the terms children and behavior – well, at least according to the FTC, it ain’t the children that are misbehaving.

In a proposed amendment to rules that have been in effect since 2000, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) is proposing amendments to COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act”) that “would require parental notification and consent prior to the collection of persistent identifiers where they are used for purposes such as amassing data on a child’s online activities or behaviorally targeting advertising to the child.” In describing the proposed changes (the proposed  Amendment runs 122 pages long), the FTC notes that these new rules would apply to any identifying or tracking technology (cookies) that would link a child’s browsing behavior across multiple web pages and services – ostensibly including advertising networks and metric/measurement/analytical service providers who routinely have access to such information.

Although a ‘safe harbor’ for compliance with self-regulatory programs is included within the FTC’s proposal, it did suggest that these programs (and individual company compliance with these programs) be more closely monitored and supervised – including mandatory audits every 18 months and reports detailing actions taken by the self-regulatory body against the companies that do not comply. Clearly, one of the FTC’s objectives is to not only ensure a mandatory review of compliance, even for those companies that have not been subject to proceedings, but also to create a record-keeping and reporting system that gives the FTC the ability to obtain detailed information about the proceedings and the compliance efforts of individual companies.

Comments, which are due by November 28, 2011, may be filed with the FTC using it’s COPPA Rule Review Form. If you are interested, concerned, want your voice heard, or otherwise need to be guided by experienced counsel in this area, please feel free to contact me, Joseph I. Rosenbaum, or the Rimon lawyer with whom you regularly work. We would be happy to help!

The FTC vs. Google: Who Are You Going to Call?

Late this past June, the Federal Trade Commission indicated it was launching an investigation into Google’s search engine technology and whether it pushes consumers to Google’s other services in a manner that is unfair to competition.

That also means that the FTC will not only be asking Google for records and information about the way it conducts its business, but it will also be asking for information from Google’s competitors (presumably who would provide information gleefully, except that they best be careful about celebrating too prematurely when they hand over information to the government), AND – here it comes – lots of companies who do business with Google: The host of third parties that are advertising and marketing networks, publishers, services, sponsors and, yes, even advertisers and agencies themselves.

What should you do? Well we’ve prepared a handy reference guide – What Should You Do When the FTC Calls About Google? to explain what the FTC can ask, to explain a few of the basic legal principles that apply to the “asking” the FTC may engage in and, frankly, a warning that you should be calling your lawyers—lawyers knowledgeable in this process—and protecting your interests. For you in-house lawyers out there, if you aren’t familiar with handling these inquiries and third-party requests, perhaps you should consider engaging the services of outside lawyers who know how to help. So whether you know you need help, before or after receiving an inquiry from the FTC – formal or informal – or if you aren’t sure, you might just want to call Joseph I. Rosenbaum, Rachel A. Rubin or the Rimon lawyer with whom you regularly work. We would be happy to help!

Google and the FTC

An Open IMHO Letter to Google

Dear Google:

I’ve heard that the FTC has served you with a civil investigative demand in connection with your search-advertising business. They have raised the question as to whether your search engine technology pushes consumers to your other services in a manner that is unfair to your competition.

Now the FTC will try to determine if your market power is dominant because your practices are unfair and whether consumers are harmed, either directly or by not having competitive choices in the marketplace. Of course, the FTC has taken into account the complaints of your competitors. That is significant because I’ve heard a rumor that companies rarely try to incite trouble for their competitors at a regulatory agency.

So what happens next? Senior executives scramble. Lawyers do research and prepare briefs. Finance people set up cost centers and budgets. Evidence is gathered. Experts are retained. Distraction will be pervasive, invasive, consistent and persistent – until a settlement is reached. It won’t be pretty. It won’t be fun. It never is. But it’s here and at least the sword of Damocles is not hovering above. The issues will be confronted and the scope will be expanded – government always uses what it finds as a basis for going farther than originally planned (it’s great leverage). Then the serious business of trying to reach an accord will begin.

This isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about making a point. But it’s de facto, a recognition that you are thriving at what you do and have grown large and successful as a result. True, this action is probably not the recognition you prefer, but when the government wants everyone to believe you might be too big, too dominant, too much in control at the expense of competition and the detriment of consumers, the target is painted on you and it’s just a question of how much pain is inflicted before a settlement is reached.

Now I am not an economist or a market dominance expert, I’m a lawyer and blogger; but I thought I might help out by offering some observations you can bring to the attention of the FTC that might give the government (maybe others in the industry and even your competitors), pause to question whether their analysis, their efforts, their investigation, is correct or necessary. I’ve taken the liberty of including an attachment to this letter (see Attachment A) that provides some tips. Feel free to use them and tell your lawyers to back them up with lots of research and briefs – those are always impressive and useful.

Sincerely,

Joe Rosenbaum at Legal Bytes.

P.S. If your people end up spending hours, days and months with government regulators, working through lunches, late nights pouring over documents, huddled around conference tables, it may give you an opportunity to point the officials to their next target. You know who.

P.P.S. Feel free to use these and other quotes from the FTC if you like:

“And, as the information industry is still emerging, quite dynamic, and not yet well understood, plausible efficiency benefits should, perhaps, weigh heavily in the balance against asserted risks of decreased competition, especially when the technology is changing so fast that adverse effects on competition are likely to be transitory.”

Antitrust and Technology: What’s On The Horizon?” Prepared Remarks of Federal Trade Commissioner Christine A. Varney, before the American Society of Association Executives, Legal Symposium, Washington, D.C., October 6, 1995

“A less confrontational approach suggests that because of the robust pace of innovation in high-tech industries, government should not intervene ‘unless certain that doing so will benefit consumers and the economy.’ (See, Priest, The Law and Economics of U.S. v. Microsoft, AEI Newsletter, August 1998).” Antitrust Analysis in High-Tech Industries: A 19th Century Discipline Addresses 21st Century Problems, Prepared Remarks of Robert Pitofsky, Chairman, Federal Trade Commission, to the American Bar Association Section of Antitrust Law’s Antitrust Issues in High-Tech Industries Workshop, February 25-26, 1999, Scottsdale, Arizona

You really need to see Attachment “A” so if it isn’t already displayed, point whichever browser you are using and click the “Continue Reading” text on the left below.

Continue reading “Google and the FTC”

It May Not Be Easy Being Green – But We May Be Able To Help

First issued in 1992 and revised in 1998, the Federal Trade Commission three years ago (2007) began an extensive review of its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, also known as the "Green Guides," focusing mainly on the dividing line between deceptive and non-deceptive speech. Noting the increasing use of "greenwashing" – the use of unsubstantiated environmental claims in advertising – the FTC is seeking to spell out the specific environmental claims that advertisers can and cannot make about their products and services. After hearings, surveys and feedback, the FTC recently formulated draft revisions to the Green Guides, publishing them for public comment.

Our own John P. Feldman prepared an insightful analysis of the draft revision and what it may mean if it is ultimately adopted by the FTC in its current form. That analysis, originally prepared as a presentation to lawyers, and advertising and marketing professionals, has now been recast into a narrative discussion; and thanks to the assistance of Carolyn Boyle and the editorial staff at the International Law Office, you can read all about it on the International Law Office website. The article, published as the Revised Green Guides: A Balanced Approach to Environmental Claims in Advertising, represents a terrific overview of the FTC’s current thinking in this area, and it is a must read for any legal, regulatory, advertising and marketing professional who does "green" marketing and advertising or who may be responsible for it. 

If you need help, need more information, or need knowledgeable counsel and representation in this important area of law and regulation – either now or increasingly in the future – please don’t hesitate to contact John P. Feldman directly, or me, Joe Rosenbaum, or any of the Rimon attorneys with whom you regularly work.

Now, Web-Birds of a Feather Can Actually Flock Together

Well, it seems like almost yesterday (actually a little more than a month ago), that a subsidiary of Mixx, the popular social voting site, launched TweetMixx, a new service that enables companies, brands, politicians, and celebrities collect and aggregate all the mentions about them on Twitter on a single page. “TweetMixx Channels,” as the service is branded, enables you to create a branded page, tailored to you – from your own Twitter Tweets and RSS Feeds to comments from customers, reviewers, fans or pretty much anything you like. We’ll use “you” generically to mean any label that fits – people, brands, goods, services, you name it.

Ever see those vanity license plates on cars? Now you can have your own vanity Twitter Mixx channel, and the service uses “Tabs” to allow a variety of features and functions. There’s one that uses search terms to find links and tweets about you on Twitter, in apparent deference to the new Federal Trade Commission Endorsement Guides (see our post FTC (Revised) Endorsement Guides Go Into Effect earlier today; there’s an “Insiders” tab that identifies anyone with a material connection or that is associated with you (e.g., employees, agents, paid endorsers); and other tabs that enable you to customize and populate the channel. In addition, since the service appears to act both as an aggregation and a search tool for content about you, consumers can find all the Twitter traffic and channel information about you in one place, and at the same time, you can use the service to track and monitor conversations and references to you on Twitter. Right for consumers; right for you – clever.

Remember Facebook’s personalized URLs just a few months ago (Legal Bytes blog post Facebook Adds Personalization & a (Brand) New Dimension)? This is not simply another social media fad. Already companies are getting on the bandwagon (or should we say birdwagon). Today, the National Hockey League (www.nhl.com) will be among the first few enterprises launching its TweetMixx Channel – its own private label branded distribution platform using the TweetMixx service. TweetMixx even provides you with a widget that can be embedded on other websites (think bloggers, profile pages, etc.). The NHL’s “Chatter” tab on TweetMixx, for example, will provide streaming tweets from hockey fans, while a “Links” tab will keep track of the tweets that are retweeted most often, and will rank these favorites by putting them at the top of the TweetMixx Channel web page.

So for advertisers, brand managers, marketing professionals and agencies, this new tool is the beginning of enabling a clearer strategic use of Tweets. Just as branded pages and channels, enabling two-way conversations, have emerged on YouTube and Facebook, allowing brands and celebrities to engage with consumers and fans, TweetMixx seeks to provide an ecosystem for Twitter traffic. Chris McGill, founder and CEO of Mixx, noted that each TweetMixx Channel can be analogized to a “tree.” You have TweetMixx plant a customized tree of your choice, then you are given the tools to nurture it, to prune it and to watch it grow. Do it right and you have branches where Twitter users can “flock, sit and sing” about you – the people, products, services and things they care about. TweetMixx owns the forest!

Can you or your brand afford to stay out of the social media arena? Are you afraid of the new risk-reward paradigm and uncertain what to do? Do you know you have to do something, but are suffering from analysis paralysis? Have traditional models got you stuck in the mire? Call us. Our Advertising Technology & Media law practice group and our newly formed Social Media Task Force already have unparalleled depth, experience and bench-strength in understanding, working with, and advising clients in this brave new world. From developing policies to monitoring compliance; from protecting and enforcing your rights to developing relationships and partnerships with others to engage in the conversation. To win it, you have to be in it. If you need help, contact me, Joseph I. (“Joe”) Rosenbaum, or the Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work. We are happy to help.

FTC (Revised) Endorsement Guides Go Into Effect

This post was written by John Feldman.

Yesterday, Dec. 1, 2009, the revised “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” released by the Federal Trade Commission came into effect. If you are a loyal Legal Bytes’ reader, you know we have been following this as early as November 2008, when we posted Endorsements & Testimonials – FTC Broom Proposes Some Sweeping Changes. Numerous updates and informational pieces have graced these pages since then (now when we say “pages,” we mean web pages), and you can refer back to any or all of them, or you can check out any you may have missed right here: FTC Testimonial and Endorsement Guides Stimulate Industry Comment (March 2009); a presentation given at the University of Limerick on the subject entitled “Trust Me, I’m a Satisfied Customer: Testimonials & Endorsements in the United States,” which you can download (If You Didn’t Make It to Ireland …); Ghostwriters: Medical Research or Paid Endorsers (and are they mutually exclusive?) and Rights of Publicity – Wake Up and Smell the Coffee! (both in August 2009); and FTC Releases Updated Endorsement & Testimonial Guidelines and Rimon Analysis of the New FTC Endorsement and Testimonial Guidelines (both in October 2009).

Yesterday, John P. Feldman, an authority in these types of advertising regulations and compliance and who is based in Washington, D.C., put together some thoughts concerning the implications of these Guides upon coming into effect, continuing his thoughtful and practical analysis. While we will maintain bringing you news and information about the Guides, John’s analysis is timely and helpful, and outlines some considerations every advertiser – online, in social media and off-line – and every blogger, viral marketer, celebrity endorser or consumer making a testimonial, should take into account. John’s analysis, which you can download and read in its entirety by selecting the link below, asks and answers the following questions about these Guides:

  • What does this mean for advertisers?
  • What is the most dramatic shift in enforcement policy?
  • What will this mean for advertisers that use celebrity endorsers?
  • How much control should sponsoring advertisers exercise over endorsers in new media channels?
  • What impact will the FTC’s new approach to clinical trials have on the OTC, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industry?
  • Is there a role for self-regulation and what do you make of the proposed “best practices” recently announced by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA)?

You can download your own copy of John’s analysis or you can read it online right here: “FTC Endorsement Guides (Revised) – Some Thoughts As They Become Effective“. You won’t be disappointed. In addition, if you want to know more about these issues or have questions about your particular circumstances, please do contact John P. Feldman directly, or you can call Joseph I. Rosenbaum or Douglas. J. Wood or, of course, any Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work.

FTC May Broaden Regulation & Enforcement of Privacy

The New York Times today has published some of the views of David C. Vladeck, the new head of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, regarding the FTC’s role in protecting consumer privacy. 

By way of background, in announcing Mr. Vladeck’s appointment April 14, 2009, the FTC noted that “David C. Vladeck, who will serve as Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, has been a Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, teaching federal courts, government processes, civil procedure, and First Amendment litigation. He co-directed the Center’s Institute for Public Representation, a clinical law program for civil rights, civil liberties, First Amendment, open government, and regulatory litigation. Vladeck previously spent almost 30 years with Public Citizen Litigation Group, including 10 years as Director.”

The FTC has been, and likely will continue to be, among the most aggressive federal agencies in the U.S. privacy arena. Traditionally, the FTC had prosecuted companies for how they collect and use consumer information, if consumers had been deceived, or if consumers had suffered economic harm. Although you can read The New York Times article in full, Mr. Vladeck has proposed adding a new thrust to the future of FTC privacy enforcement. He is reported to have suggested that if companies collect too much information from a consumer, that, in itself, is a harm to the inherent privacy of individuals AND (if his views turn out to be prophetic) is prosecutable, no matter how conspicuously or completely the nature and extent of information collection is disclosed to the consumer. This concept of damage to the "dignity" of the consumer goes well beyond the traditional U.S. privacy principles that have typically compensated consumers only when economic harm or damage has occurred, or when there are statutory penalties for violations of law or regulation.  

If Mr. Vladeck’s views transform into regulatory policy and enforcement activity, this highly subjective and vague standard (How much is too much? Why shouldn’t proper disclosure and choice be sufficient?) could have a huge impact on data collection, could lead to a huge flurry of litigation, and would arguably create a "big chill" for all—including consumers. Stay tuned.

FTC Releases Mobile Marketplace Report

Earlier today, the FTC staff issued a report concerning consumer protection issues arising in the mobile commerce marketplace. A copy of the full report, Beyond Voice, Mapping the Mobile Marketplace is available by clicking the link. The key findings in the report:

  • Cost disclosures about mobile services continue to generate consumer complaints. The FTC staff intends to monitor cost disclosures, bring law enforcement actions, and work with industry to improve self-regulatory enforcement
  • The FTC and its law enforcement partners should continue to monitor the impact on consumers of unwanted mobile text messages, malware and spyware, and take law enforcement action if and as needed
  • Although spyware and malware are not yet significant problems on mobile devices, the FTC is encouraging development of strategies to prevent or minimize their spread, since the issue is likely to magnify as consumers increasingly use mobile devices for a wider range of applications, including Internet access
  • Increasing use of smart phones to access the mobile Web presents unique privacy challenges, especially regarding children. The FTC will expedite regulatory review of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule to determine whether the rule should be modified to address changes in the mobile marketplace. This review was originally set for 2015, and will now begin in 2010 instead.

Given the numbers of wireless and mobile devices in the hands of individuals under the age of 18 (and 13), and the increasing proliferation of mobile devices, this will become a hotter topic in the months and years ahead. As if this point needed to be emphasized, it has been reported that as of January 2007—two years ago—there were approximately 800 million cars, 850 million personal computers, 1.5 billion television sets, but already 2.7 billion (yes, billion) wireless and mobile devices in use around the globe, with more than 800 million e-mail and 1.8 billion SMS text-messaging users.

The sheer numbers are staggering, and we are on top of this issue big time. Contact Joe Rosenbaum, John Feldman or Douglas Wood if you need more information or assistance.