The FTC issued its Final Rule concerning certain aspects of the CAN-SPAM Act May 12, 2008. The Final Rule: (a) allows multiple marketers to designate an otherwise legally qualified entity as the single “sender” for purposes of compliance. The sender still must comply with the opt out, identification and other requirements of the Act, but no longer must be the entity that controls all the content or determines all the email addresses to which the message will be sent. In practice, this means only the designated sender (not the other marketers) needs to honor opt-out requests, and only the designated sender needs to have a physical address in the message; (b) prohibits conditioning an opt-out request on paying a fee or providing some personal information other than an email address; (c) allows senders to use a P.O. Box as the physical address if they have accurately registered the P.O. Box with the United States Postal Service; and (d) defines the word “person” to include business entities. As part of its ruling, the FTC also refused to change the amount of time (10 business days) a sender has to comply with an opt out request from an email recipient, and also rejected putting any time limits on how long an opt-out request from a recipient would remain valid and in effect.
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.
The FTC has been checking compliance with its e-mail opt-out requirements promulgated under CAN-SPAM, and recently announced the results of a compliance survey it undertook with e-Tailers. The survey indicates that 89 percent of those online merchants who participated in the survey were complying with consumer requests to opt-out of future commercial e-mail. The FTC essentially selected 100 merchants that are big users of the Internet in retail sales and then visited their websites, created test e-mail accounts and registrations, and signed up for promotions—using the retailers systems to prompt both an initial message and their ability to reply with an “opt-out” request. All of the merchants selected did provide clear notice to consumers of their opt-out rights and a relatively easy means to do so. After six weeks of monitoring, about 89 percent of the merchants honored all opt-out requests, with 93 percent honoring some. In case you were thinking the FTC doesn’t take CAN-SPAM enforcement seriously or can’t possibly monitor and track your compliance efforts, think again. Use e-mail/e-Tail advertising and marketing? Need to understand your obligations? Need to develop policies and practices for compliance? How quickly and with what level of accuracy do you honor the requests? Need help in understanding when and to what CAN-SPAM applies? Contact either Joe Rosenbaum or Doug Wood at Rimon. We can help.
Federal Commercial E-Mail Legislation Takes Effect A major change in the law that affects privacy and commercial e-mail on the Internet took effect on January 1, 2004. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 doesn’t simply establish an “opt-out” framework for commercial e-mail, it completely pre-empts state law. Although an individual consumer doesn’t have the right to sue an offender under the Act, the Federal Trade Commission, along with the Attorneys General of each state, do. So what should you know?
First, the Act only applies to commercial e-mail—an e-mail whose primary purpose is promoting a commercial product or service. Although the FTC has not yet promulgated any regulations under the Act, simply because an e-mail has a URL link to a commercial website or refers to product or service doesn’t make it commercial e-mail. There are, of course, certain obvious exemptions built into the law. Product safety recall information or e-mails notifying you about changes or important notices concerning your subscriptions, memberships, purchase confirmations, accounts or e-mail related to your employment—all of these are so-called “transactional relationship messages” where the main purpose is communication related to a commercial transaction, rather than promotion or advertising.
Second, what does the law require. Starting January 1, 2004, all commercial e-mail (even if an existing business relationship exists and whether or not the e-mail was solicited or not) must contain a clear and conspicuous notice that a consumer can opt out of future e-mails and provide a web-based means to do so. A consumer’s request to opt out must be honored within 10 business days and marketers can’t sell or share the e-mail addresses of those who have opted out. The e-mail must also clearly identify itself as an advertisement—unless a consumer has specifically asked to receive commercial e-mail from a particular commercial entity. Third, the e-mail must contain a postal, physical address of the sender. Although it is not yet clear if a post office box is enough, the less-risky approach is to have a street address.
The Act has a number of other requirements related to labeling—for example, the subject (header) must accurately reflect the body or content of the message and the sender (the sponsor of the promotion) must be identified. Although the Act preempts state commercial e-mail laws, beware of the fact that state fraud, trespass and certain consumer protection laws can still apply.
Violations of the CAN-SPAM Act are criminal offenses and involve both fines and potential jail time upon conviction. As with most Federal crimes, aggravating factors increase the penalties and implementing good faith and reasonable measures to attempt to comply with the Act can lessen them. These penalties can be serious—jail-time of up to five years, $250 per e-mail up to $2 million in fines (which can be tripled up to $6 million if aggravating factors are present) and all computers and software used in the commission of the crime can be forfeit.
Although the primary purpose of Legal Bytes is to enlighten and inform you, it obviously does promote Rimon and encourages you to call us when you need legal support. Accordingly we will always give you the opportunity to opt out of receiving our publication by email and when we send you an e-mail, it will be clear as to what it is and who is sending it. This is not just the law, it’s good practice.