Feds Warn Advertisers Against Trying To Hide The Truth

Most of us accept the fact that advertisers have to massage the truth to put their products in the best possible light. You’re likely to sell more widgets saying “The fastest widget on the market!” and doing your best to hide the disclosure that you really mean it’s the fastest widget you can buy at one particular market in rural Alberta. But some advertisers have apparently been getting too fine with their fine print and have been put on notice by federal regulators to just stop it already.

The Federal Trade Commission announced today that it has sent warning letters to 60 national advertisers, including 20 of the 100 largest advertisers in the U.S., letting them know that their ads have failed to make adequate disclosures to the buying public.

FTC guidance on advertising has long held that disclosures in ads should not be hidden or buried in unrelated details. Even the so-called fine print should be presented in a font that is easy to read and in a color that stands out from the background. TV disclosures must appear on screen long enough for viewers to actually read them and shouldn’t be hidden or obstructed by other elements on the screen.

But the agency identified a number of “problematic” ads and asked the advertisers in question to review their marketing materials to make sure that disclosures are “clear and conspicuous.”

Alas, the FTC is not yet naming the advertisers or ads that it flagged as part of Operation Full Disclosure, but it does give general examples of problems it repeatedly spotted.

There were ads that quoted the price of a product or service, but didn’t adequately disclose the conditions for obtaining that price. Other advertisers claimed a product was unique or superior in a product category, but did not adequately disclose how narrowly the advertiser defined the category.

Similarly, the FTC took exception to ads that compared products but didn’t adequately adequately disclose the basis of their comparisons.

Other ads meriting a warning promoted “risk-free” or “worry free” trial periods but did not adequately disclose that consumers would need to pay for shipping and/or return shipping.

Then there were ads for weight-loss products that used extreme cases but failed to properly disclose that these were not results most people could expect to achieve.

While these warning letters targeted specific advertisers, the FTC clarifies to the advertising world that just because you didn’t receive a warning doesn’t mean your ads aren’t problematic.

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