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Is Your Online Advertising Legal?

Scales of Justice

Marketing and advertising are crucial to business success, so it’s not surprising that you’d want to jump in and find a way to draw customers to your company. Strict laws protect consumers from false and deceptive advertising, as well as unwanted telemarketing and email solicitations, which means you should do your homework before launching that next advertising campaign. Ensuring your advertising complies with the law will help you avoid business litigation.

The Advertising Medium Doesn’t Matter

With the number of blogs and commentaries providing so much disinformation online, it’s easy to assume that the World Wide Web is more like the Wild West, where anything goes. But as far as the FTC is concerned, the internet is just another form of communication. The FTC regulations apply regardless of where the advertising is located. A banner on a website will be held to the same standards as an ad that runs during the Super Bowl. Even product labels are considered advertising, so putting an unsubstantiated claim on a box of cereal could give you just as much trouble as if you announced it during a 30-minute infomercial. Be certain that you adhere to the rules in all modes of advertising to avoid business litigation.

In general, any claims you make in advertising, even online, must be truthful and should be based on evidence. The Federal Trade Commission Act allows the FTC to act to prevent any advertising that is deceptive or unfair and to require claims to be substantiated, especially when they are about health, safety, or performance. Disclaimers and disclosures must be made obvious. Demonstrations should show normal use of the product or service. If you promise refunds, they must be issued to dissatisfied customers. And advertising that is geared to children will face even closer scrutiny, so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the particulars of those regulations before any promotions are released.

Four Areas of Regulation

Any Seattle business lawyer would hopefully warn you about these four areas of advertising and marketing that are tightly regulated:

  • “Truth in advertising” claims
  • Industry-specific guidelines
  • Telemarketing and the Do Not Call Registry
  • Email SPAM

There are particularly strict rules to follow if you are making claims about health. Using a “made in the USA” label may also require additional verification. The FTC also revises its “Green Guides” periodically to update requirements for products and services claiming to be environmentally friendly. There are also specific guidelines in place for industries such as alcoholic beverages, real estate, funeral services, and advertising related to franchise operations and business opportunities. Telemarketers are also expected to adhere to the National Do Not Call Registry.

Should you plan on advertising using an email campaign, you will want to review the CAN-SPAM Act before you write even a single word; however, the basic rules are as follows:

  • Don’t use deceptive “to” and “from” addresses.
  • Your subject line should represent the message you are sending.
  • If your message is an ad, you must state clearly that it is an ad.
  • Your message must include a postal address for your business.
  • You must tell recipients how to opt-out of future messages from you.
  • You must honor opt-out requests promptly.
  • You are responsible for what is sent on your behalf, even if you hire a third party to handle your email marketing.

Please note that if you create advertising for clients or sell other companies’ products in your catalogs, it’s also important for you to know that you could be held liable for disseminating deceptive representations by simply repeating what a customer has told you about the product they asked you to promote. You can avoid business litigation by doing a little research and substantiation on your own before passing along any claims.

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