Advertising & Product Risk Management

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Product liability suits and regulatory product defect enforcement actions associated with consumer foreseeable – and unforeseeable – misuse have become the norm. Consumer product companies can mitigate these risks by focusing on use-related hazards and user-centered designs in an effort to reduce injuries and improve the usability of products. But the real question is how far to go with these efforts — at what cost and for what incremental benefit.

On March 15, 2018, the Consumer Product Safety Commission published Draft Guidance on the Application of Human Factors to Consumer Products for industry comment by May 14, 2018. The draft guidance was developed in conjunction with Health Canada’s Consumer Product Safety Directorate. CPSC and Health Canada aim to increase product safety by explaining to product designers and manufacturers how to incorporate human factors[1] into the design process.

The draft guidance describes the product design process and provides guidance on human factors considerations at each stage and then summarized in the graphic depictions collected at the end of this post. Because the guidance is not an enforceable rule, no cost benefit analysis accompanies the myriad of product design recommendations proposed.

Continue Reading CPSC Reaction to Consumer Misuse – Human Factors Design Process

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The FTC’s Consumer Protection Division has long targeted advertisements for “work-at-home,” business and investment opportunities that exaggerate the earning potential and downplay risks. Recently, the FTC announced that it filed a complaint against four individuals doing business as “Bitcoin Funding Team” in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida for deceptively advertising a cryptocurrency scheme that promised consumers that they could turn a cryptocurrency payment of approximately $100 into $80,000 in monthly income. Specifically, the complaint alleges two counts: 1) that Defendants’ representations that the programs are structured to operate as bona fide money-making opportunities are false or misleading and violate Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, and 2) that Defendants’ representations that consumers who participate in the programs are likely to earn substantial income are also false or misleading, violating Section 5(a). On March 16th, the Commission secured a temporary restraining order against, and froze the assets of pending trial, the defendants it alleges who were operating and promoting cryptocurrency pyramid schemes.

Continue Reading FTC Targets Cryptocurrency Pyramid Schemes

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The news that Cambridge Analytica, the shadowy, digital political consultancy, may have misused user data obtained from Facebook is reverberating throughout Washington and foreign capitals. The immediate fallout has been calls for Congressional and federal investigations into what happened. The Federal Trade Commission has taken the unusual step of publicly announcing a “non-public” investigation into whether Facebook breached the terms of a 2011 consent agreement with the agency. A coalition of 37 State Attorneys General has also sent a letter to Facebook demanding information about how the company handles information collected by users.

Of course, it doesn’t help that Cambridge Analytica’s Chief Executive Officer was caught on hidden camera pitching outright blackmail and dirty tricks to sway future elections. But, the real scandal appears to be that Cambridge misused information collected from Facebook members and their friends in order to psychologically manipulate them to favor one candidate over another. The ensuing media attention has brought to the fore concerns that have been simmering for years, but which have until now largely been ignored by average consumers.

Continue Reading Is the Cambridge Analytica Scandal a Watershed Moment for the Ad-Funded Internet?

In the largest-ever penalty issued against an ad agency, the Federal Trade Commission announced that Marketing Architects, Inc. (MAI) agreed to pay $2 million dollars to settle a false advertising complaint filed with the FTC and the State of Maine Attorney General’s Office.

The ad agency came to the FTC’s attention after the Commission settled with Direct Alternatives (DA) and Sensa Products, LLC  for more than $16 million and more than $26 million respectively to resolve claims that the companies engaged in the false and deceptive advertising, marketing and sale of weight loss products.  According to the Complaint, MAI created direct response radio ads for Sensa and DA as well as MI6 Holdings, LLC (MI6) and other unidentified clients with toll free numbers inviting consumers to call and purchase weight loss. In addition, for some clients, including DA, MAI created and implemented scripts for its Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system, providing testing, analysis and strategic advice regarding the performance of its IVR scripts and ads as well as collecting payment information.

Continue Reading Holding Agencies Accountable: Ad Agency Agrees to Pay Largest Penalty Ever for False Advertising

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The National Advertising Division, referred Pharmavite, LLC to the Federal Trade Commission after the company refused to comply with NAD’s recommendations that it discontinue its claim that its NatureMade Omega 3 Xtra Blend dietary supplement has “Nearly 4X Better Absorption* *than standard fish oil concentrate.”

To substantiate its “Nearly 4X Better Absorption” claim, Pharmavite relied on a study that compared the absorption of 630 mg and 1680 mg doses of EPA/DHA omega 3 fatty acids manufactured with and without a self-microemulsifying drug delivery system (SMEDS). The study determined that the absorption of EPA/DHA manufactured with SMEDS was better than the absorption rate of standard fish oil (manufactured without SMEDS) for the two doses of EPA/DHA. The study concluded that there was a 6.2 differential for a 630 mg dose and a 9.6 differential for a 1680 mg dose.

Continue Reading Pharmavite, Maker of NatureMade Omega-3 Xtra Blend Dietary Supplement, Referred to FTC After Declining to Comply with NAD Recommendation to Discontinue Absorption Claim

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On January 8, 2018, the FTC announced settlement of its first connected toy case with VTech Electronics Ltd (“VTech”) for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) Rules by failing to properly collect and protect personal information about and from children and violating the FTC Act by misrepresenting its security practices. In addition to paying a $650,000 civil penalty, VTech agreed to comply with COPPA, implement and maintain a comprehensive information security program with regular third-party security audits for the next twenty years, and not misrepresent its privacy and data security practices.

The settlement comes more than two years after VTech learned that a hacker had gained remote access to databases for its interactive electronic learning products (ELPs), including for its Kid Connect chat application, in what was described at the time as the largest known hack targeting children. According to the FTC’s Complaint, the hacker accessed VTech’s databases “by exploiting commonly known and reasonably foreseeable vulnerabilities,” and VTech was unaware of the intrusion until it was informed by a reporter.

Continue Reading FTC Settles First Connected Toy Case With VTech After Massive Data Breach

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Surveys play an increasingly important role in consumer class actions, whether used to deny class certification, defeat plaintiffs’ allegations of consumer “deception,” or even refute damages arguments.

Recently, beverage giant Starbucks Corp. defeated a proposed class action alleging that Starbucks had violated consumer protection statutes in California, Florida, and New York by uniformly filling its lattes and mochas with more foam – and less actual beverage – than a reasonable consumer would expect. In dismissing the case on summary judgment and denying class certification as moot, U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers for the Northern District of California focused on the plaintiffs’ flawed survey results. Strumlauf et al. v. Starbucks Corp., No. 16-CV-01306-YGR, 2018 WL 306715 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 5, 2018). The plaintiffs had introduced an expert report presenting the results of two surveys purporting to show that 70-80% of consumers expected that the “Promised Beverage Volume” of Starbucks lattes did not include foam. The first survey showed respondents a sample menu board with small, medium, and large and asked how many fluid ounces of beverage they expected to receive. This survey was flawed, the court found, because it did not measure consumers’ understanding of what “fluid ounce” means. The second survey showed images of a cup with varying amounts of fluid and foam and then asked which “medium 16 fl. oz. beverage” the respondents expected to receive. This survey, too, fell short because it showed a “caricatured image” and “the ‘question begg[ed] its answer [and was] not a true indicator of the likelihood of consumer confusion.’” In sum, the Court attacked the surveys as “leading and suggestive” and ultimately found they failed to establish a triable issue on consumer deception.

Continue Reading Surveys Seal the Deal in Defeating Starbucks and 5 Hour Energy Class Actions

Online dating company eHarmony will pay more than $2 million to settle a consumer protection lawsuit brought by four California counties and the city of Santa Monica. In total, the company will pay up to $1 million to California customers who enrolled in eHarmony’s automatic subscription program between March 10, 2012 and December 13, 2016 and an additional $1.28 million civil penalty to the California communities that brought the lawsuit.

Pursuant to the Settlement Order, eHarmony is required to make several improvements to its business practices, including:

  • Disclosing the terms of the automatic renewal offer in a clear and conspicuous manner before the subscription is fulfilled.
  • Only charging a consumer for an automatic renewal service once obtaining affirmative consent to the automatic renewal term offers. Specifically, consent must be “obtained by an express act by the consumer through a separate check-box, signature, or other substantially similar mechanism.” The automatic renewal terms must be conveyed in a clear and conspicuous disclosure immediately above the check box and the disclosure cannot include any other information.
  • Sending an acknowledgement with a clear and conspicuous disclosure of the automatic renewal terms. The subject line must identify the message as confirmation of the transaction.
  • Providing a toll free number or e-mail address or other easy cancelation mechanism. Additionally, eHarmony must provide written notice of cancellation by email. All cancelations must be effective within one business day.

The eHarmony settlement follows on the heels of several settlements with companies promoting subscription serves, including the FTC’s settlement with AdoreMe last month as well as recent updates to the California Automatic Renewal Law and ongoing enforcement in that state. Advertisers offering subscriptions that automatically renew should review their advertising and cancelation procedures. Not only should offer terms be clearly and conspicuously communicated to consumers before they are charged, the terms of recent settlements suggest that advertisers should require consumers click a separate check box to obtain express consent and offer an easy, online cancelation mechanism.

For additional recommendations, please see our prior blog post on auto-renewals.

UPDATE

Crowell & Moring received a statement on the settlement from eHarmony:

“Since eharmony’s inception, we have endeavored to give appropriate contract notices and disclosures to our subscribers. We remain as committed today as we were 17 years ago to providing a high-quality user experience. Without any admission, we have cooperated with the government, which has previously launched similar investigations against a long list of eCommerce companies, and have chosen to settle to avoid the distraction and expense of protracted litigation. In collaboration with the government, eHarmony has implemented a new industry standard when disclosing terms in order to make the user experience even better. With the settlement now behind us, we look forward to continuing the important work of helping singles find enduring love.” – Ronald N. Sarian, Vice President & General Counsel, eharmony

 

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Subscription services for everything from food delivery to beauty products to exercise gear have grown exponentially in the past five years. Such services require consumers to enroll in a program to purchase goods on a consistent basis. They typically automatically renew, often on a monthly basis, and require customers wishing to cancel to take affirmative steps to avoid being charged. Marketers know that consumers often fail to take steps to cancel timely, which only benefits the marketers’ bottom lines.

With the explosion of subscription business models, consumer complaints have skyrocketed as well, with consumers complaining that the terms of the negative option offer – an offer that interprets a consumer’s failure to take an affirmative action as an agreement to be charged – were not clearly explained. For example, consumers have complained that were not told they would be charged each month, were not adequately reminded of how to “skip” being charged each month, that prepaid credits expire without notice, and that it can be difficult to cancel. Thus, subscription businesses have faced increasing regulatory scrutiny and all advertisers that offer products or services that automatically renew should pay close attention.

AdoreMe Settlement

AdoreMe, a subscription lingerie service launched as a rival to Victoria’s Secret, recently agreed to pay $1.38 million to settle the Federal Trade Commission’s charges that the company did not clearly communicate to consumers the terms of its “VIP Membership” program which automatically billed consumers if they failed to “skip” a month within a 5-day window, falsely claimed that store credits could be used “any time,” and made it difficult for subscribers to cancel their memberships in violation of Section 5(a) of the FTC Act as well as the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act.

Continue Reading ROSCA Enforcement Ahead: FTC Settles with AdoreMe for $1.38 Million

The DNR Tattoo

Last week, the Associated Press reported the fascinating story of an unconscious man admitted in acute distress to Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital. The words “Do Not Resuscitate” were tattooed across his upper chest, where one would see them before engaging in chest compressions. He carried no identification, so the medical staff could not reach his next of kin. A decision had to be made immediately, however: do we attempt to revive him?

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If doctors took the tattoo at face value, the patient would die. If they rejected the literal words, reading ambiguity into it (perhaps it was merely the result of youthful indiscretion), he might live. The stakes could not have been higher. “We’ve always joked about this, but holy crap, this man actually did it,” said the attending ER physician. “You look at it, laugh a little, and then go: Oh no, I actually have to deal with this.” Fortunately, Jackson Memorial has an ethics team on call for these kinds of situations, and after swift consideration, they recommended that the doctors honor the man’s tattooed request — they allowed the man to die.

Apparently, this is not the first DNR tattoo story. An author in the Journal of Internal Medicine writes of a patient admitted to the hospital for serious surgery, who had the letters “D.N.R.” tattooed on his sternum. When interviewed as part of preoperative procedure, he indicated that he in fact did want to be resuscitated if he went into arrest during surgery, contrary to what was written on his chest. He explained that he acquired the DNR tattoo after losing a drunken poker bet. The author dryly remarks, “It was suggested that he consider tattoo removal to circumvent future confusion about his code status.” The patient declined, however, saying that “he did not think anyone would take his tattoo seriously…”

Can Advertisers Be Taken at Their Word?

The tattoo story has me thinking about its application to advertising. In our line of work, we are frequently confronted with ad copy that expressly says one thing, but arguably implies something else. Indeed, most comparative advertising disputes arise from this kind of situation. The advertiser has carefully crafted a claim, believing it to be truthful and well substantiated. A challenger argues that the literal words may be true, but that the claim also implies something different, and that the different implication is false. Very few sophisticated advertisers are careless or unscrupulous enough to communicate literally false claims. Arguing about implied claims is where the action is.

Continue Reading “Do Not Resuscitate”: Lessons for Advertisers