Photo of Christopher A. Cole

Christopher Cole is a co-chair of Crowell & Moring's Technology & Brand Protection Group, a team that provides interdisciplinary solutions to companies facing challenging competitive and regulatory issues (and a leader of the firm's global ESG Advisory Team). Chris focuses on false advertising litigation, unfair competition, reputation, brand disparagement, and intellectual property. He is an experienced litigator, handling Lanham Act and consumer class action cases, and defending against Federal Trade Commission (FTC) enforcement and related investigations. He has handled dozens of cases before the National Advertising Division (NAD).

The news of Elon Musk’s $42-44 billion offer to purchase Twitter, and his apparent cold feet, have spread far and wide. Speculation has swirled that his offer was a politically-motivated stunt and that he never intended to actually follow-through with the deal. More recently, however, Musk has publicly demanded more information from Twitter regarding its so-called “bots” and he has publicly suggested that up to 20% of Twitter’s active user base is comprised of fake accounts, in contrast to the 5% that Twitter itself has claimed in its latest annual report. So, is Musk’s stated concern real or a coverup for cold feet?

While some have derided Musk’s demands as pretextual, he has a valid point that the number of real, daily active users on the Twitter platform – actual human eyeballs – is critical to the value of Twitter. A difference of 15% in estimates of bots is likely to be material. Twitter itself has said so.

Continue Reading Does Elon Musk Have a Point? The Impact of Bots on Twitter Revenue.

In the recent AdAge article, ESG Advertising Demands More Than Mere Legal Compliance, Chris Cole shares his thoughts on the five best practices for how companies advertise their ESG efforts:

  1. Advertise honestly about accurately measurable improvements
  2. Qualify with reference to metrics or uncertainty to put statement into context
  3. Use well-established standards for communication
  4. Do

At the end of 2021, the California Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling (the “Commission”) sent a letter to The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, also known as CalRecycle, and California Attorney General Rob Bonta, asking them to investigate illegal labeling of plastic bags as recyclable by retailers. The Commission is alleging that businesses in the state are falsely implying that their bags are capable of being recycled through curbside collection with the “chasing arrows” logo and words such as “recyclable” and “recycle.” The Commission believes this labeling is impeding the curbside recycling process.
Continue Reading California Recyclability Labeling Scrutiny Poised to Increase Retailers’ Liability Risk

In 2020, Greenpeace published a major report that purports to show that less than 15% of all plastic, including single-use plastic that is labeled as “recyclable,” is actually recycled in the United States. These dramatic findings kicked off a new wave of putative class action cases against manufacturers who regularly use plastic packaging, much of which is labeled as recyclable. For example, mere days after issuance of the Greenpeace Report, Earth Island Institute sued a group of ten major companies, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Clorox and Nestle over the use of plastic packaging that allegedly contributes substantially to plastics pollution in California waterways.

On Monday, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed one of the more prominent recent cases, which had been filed by Greenpeace itself against Walmart. Greenpeace, Inc. v. Walmart, Inc., No. 21-cv-00754-MMC (Sept. 20, 2021). Greenpeace’s case, brought under the widely-used, California consumer protection law, Cal. Bus. & Professions Code §17200 (“UCL”), sought to hold Walmart liable for making what Greenpeace alleged were false and misleading “recyclable” claims for certain products. Greenpeace alleged that the claims were false, not because the products are not recyclable, because most consumers do not have access to recycling programs that could accept the products for recycling.
Continue Reading Greenpeace Plastics Recyclability Suit Dismissed for Lack of Standing

A new trend in false advertising lawsuits targets specific characterizing flavor claims on the labels of foods and beverages. For example, Frito-Lay was recently sued in California federal court alleging the company’s “Tostito’s Hint of Lime” tortilla chips falsely implies that natural lime is a primary flavoring ingredient and that consumers were misled by various misrepresentations of lime on the product packaging. Kellogg, Hershey, and Bimbo Bakeries were all sued because the “fudge” in their respective products allegedly are produced with vegetable oil substitutes instead of butter and milk, which the complaint alleges is known to consumers as the traditional way of making fudge.

Typically, in these false or misleading flavoring ingredient lawsuits, a plaintiff attempts to represent a class of consumers and alleges they were charged a premium price for the products because of the specific ingredient, based on the misleading representation.  The plaintiff generally must also allege that they would not have purchased the product in the first place if they had known that the specific ingredient was missing.

Continue Reading Despite the Pandemic, Food-Related False Advertising Lawsuits Continue to be Frequent Filers

Last week the Supreme Court unanimously held that §13(b) of the Federal Trade Commission Act does not give the Federal Trade Commission the power to seek equitable monetary relief such as disgorgement or restitution. The Court’s opinion in AMG Capital Management LLC v. Federal Trade Commission removes a powerful tool that the FTC has long relied on to pursue monetary relief for consumers in both consumer protection and competition matters.

By way of background, the FTC has authority to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive acts or practice (“UDAP”) and unfair methods of competition (“UMC”) with an overlapping but distinct set of tools it can use to pursue its dual consumer protection and competition missions:

  • Administrative Proceeding: The FTC can initiate an administrative proceeding to seek a cease and desist order for either a UDAP or UMC violation from an administrative law judge. If necessary, the FTC can later bring a contempt proceeding in federal court seeking to enforce the terms of an administrative order. A defendant may respond by arguing that it has “substantially complied” with the terms of the order. If the FTC prevails in such a case, it can seek civil penalties and other equitable relief necessary to enforce the order (however monetary relief only applies to UDAP violations).
  • Rulemaking: The FTC has authority to promulgate rules that define UDAP with specificity. Generally, this requires a lengthy, formal rulemaking process that allows for public comment, and a final rule can be challenged in federal court. If a defendant later violates a duly enacted UDAP rule, the FTC can seek civil penalties for a knowing violation. The FTC can also file suit in federal court and obtain monetary relief “to redress consumer injury,” including an order compelling “refund of money or return of property,” but only if “a reasonable man would have known under the circumstances [that the challenged conduct] was dishonest or fraudulent.”
  • Federal Court: The FTC can sue in federal court under §13(b) of the FTC Act to enjoin a defendant when the defendant “is violating, or is about to violate” a law that the FTC enforces and such an injunction is in the public’s interest. While courts have historically read §13(b) as giving the FTC an implied right to recover equitable monetary relief in addition to injunctive relief, the Supreme Court’s ruling now limits the FTC to seeking injunctive relief only.


Continue Reading The Supreme Court Limits FTC’s §13(b) Powers

On March 25th, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced that the agency is creating a new and dedicated “rulemaking group” within the FTC’s Office of the General Counsel.  Currently, rulemaking within the FTC is decentralized and individual bureaus are responsible for promulgating particular rules.  With this new group in place, Acting Chairwoman Rebecca Slaughter explained, the FTC can take a harmonized approach to rulemaking across its different authorities in order to prohibit unfair and deceptive trade practices and unfair methods of competition.  This move is significant because, although the FTC has declined to engage in rulemaking for many years, it has signaled its desire for stricter enforcement for some time.  Just last year, the FTC promulgated a new “Made in USA” labeling rule in order to make the standards clear and to enable the Commission to seek civil penalties for any violations.

Continue Reading Harmonized Approach to Rulemaking: FTC Announces New Rulemaking Group

The Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) is distributing more than $6 million to Fashion Nova customers after the popular retailer did not “properly notify [them] or give them the chance to cancel their orders when [it did not] ship merchandise in a timely manner.” On the heels of a settlement entered into between the FTC and the Southern California-based fast fashion company almost a year ago, the government agency revealed that it “is sending refunds to more than 500,000 people,” noting that in addition to failing to ship products within the “fast shipping” time frame it promised, Fashion Nova further ran afoul of federal law when it “did not offer customers the option to cancel [the delayed] orders, and opted to issue gift cards to compensate customers for unshipped merchandise instead of providing refunds.”

In a statement on Thursday, the FTC asserted that it is “providing more than $6.5 million in payments to 518,552 consumers, including more than 40,000 consumers who live outside the United States in 169 different countries.” The distribution of the refunds – which amount to $12.60 per individual consumer – follows from an agreement between Fashion Nova and the FTC that settled charges lodged against Fashion Nova.
Continue Reading The FTC is Paying Out $6.5 Million to Consumers in Connection with Fashion Nova Settlement

Maryland became the first U.S. state to create a digital advertising tax on February 12, 2021. The Digital Advertising Gross Revenue Tax (DAGRT) was originally passed in March of 2020, but subsequently vetoed by Maryland Governor, Larry Hogan. Maryland’s legislature voted to override the Governor’s veto, however. The contentious journey for DAGRT passage is likely to be overshadowed by a litigious future.

DAGRT (full text here) imposes a progressive tax on the sale of digital advertising services’ gross revenue within the state. DAGRT focuses on large providers of digital advertising services; entities with revenue exceeding $100 million. The rate of the tax imposed, based on global revenue, is 2.5% for annual global gross receipts of $100 million to $1 billion, 5% for gross receipts of $1 billion to $5 billion, 7.5% for gross receipts of $5 billion to $15 billion, and 10% for gross receipts exceeding $15 billion. The rate then applies to digital advertising services’ gross revenue in Maryland. However, DAGRT does require all entities with an annual gross revenue derived from digital advertising services within the state over $1 million to file a specialized tax return. DAGRT’s focus on large providers of digital advertising services might incentivize these providers to find avenues to avoid the tax by changing their digital advertising strategies. For example, more companies may offer advertisement-free subscription options. It’s also possible that the companies faced with paying the tax may simply pass the cost on to the smaller businesses purchasing the advertisements and to consumers.
Continue Reading Maryland’s Digital Advertising Tax: A Contentious Start, and an Uncertain Future

Companies in the online marketplace have been paying close attention to Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA) in recent weeks and months. As noted in our previous client alert, CDA Section 230 “is a powerful law that provides websites, blogs, and social networks that host third-party speech with liability