Photo of Christopher A. Cole
© Getty Images

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.


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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?

© Getty Images

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.


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The word “bot” is a double-entendre. It refers both to the larval stage of the bot-fly, a rather gruesome internal parasite (warning, link not for the squeamish) and to a software application that runs automated scripts on the internet in highly repetitive fashion—also with parasitic effects. Internet bots can be programmed for good or evil. This post refers to the latter kind.

© Thinkstock

Use of Bots for Ad Fraud

The dominant model of compensation for digital advertising remains the CPM, or cost per thousand impressions. Impressions are simply ad views, that is, the successful delivery of a specific advertisement to a consumer’s web browser. (We adopt the fiction that it has been “viewed” so long as it appears for some period of time on the consumer’s screen.) There is robust debate on what an impression actually means with respect to non-static ads, such as videos, for which compensation may flow even if the consumer sees only a few seconds of the entire video. A publisher, such as a website, will offer advertisers a sliver of their online real-estate at a given CPM rate, and will thereafter be compensated by advertisers at that rate for how many impressions have been generated.


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You may have seen the commercial on late night television. A glowing image of a human brain appears (along with a disclosure stating “dramatization”), with flashing lights pulsing through a crisscrossed mesh, depicting nerves. The voiceover intones, “Your brain is an amazing thing. But as you get older, it begins to change, causing a lack of sharpness or even trouble with recall.” So far, so good. Who, of a certain age, hasn’t experienced these symptoms?

The voiceover continues: “Thankfully, the breakthrough in Prevagen helps your brain and actually improves memory.” The flashing lights grow stronger and zoom more quickly across the neural net. “The secret is an ingredient originally discovered in jellyfish. In clinical trials, Prevagen has been shown to improve short term memory. Prevagen, the name to remember.”

A screen shot of the key frame, showing a graph of what appears to be recall improvement over time appears, along with a disclosure that states that “in a computer assessed, double-blinded, placebo controlled study, Prevagen improved recall tasks in subjects.”

© Prevagen


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Last December, authorities arrested Edgar Welch, a 28-year old man from Salisbury, North Carolina, who had entered Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor, armed with a shot gun. Mr. Welch reportedly came to Comet Ping Pong on a self-described mission to free child sex slaves that he believed might be imprisoned there at the bidding of Hillary Clinton and her campaign Chief of Staff, John Podesta. After Welch shot his gun into the ceiling, terrified employees fled the building. Then, after encountering swarms of local police, and having found no evidence of the vast conspiracy he had been led by social media to believe existed, he gave himself up peacefully to authorities.

As outlandish as the story may seem, Mr. Welch was not the only one duped by the story. For weeks, dozens of anonymous posters had fanned the flames and pursued the imaginary conspiracy theory on Reddit.com, a hugely popular social news aggregation site.

This fake conspiracy was likely fueled in part by armies of “bots,” which are fake social media accounts often purchased and organized centrally, and mobilized to push a particular opinion or agenda and sway public opinion. It is surprisingly easily to purchase bots online. For example, Russian websites, such as BuyAces, sell empty social media accounts to anyone willing to pay with digital currency. Once purchased, programmers can enable these accounts to disseminate information or respond to news stories en masse. It is widely reported that Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, is investigating whether the Russian government used such tactics to influence the last election.

What does this have to do with advertising, you might ask? Everything.


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This alert has been prepared in collaboration with Canada’s Fasken Martineau law firm. Mr. Di Domenico is a partner and regional chair of the firm’s Antitrust/Competition & Marketing Group in Toronto. Chris Cole is Co-Chair of Crowell’s Advertising & Product Risk Management Group in Washington, D.C.


In less than three months, Canada will introduce a private right of action arising from false or misleading representations made in electronic messages. These provisions target false or misleading advertisements in, for example, email and social media and arguably capture website advertising based on the law’s broad definition of “electronic message.” Government-initiated enforcement of these provisions has already taken place through Canada’s Competition Bureau since 2014, which has led to Consent Agreements against Avis, Budget (following a contested application), Amazon, Hertz, and Dollar Thrifty. Even more concerning, the law applies statutory penalties to each violation. The closest United States analog to such a law would be the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which carries penalties for violation of up to $1500 per violation.


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This year, digital media spending is expected to outstrip spending on traditional media, such as television and print. Advertisers, lured by the promise of precise targeting, better ability to measure return on investment, and changing consumer media consumption patterns, have poured money into digital at an almost exponential rate. And, while there are studies (largely by digital media agencies) documenting the effectiveness of such advertising, there remain major questions regarding the effectiveness and efficiency of such spending.


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Federal Trade Commission
Federal Trade Commission

Presidential advisor Steve Bannon famously told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that the Trump Administration seeks to “deconstruct” the regulatory state. The President has issued several Executive Orders (EOs) on regulations designed to implement this policy, including the “two for one” EO, an EO on enforcing the regulatory agenda, and an EO on reorganizing the executive branch.  The three orders collectively promote a policy of deregulation and wholesale elimination of administrative functions deemed overly burdensome to business, redundant, or outdated.

This week, the White House followed through on that agenda by publishing a proposed budget that would impose sweeping budget reductions on almost every federal agency, with the exception of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.

The key consumer protection agencies—the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—are not directly subject to any of these EOs or addressed in the President’s Budget Request. But that does not mean these agencies are in the clear in terms of budget-cutting or deregulatory efforts.  Rather, it seems more likely that the administration is preoccupied with bigger fish at the moment; in the meantime, they are treading carefully.  Which raises the question:  what else is in store for these agencies once they regain the Trump Administration’s focus?


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The incoming administration promises big changes to federal consumer protection administration and enforcement. On January 5, 2017, Crowell & Moring’s Advertising & Product Risk Management Group hosted a webinar in which they discussed likely changes on the horizon to the Federal Trade Commission, Federal Communications Commission, and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

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Gavel 2

On May 4, 2016, Crowell & Moring LLP will host a complimentary seminar on Advertising for Associations in their Washington, DC office. This afternoon program will focus on key issues affecting advertising communications and public relations strategies of major trade associations. It brings together leading trade association executives and lawyers, public relations specialists, and ad