Retail & Consumer Products Law Observer

Retail & Consumer Products Law Observer

Legal Insight for the Retail and Consumer Products Industry

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

Posted in Advertising & Product Risk Management

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.

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

Posted in Advertising & Product Risk Management, Consumer Class Action

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.

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Five California Communities Settle Auto-Renewal Claims with Online Dating Company eHarmony for More than $2 Million

Posted in Advertising & Product Risk Management

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

 

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

Posted in Advertising & Product Risk Management

© Thinkstock

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.

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“Do Not Resuscitate”: Lessons for Advertisers

Posted in Advertising & Product Risk Management

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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Subverting Democracy, Advertising, and the Economy Through Bots

Posted in Advertising & Product Risk Management

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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Quincy Biosciences: What the decision means for advertising of health claims, and what it means to the FTC

Posted in Advertising & Product Risk Management

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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It’s Only A Game. Or Is It? Advergaming In The Digital Age

Posted in Advertising & Product Risk Management

Consumers are winning in the digital age. And marketing teams are being forced to think outside of the box.

© Getty Images

According to a recent study, people would rather give up their spouse, or go to prison if it means they won’t lose their smartphone. On top of that, consumers are “cutting” or “shaving” the cord to traditional television and demanding more flexibility in how they view content. Nielsen data shows that between 2011 and 2017, traditional TV viewing by 18-24 year olds dropped by almost 12 hours a week, or by roughly 1 hour 40 minutes per day. In addition, online advertisers are employing targeted advertising whereby consumers are exposed to ads that reflect their interests. As a consequence, consumers are becoming increasingly difficult for marketers to reach and businesses are struggling to find ways to bridge this gap.

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Soda Stays Safe in San Francisco

Posted in Advertising & Product Risk Management, Product Liability & Torts

© Getty Images

Ninth Circuit Blocks Sweet Drink Warning Labels Pending Free Speech Lawsuit

The Ninth Circuit dealt a blow to the war on sugar last month, calling the warning labels a San Francisco ordinance would require on sweet drinks “deceptive” and blocking the mandate on free speech grounds. As we have discussed before, cities and counties across the nation have been launching an offensive against sugar for years. Favorite methods of attack include bans on large sugary drinks, taxes on sugar in drinks by volume, and now, warning labels.

While the USDA, FDA, and American Heart Association all have backed policies aimed at limiting sugar consumption, these policies have received mixed reviews from consumers and courts. A state judge knocked down the New York City ban on large sodas in 2013, calling it “arbitrary and capricious.” More recently, sugar taxes have been protested by unions in Philadelphia, sparked class-action litigation in Illinois, and were outright repealed in Cook County after only three months of implementation because residents began crossing state and county lines to avoid them.

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Report on the Autonomous Vehicle Safety Regulation World Congress 2017

Posted in Privacy & Data Protection, Product Liability & Torts

The big takeaways from The Autonomous Vehicle Safety Regulation World Congress centered on the importance of a federal scheme for AV regulation and the reality of the states’ interest in traditional issues such as traffic enforcement, product liability, and insurance coverage. In keeping with those messages, the World Congress kicked off with NHTSA Deputy Administrator and Acting Director, Heidi King, speaking about NHTSA’s goals and interest followed almost immediately with wide participation from the states including California, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, among others.

Deputy Administrator King emphasized NHTSA’s desire to foster an environment of collaboration among all stakeholders, including the states.  Ms. King emphasized that safety remains the top priority at NHTSA.  NHTSA has provided some guidance, and looks forward to hearing from stakeholders about the best way to support and encourage growth in autonomous vehicles.  NHTSA wants to provide a flexible frame work to keep the door open for private sector innovation.  It is necessary to build public trust and confidence in the safety of autonomous vehicles, and that can only accomplished by all stakeholders working together.

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