Deceptive marketing—how to avoid brand damage and regulatory scrutiny

Handle reviews honestly

Consumer reviews are a major deciding factor in the e-commerce world. Recognizing the importance of honest reviews, FTC proposed changes to its Endorsement Guides to specify that misrepresenting consumers’ opinions is misleading. The commission has also proposed a rule that would enhance enforcement powers over deceptive and unfair review practices. These developments are unsurprising in light of the FTC’s focus in this space, including actions against Roomster as well as Cure Encapsulations, a third-party supplier of fake reviews, for paying another third party to post fake positive reviews; Sunday Riley for having employees post reviews; and Fashion Nova for blocking negative reviews.

The NAD found issue with ranking sites claiming objectivity but boosting affiliate companies over others. And at least some state attorneys general are taking action against brands seeking to limit consumers’ ability to post honest reviews—including a Washington State lawsuit against a surgery center that sought to contractually limit patients’ ability to post negative reviews in violation of the federal Consumer Review Fairness Act.

With this backdrop in mind, here are best practices marketers should prioritize in 2023:

Substantiation is key

Modify broad claims to tout the specific green benefits that your brand can substantiate. Ensure that your green claims are properly narrowed, qualified, and backed with matching substantiation. Make sure that even your aspirational claims are substantiated across the board. An aspirational claim that might be found substantiated by a court could very likely be found lacking by the NAD, FTC or U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Review influencer and agency contracts

With the possibility that the FTC may place liability on intermediaries for their role in disseminating deceptive endorsements, review your influencer and agency contracts with an eye to compliance obligations and indemnifications.

Strengthen your influencer compliance programs

Have a strong compliance program for influencers. Key ingredients include: (1) providing influencers with materials on FTC’s guidance; (2) explicitly instructing influencers to disclose material connections; (3) monitoring posts for compliance and; (4) taking immediate action to revise or delete non-compliant content.

Let reviews speak for themselves

Buying, manufacturing or otherwise manipulating reviews to artificially inflate your brand could be met with an enforcement action. Further, make sure that all incentivized reviews are properly disclosed in a non-misleading manner.