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FTC's 'Operation Full Disclosure' Targets TV, Print Ads

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on September 26, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The FTC is here to drink milk and kick butt -- and it just finished its milk. Operation Full Disclosure is an FTC initiative designed to encourage truth in advertising. According to a press release, the FTC sent warning letters to 60 advertisers regarding factual claims and disclaimers in TV and print ads.

Weight loss ads were targeted for not noting that the results embodied in testimonials weren't typical. Ads claiming a "free trial" of a product didn't say that the consumer had to pay for shipping. And so on.

What's the Point?

The point is that federal law prohibits advertisements from being misleading. The FTC's guidelines on this are pretty simple: Disclaimers shouldn't be in teensy-point font, and temporally, a disclaimer should appear on the screen when it applies and should be there long enough to be read.

A Nickel's Worth of Free Advice

If you're an ad agency, or deal with ad agencies, or if your company handles its own advertising, here are a few tips for complying with the FTC's guidelines:

  • A "free trial" isn't free if it requires some expenditure on the consumer's part. Especially grating are those Columbia House-type transactions where the first month is free -- but the customer gets charged every month thereafter, with inconspicuous notice.
  • Don't take satisfaction survey results wildly out of context, as Verizon did in a TV ad for its fiber optic Internet service. Consumerist discovered that the differences between, say, Verizon and Comcast were incredibly minor -- but Verizon magnified them by focusing only on the tail end of the graphs.
  • Health claims need to be supported by research, and not just any research. Good research. This means you, POM Wonderful.
  • If a commercial shows a product doing something it can't actually do, that's probably misleading. (This sounds like a Jeff Foxworthy bit.) Case in point: a commercial for the Nissan Frontier showing the truck "pushing a dune buggy up a steep hill" -- which was the product of CGI and special effects.

Essentially, if you have to resort to some kind of trickery -- or if you're asking, "Is this deceptive?" -- then it probably is deceptive. The letters the FTC sent to the 60 advertisers don't constitute legal action, as such: It's just a heads-up that they're watching.

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