The law forbids businesses from including baseless statements or assertions in their advertisements. According to the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA), a business must ensure that their representations are not misleading or unfair, and the entity must have data that supports all claims. Evidence may, for example, be substantiated based by surveys, expert testimony, or scientific studies and tests.
A “deceptive” advertisement, as described in the FTC’s “Deception Policy Statement” is one that suggests or omits a critical fact in an attempt to mislead customers. Similarly, an “unfair” advertisement is categorized as one using a deceptive practice that may result, or has resulted in, significant customer harm. Typically, the harm caused could not be avoided by the customer, and minimal benefit is experienced by any of the clientele engaging in the same practice.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is charged with investigating national ads to determine whether they are fraudulent. Local advertising, on the other hand, is usually the domain of agencies of the county, state, or city, such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB). In both cases, certain criteria are used to evaluate the “words, phrases, and pictures” within the endorsement to identify potential deception. Deception is characterized as that which a “reasonable consumer” would falsely believe to be true. All investigations are confidential until legal action is commenced or a claim is settled.
There are several remedies available for deceptive claims, including the issuance of a cease and desist order. Such an order prohibits a business from continuing to disseminate misleading or dishonest advertisements. A cease and desist order is often combined with substantial fines or with a requirement that the offending company authenticate any and all future ads. Other penalties may compel a business to notify its customers of the false ads, or to provide refunds for falsely advertised purchases.
Unfair competition may also come into play in cases of deceptive advertising. Companies that feel they have been unfairly treated by competitors may have legal recourse. The National Advertising Division (NAD) is associated with the BBB, and an aggrieved party may file a cause of action against a competitor through NAD. Depending on the specific circumstances, a business may have the legal authority to sue its rival for posting deceptive ads under the Lanham (Trademark) Act. Individuals who feel their businesses have been harmed by the false or deceptive advertising practices of a competitor may have remedies available to them. A reputable business attorney is in the best position to give advice about which course of action should be pursued.