FTC Updates Online Ad Guidelines for a High-Tech Mobile World

The FTC has issued updated guidelines for online advertisers so that, from tweets to radio ads, there's more truth in advertising.

The Federal Trade Commission is back to tackling the challenge of avoiding deception in advertising. The organization announced an update to its guidelines for online advertisers, titled "Dot-Com Disclosures," which seeks to address the "dramatic changes" that have taken place online during the 11 years since its last guidelines were published.

The new guidelines emphasize that consumer protection laws apply equally across media, whether a radio ad, television commercial or a tweet; that when practical, advertisers should incorporate relevant qualifying information, rather than having a separate disclosure; that disclosures should be clear and conspicuous; and that if a disclosure can't be made effectively, then an advertiser should go in search of a Plan B.

"If an advertisement without a disclosure would be deceptive or unfair, or would otherwise violate a commission rule, and the disclosure cannot be made clearly and conspicuously on a device or platform, then that device or platform should not be used," the FTC said in a March 12 statement.

In its new guidelines, the FTC also got a bit stricter—a necessary thing, given that online content is now much more frequently being viewed on mobile devices with smaller viewing real estate. While the 2000 guidelines defined disclosure proximity as "near, and when possible, on the same screen," the updated version insists disclosures be "as close as possible" to the claim.

Other major updates include advising advertisers to avoid including disclosures in pop-up windows, which are often blocked, and addressing the tricky business of including a disclosure in an ad space as limited as a tweet.

In some instances in its lengthy guidelines, the FTC's advice came across as helpfully as a parent suggesting a kid wear a coat over a Halloween costume.

In one example, a tweet by a fictional celebrity reads, "Shooting movie beach scene. Had to lose 30lbs in 6 wks. Thanks Fat-away Pills for making it easy. bit.ly/f56"

The disclosure is in the bit.ly link and may not be read; the star's weight loss wasn't typical, which also wasn't mentioned; and it's not completely clear that the tweet is an ad, the FTC pointed out.

It suggested instead the more upfront tweet: "Ad: Shooting movie beach scene. Had to lose 30lbs in 6 wks. Thanks Fat-away Pills for making it easy. Typical loss: 1lb/wk."

In a print ad for a Frost-a-tron cooler that a user on a road trip might stock with "sandwiches, cold drinks, fried chicken ... fresh and cold," the FTC suggested that instead of a "disclaimer" link, the ad state in equally large font: "Frost-a-tron may not keep perishable food items cold enough to prevent the growth of bacteria when the temperature is over 80 degrees F ... Use in these conditions could lead to food-borne illness."

The FTC said in its conclusion that while "online commerce (including mobile and social marketing) is booming, deception can dampen consumer confidence in the online marketplace. To ensure that products and service are described truthfully online and that consumers get what they pay for, the FTC will continue to enforce its consumer-protection laws."

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