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Ad copy crosses the line when it misrepresents a product or when it claims a benefit that doesn't actually exist. According to the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), your advertising must meet three important requirements:
- It must be truthful and non-deceptive.
- You must have evidence to back up your claims.
- Your advertisements cannot be unfair.
If these FTC advertising directives sound a little vague, that's because they are. There is a lot of room for interpretation, but, through a series of cases and negotiations, the FTC and the business community have settled on truth-in-advertising rules and guidelines that you can follow to help you create responsible ad copy.
What's Does the FTC Consider to Be Illegal Advertising?
The FTC defines deceptive advertising as ads that are likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances and are important to a consumer's decision to buy or use the product. Similarly, the FTC defines an ad as unfair if it causes or is likely to cause substantial consumer injury which a consumer could not reasonably avoid and it is not outweighed by the benefit to consumers. In plain English, that means your ads can't intentionally mislead consumers to encourage them to buy your products or to buy products that could cause them harm.
What Criteria Does the FTC Use to Evaluate Advertising?
The FTC approaches every ad through the lens of a "reasonable consumer", and considers the words, phrases, and pictures the ad uses to communicate its message to consumers. They may also consider any of the ad's implied claims as well as the things the ad doesn't say, especially if withheld information can be used to mislead consumers. They also look for objective third-party evidence to support exceptional claims – customer testimonials and in-house testing won't suffice. Not surprisingly, the FTC is especially diligent about tracking the claims of health-related products and claims that are extremely difficult for the average person to verify on his own (e.g. a light bulb that burns 50% more efficiently than the competition.)
Tips for Staying Legal When Advertising
Staying on the right side of FTC advertising regulations is fairly straightforward. Here are a few tips to ensure that your advertising is legal, ethical and responsible:
- Provide full disclosure and avoid making wild claims that can't be verified by a third-party, especially for products that can injure or harm your customers.
- Monitor your ads for misinformation and misrepresentations, no matter how innocent they may seem.
- Apply ethical and legal advertising practices to all of your advertising mediums – including your online advertising initiatives.
- Stay current on new regulations and changes in advertising law.