State Attorneys General
National Advertising Division Recommends that Pier 1 Provide Enhanced Clear and Conspicuous Automatic Renewal Program Disclosures
As part of the independent, non-profit BBB National Programs, the National Advertising Division independently evaluates and regulates the truth and accuracy of national advertising. It also works to increase the public’s confidence in advertising. The NAD also offers dispute resolution process for advertisers.
Recently, the NAD reviewed Pier 1’s automatic renewal subscription rewards loyalty program that charges consumers a recurring monthly or annual fee for products discounts, and free shipping and returns on select items. In doing so, the NAD recommended that the company provide enhanced “clear and conspicuous” disclosures.
As described by the NAD, items added to a consumer’s cart on the company website automatically include the rewards subscription via a pre-checked box. Additionally, the terms of the renewal subscription program appeared under the pre-checked box. According to the NAD, consumers are required to take affirmative action to uncheck the box to opt-out of the automatically renewing subscription and cost related thereto.
According to the NAD, one issue was whether promoting a lower price for a product or service is deceptive if that price is only made available to those that agree to the automatically renewing subscription. The other issue was whether the material terms of the automatic renewal subscription program were “clearly and conspicuously” disclosed prior to a consumer’s decision to make a purchase.
The NAD ultimately concluded that, unless the terms of the automatically renewing subscription are appropriately disclosed, it is misleading to promote a discounted price if the discount is only available when a consumer consents to a subscription.
On November 2, 2022, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that a group of companies offering lead generation services violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule and Pennsylvania consumer protection law. Specifically, the OAG alleges two unlawful advertising practices.
The first unlawful ad practice allegation is that the defendants utilized deceptive online advertisements to direct consumers to websites where they would purportedly be tricked into providing contact information and survey responses. The second unlawful ad practice allegation claims that consumers’ contact information and responses were sold to telemarketers despite numbers being on state of national Do No Call registries.
As stated in the complaint, defendants operate “dozens of websites designed for lead generating” that advertise “gift cards to popular retailers and digital payments to mobile apps” for answering various survey questions. According to the OAG, the websites require visitors to provide personal contact information and click a box indicating consent to mouseprint disclosures stating that consumer will receive prerecorded calls and text messages from marketing partners (the names thereof are disclosed to by a hyperlinked list). According to the OAG, these sellers’ products and services are oftentimes not related to the promotional offerings whatsoever.
Here, according to the OAG’s complaint, the websites violate state consumer protection law because they “create a likelihood of confusion or of misunderstanding” by “failing to include clear and conspicuous disclosures advising consumers that by registering their contact information with defendants they are purportedly consenting to be contacted by multiple third party sellers,
The Federal Trade Commission aggressively enforces the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (“ROSCA”) against online marketers that offer Internet-based automatic renewals and subscriptions. Basically, ROSCA requires the clear and conspicuous disclosure of material terms, affirmative consent to certain cancellation requirements in online transactions.
The FTC has the ability to seek monetary relief, in addition to injunctive relief, for ROSCA violations. A violation of ROSCA is considered an unfair deceptive act or practice which subjects sellers to civil monetary penalties. State attorneys general may also have a cause of action.
What are the Bascis of a ROSCA Violation?
Some rather obvious components of a ROSCA violation include, but not are not limited to, a misleading “risk-free” trial offer, an undisclosed charge if consumers do not quickly cancel the “risk-free” trial, an undisclosed automatic shipment program that sends consumers unordered merchandise, difficult to follow upsells that add another layer of confusion, unlawful charges to consumers’ credit or debit cards, difficult cancellation procedures, straw owners that conceal operators’ activities and/or conceal operations from payment processing entities and banks.
Do Individual States Have Their own Automatic Renewal Laws?
Automatic renewal and subscription laws (ARLs) are in place in a number of states. Many have even recently amended and bolstered their ARLs. Failure to comply can result in private plaintiff actions, class action lawsuits and regulatory action.
At the state level, approximately two-dozen states have implemented ARL legislation. Some states impose additional consent and disclosure requirements if the subscription begins with a free trial.
“Up to” representations in promotional materials often draw regulatory and private plaintiff scrutiny insofar as whether such claims are truthful and can be properly substantiated. Which begs the question … how can an advertiser lawfully substantiate “up to” claims?
It may depend upon various factors, including, but not limited to, the context in which the “up to” claim is made, whether the claim is unqualified, and whether applicable conditions, limitations, exclusions and restrictions have been appropriately disclosed. It may also depend upon whether the matter involves the Federal Trade Commission, state attorneys general or a private plaintiff false advertising lawsuit. And/or, upon the forum in which the legal or regulatory matter has been initiated, such as state court, federal court or the National Advertising Division. Consumer perception testing prior to disseminating such claims can also be a useful tool when combating false advertising claims.
For example, at least one federal court has appeared to apply a “ceiling” test. Would reasonable consumers understand such language to be a floor rather than a ceiling that can be achieved under limited circumstances? Do the claims expressly or implied promise the best, maximum result? Is it implausible that reasonable consumers would be deceived? Would reasonable consumers understand such language to be a guarantee? Would reasonable consumers understand such language to be a promise?
Now, consider the National Advertising Division.
The NAD often considers whether an “appreciable number” of consumers actually achieve the top range of the claimed benefit under circumstances normally and expectably encountered by consumers.
In 2019 and in response to a competitor challenge, the National Advertising Division ruled on the “#1 Rated” claim made by TaxSlayer LLC in its promotional messages. In doing so, the NAD recommended that TaxSlayer discontinue the unsubstantiated representation.
More specifically, the claims at issue included “Slay your taxes. So you can enjoy your refund. Maximize your refund with TaxSlayer. #1 rated on Trustpilot” and “#1 Rated in the Tax Prep Software Category on Trustpilot. Start free today!”
Theer was a disclosure that stated that the foregoing claims were “based on more than 2300 verified customer reviews on Trustpilot. TaxSlayer has 1500+ 5-star reviews, and 84% of TaxSlayer customers rate TaxSlayer Great or Excellent on Trustpilot. Learn more at trustpilot.com/review/taxslayer.”
The NAD opined that for “#1 Rated” claims, advertisers should compare themselves with at least 85% of the applicable marketplace, and the consumers surveyed should represent a broad base of customers that used the product.
According to the NAD, TaxSlayer did not satisfy such requirements because the population of online reviews that created the basis for Trustpilot’s score allegedly failed to represent the general opinion of tax preparation software consumers across the United States. The NAD also rejected TaxSlayer’s argument that a consumer could simply visit the Trustpilot website to clarify any confusion about its ranking.
“Consumers should not have to search to learn more about the limitations on an advertising claim,” said the NAD. “Here, while the claim informs consumers that it is limited to companies in the tax prep software category on a certain website,
Federal Trade Commision (FTC) investigation and litigation defense attorney Richard B. Newman has written an authoritative article on JD Supra for digital marketers and FTC practice counsel. JD Supra is a need-to-know news, insights and intelligence source that publishes and distributes valuable content produced by thought leading experts on myriad topics across numerous industries and fields, including advertising legal regulatory matters.
The article examines, in depth, the purpose of FTC civil investigative demands (CIDs), considerations relating to the nature substance of the initial response and subsequent responses, defense strategies, how to evaluate whether the recipient is a “target,” the importance of the “meet and confer” process, liability exposure and business disruption minimization tactics, persuasive written advocacy submissions, lodging objections to a CID, petitions to limit or quash, enforcement action avoidance and monetary fine minimization, how to avoid negative publicity, investigation closure and how to achieve an optimal resolution.
The article covers numerous steps that CID recipients should consider prior to, during and after learning that they are the subject of an FTC investigation.
You can read the article titled The Art of Responding to an FTC CID by an FTC CID Lawyer on JD Supra, here. An article authored by FTC lawyer Richard B. Newman titled Considerations for Digital Marketers When Selecting Regulatory Investigation Defense Counsel is also available on JD Supra, here.
About This Blog and Hinch Newman’s Advertising + Marketing Practice
Hinch Newman LLP’s advertising and marketing practice includes successfully resolving some of the highest-profile Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and state attorneys general digital advertising and telemarketing investigations and enforcement actions. The firm possesses superior knowledge and deep legal experience in the areas of advertising, marketing, lead generation, promotions, e-commerce, privacy and intellectual property law. Through these advertising and marketing law updates, Hinch Newman provides commentary, news and analysis on issues and trends concerning developments of interest to digital marketers, including FTC and state attorneys general advertising compliance, civil investigative demands (CIDs), and administrative/judicial process. This blog is sponsored by Hinch Newman LLP.