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What You Say Can and May Be Held Against You

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What You Say Can and May Be Held Against You


Good advertising can help you attract customers and help you sell your services. Erroneous or misleading advertising can get you in serious trouble with the government, competitors, or unsatisfied customers.

Here are some tips to make sure your advertising is both effective and appropriate.

Advertising is everything. And everything is advertising. In the past, traditional advertising was generally limited to print, television and radio spots. In today’s digital age, advertising covers so much more, including digital or web-based advertising which includes, e-mails, websites, and blogs, mobile advertising, social media, customer endorsements and testimonials, even exhibits at trade shows or conventions. You can reach more customers and prospects in more ways than ever – and everything you say about your products and services is advertising.

Why does this matter? Because every state has laws governing consumer advertising, and states attorneys general, consumers and competitors can challenge your advertising. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also has regulations and guidelines that cover how and what companies can say in their advertising, no matter what the forum.

Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. All of the claims – direct or indirect – that you make about your company, products and services must be truthful, and cannot be deceptive or misleading. And you must have proof that your claims are truthful before you make them.

What kind of proof? That depends on the type of product or service, and the claim. Your proof has to be relevant to the customer, so if you make performance claims about products, you need testing related to the advertised model of the product that reflects real-world use. If you want to say that customers prefer you to other providers, you can’t just poll 10 of your best customers and say “10 out of 10 customers prefer us over other companies.” You need appropriate customer surveys to back that up. And making “best” claims – the region’s best, the industry’s best, or the best value for the price – requires proof of superiority over virtually all of your competitors’ products and services.

When don’t you have to back up your statements? When your statements are opinions or exaggerated claims that no reasonable customer would take as the truth. Barnum & Bailey’s “Greatest Show on Earth,” is a classic example.

Your advertising also has to disclose clearly all of the information that would affect a customer’s buying decision (cost, terms of service, any limitations or condition on the offer, for example). Don’t hide the information in the fine print! Terms and conditions have to be easy to find and close to the statements they apply to.

If you can’t say something nice, that’s okay (sometimes). For instance, saying that your products and services are better in some manner rather than your competitors’ can be very effective. And it’s okay to do so, as long as the comparisons are truthful and not deceptive, and are about specific features of your products or services that can be measured (like technology, pricing or value).

Be social! Social media can be a very effective way to engage with your customers and prospects—and it is advertising. Unlike traditional advertising, which is one-way messaging from you to your audience, social media is a 24/7, real-time conversation. It has big advantages and carries some big risks. Social media is fast and forever – once you hit send on your post or tweet, you’ve almost instantly reached hundreds, thousands or even (if you’re lucky) millions in your audience. A poorly planned social media campaign can go wrong quickly and with really devastating results to your company’s brand and reputation. And what you post lives on the Internet forever, even if the platform allows you to edit or remove the original post. Because it’s a two-way conversation, you also have less control over your advertising message on social media. You can control what you say, but not what others post on your Facebook, Twitter or other social media channels, and it all reflects on your company and your brand. Think carefully ahead of time about your social media plans.

You’re being watched. If you think your company is too small or serves too small an area to attract the attention of a government agency or can be sued, think again! The FTC and state attorneys general have the resources and are always on duty when it comes to consumer protection, especially when it comes to advertising products and services related to consumer safety. State laws are also designed to be consumer friendly, so while one unhappy customer might be a little problem, a group of them might be a lawsuit.

To learn more about this topic, click here to read the Federal Trade Commission’s Advertising FAQ’s.