NAD Sheds Light on Comparisons Against “Regular” Products

Advertisers who want to tout the comparative advantages of their products have a number of options for framing those comparisons. For example, they can compare their products to specific products, they can compare their products to defined categories of products, or they can more vaguely compare their products to “regular,” “ordinary,” or “other” products. Although many companies think that making a vague comparison is a safer option, a new NAD decision demonstrates that it’s usually not the case.

Telebrands advertised its Atomic Beam flashlight by making various comparisons to “regular” and “ordinary” flashlights. For example, a TV commercial Atomic Beamcompares the brightness of the Atomic Beam to a “regular” flashlight with a “feeble” light output. And a chart on the company’s website compares the Atomic Beam to “ordinary” flashlights across five attributes, with the Atomic Beam coming out on top. Although some of ads don’t specify what a “regular” or “ordinary” flashlight is, others explain that “the comparison is based on a base model LED flashlight of a major manufacturer.”

Energizer argued that the ads were misleading, for a number of reasons. For example, the company argued that because the basis of comparison is not clear, reasonable consumers will interpret “ordinary” flashlights broadly to mean all flashlights priced similarly to the Atomic Beam. In reality, Telebrands had only tested against one flashlight and, although some of the comparisons may have been true against that specific flashlight, the comparisons were not true against many popular flashlights in the same price range.

The NAD agreed that the ads were misleading, noting that one message reasonably conveyed by the ads is that the Atomic Beam “is brighter and more durable than most flashlights, with features not found in most flashlights. Another reasonable takeaway is that ‘ordinary’ and ‘regular’ are a reference to the best-selling flashlights, or to flashlights sold at similar or lesser price points than the Atomic Beam.” Tests that compared the Atomic Beam to a single flashlight that was neither very popular nor very typical in terms of performance were not sufficient to support the broad claims.

As this decision demonstrates, vague comparisons often create more problems than they solve because they could be read to apply to many products. Not only does that increase your substantiation obligations, it increases the number of competitors who might want to challenge you.

Slack Fill Plaintiffs May Win Battles But Lose the War

Lawyers who file “slack-fill” cases against food manufacturers found a friendly venue in Missouri.  Missouri has a broad consumer fraud law and multiple courts have denied motions to dismiss slack-fill claims pleaded under that statute.  But the real fight in class actions—where the money is, in a bank robber’s parlance—is over class certification, and on Tuesday, a Missouri judge denied certification in one of the closely-watched slack-fill cases against a candy maker.

In White v. Just Born, Inc., a Missouri case against the maker of Mike and Ike® candies, it was no great shock that the Court denied multi-state class certification.  Convincing a court to certify a multi-state class is a tough slog for plaintiffs in any state law-based case, especially so if the case has only one plaintiff, rather than a plaintiff from each of the states in question.  Even a single-state class can pose the threat of massive statutory damages, however, so the real victory in White was the Court’s refusal to certify even a Missouri-only class.

The plaintiff in White bought two boxes of the defendant’s candy at a dollar store.  He pleaded that he personally “attached importance” to the “size” of the candy boxes and thought he was buying “more Product than [he] actually received.”  Bully for him, the Court thought, but “the question of whether any [consumer fraud] violation injured each class member will require individualized inquiry” because “if an individual [already] knew how much slack-fill was in a candy box before he purchased it, he suffered no injury.”  It does not matter at the class certification stage that a “reasonable consumer” may have been deceived.  What matters instead is whether the practice actually caused injury to all putative class members in a common and centrally determinable manner. In a slack-fill case over a dollar’s worth of candy, it seems, it cannot. Continue Reading

Some Sanity on “Slack Fill”

The “Show Me” state of Missouri has not been kind to candy makers in cases where consumers allege that packages contain non-functional “slack fill.”  Cases against the makers of Mike and Ike® candies, Raisinets®, and Reese’s® Pieces® all survived motions to dismiss within the last year or so, with judges finding that what “reasonable consumers” would and would not notice could not be determined without discovery. California has been fertile ground for these cases, too, with one candy maker just agreeing to a $2.5 million settlement of slack-fill claims. In New York, however, these claims have been much more likely to be greeted with the judicial equivalent of “give me a break,” and Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in the Southern District of New York delivered a classic of the genre yesterday.

In the dock in yesterday’s case was the maker of Junior Mints®.  Plaintiffs claimed that different-size boxes of the tasty treats contain between 35-43 percent empty air.  In the plaintiffs’ opinion, “the size of the product boxes in Junior Mintscomparison to the volume of candy…makes it appear that consumers are buying more than what is actually being sold.”  Citing numerous New York cases, including one in which a plaintiff “attributes to consumers a level of stupidity that the Court cannot countenance and that is not actionable under “New York consumer fraud law, Judge Buchwald disagreed.

Judge Buchwald began her analysis with a fairly typical slack-fill analysis.  She held that the plaintiffs’ allegations about the empty space supposedly being “non-functional” were purely conclusory.  “Plaintiffs have not demonstrated, with factual assertions, that the slack-fill…is unnecessary to protect the Junior Mints, …is not the result of unavoidable product settling,” etc.  The plaintiffs also struck out when they attempted to compare the slack fill percentage of Junior Mints® and Milk Duds®.  Each product, Judge Buchwald held, must be judged according to its own physical characteristics, and mint and caramel just ain’t the same.

Plaintiffs conceivably could have bolstered their allegations to fix those shortcomings, but Judge Buchwald did not stop there.  She went on to hold that no “reasonable consumer” could have been deceived, because the Junior Mint® boxes “provide more than adequate information for a consumer to determine the amount of product contained therein.”  The weight of the candy is “prominently displayed on the front” of each box.  Then, equally importantly, each box listed the number of servings in each box and sufficient information in the “nutrition facts” to allow them to see the number of candies per serving.  Judge Buchwald thus likened the Junior Mints® case to one that another New York judge dismissed against the makers of a popular pain reliever.  “Slack fill” could not have deceived a reasonable consumer in that case because the number of pills was printed prominently on the bottle, too.

And then, the following injection of common sense:

“[C]onsumers are not operating on a tabula rasa with respect to their expectations of product fill.  To the contrary,…’no reasonable consumer expects the weight or overall size of the packaging to reflect directly the quantity of product contained therein.’….The law simply does not provide the level of coddling plaintiffs seek, [and] the Court declines to enshrine into the law an embarrassing level of mathematical illiteracy.  A reasonable consumer is capable of multiplying 3.5 by 12 (42), 4 by 12 (48), and 10 by 12 (120), the number of Junior Mints in the [three] boxes, respectively.”  Case dismissed, microphone dropped.

All That Glitters Is Not Gold: FTC Updates Jewelry Guides

The FTC recently finalized updates to its Guides for the Jewelry, Precious Metals, and Pewter Industries, which provide the FTC’s interpretation of the jewelry marketing rules found in 16 C.F.R. §23.  The FTC hosted a roundtable in 2013, which we wrote about here, and considered stakeholder comments prior to finalizing the new Guides.  The updated Guides address a number of topics, including the surface application of precious metals, below-threshold previous metal alloys, gemstone products, and “cultured” diamonds.

What’s Changed

Some highlights of the changes include advising that jewelry marketers may:

  • Qualify if a coated product only has a service layer of a precious metal;
  • Advertise a product’s precious metal coating to assure reasonable durability;
  • Disclose the purity of coatings made with precious metal alloys;
  • Qualify a product’s gold karat fineness or a parts per thousand (PPT) designation for silver products that have less than 925 PPT;
  • Use alternative words and phrases for man-made stones (where it shares the same properties as the named stone) if they clearly and conspicuously convey that the product is not a mined stone.

Continue Reading

No Post-Brexit Arrangement on Data Protection Will Affect UK-EU Trade

The European Union (EU) is preparing to treat the United Kingdom (UK) as a third country after its withdrawal from the bloc, commonly known as Brexit.  Unless a deal is agreed before 29 March 2019, the UK’s trade with the EU will be heavily impacted by regulatory restrictions, increased costs, and lengthier procedures applicable to the movements of people, goods and services.  Less obvious is the impact on trade of the “no deal” scenario from potentially restricted data flows. With only eight months left until Brexit Day, the UK and EU have yet to start talks on a data protection agreement.

Data flows play an increasingly important part in international trade and are estimated to contribute up to 2.8 trillion USD to the world economy.  In 2016 alone, EU services reliant on data exported to the UK, such as finance, telecoms and entertainment, were worth approximately 36 billion EUR. Data flows from the UK to the EU constitute as much as three-quarters of all data from the UK. Under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), however, personal data included in such data flows must be protected. For companies, this can include employee data (e.g. payroll information, biographical information, etc.) and customer data (e.g., contact information, transaction information, biographical information, social media profiles, etc.). Data flows from the EU to a third country are permitted if there is an adequacy decision by the European Commission that the third country’s data protection laws are adequate to meet the objectives of the GDPR or through another adequacy mechanism approved by the European Commission (e.g., EU-approved Binding Corporate Rules, use of Standard Contractual Clauses, etc.). Continue Reading

Second Circuit Bounces Multistate “Natural” Class. Now, Keep An Eye On the Ninth Circuit

Early this year, a Ninth Circuit panel upended a major nationwide class action settlement because it found that the District Court had not sufficiently considered material differences among the 50 states’ relevant laws.  I called that decision—now likely headed for en banc review–“Regrettable But Forgettable” because the district court should be able to correct the error the Ninth Circuit identified.  The district court had not conducted any predominance analysis at all, which always is required, even for settlement classes.  Had it done so, it very likely could have found that for settlement purposes, with no questions for a jury to try, variations in state law would not have been material.

Yesterday, the Second Circuit reminded us that for litigation classes, variations in state laws absolutely can and should tank class certification.  Langan v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Cos., No. 17-1605 (2d Cir. July 24, 2018) is a “natural” case, challenging that label on two several baby-oriented bath products.  The plaintiff allegedly purchased some in Connecticut and contended that 20 other states have similar consumer fraud laws.  The district court certified a 21-state class, after which J&J successfully petitioned the Second Circuit, under Rule 23(f), to hear an interlocutory appeal. 

J&J tried to argue that the plaintiff lacked Article III (constitutional “case or controversy”) standing to sue on behalf of purchasers in other states, but the Second Circuit rejected that contention.  “[A]s long as the named plaintiffs have standing to sue the named defendants, any concern about whether it is proper for a class to include out-of-state, nonparty class members with claims subject to different state laws is a question of predominance under Rule 23(b)(3), not a question of ‘adjudicatory competence’ under Article III.”  The court recognized some tension in case law over this question, but thought that Supreme Court guidance counseled treating “modest variations between class members’ claims as substantive questions, not jurisdictional ones.” Continue Reading

Ever Wondered What Pillows, Electric Bikes, and Neon Signs Have in Common? FTC’s “Made in USA” Enforcement On Pace With 2017

Having now turned the page to the back half of 2018, we took a look at how the FTC’s “Made in USA” enforcement is stacking up to prior years. As we previously posted, the FTC made known its intent to prioritize “Made in USA” enforcement in remarks delivered at last fall’s NAD Conference.  Year to date, the FTC has settled two cases (Bollman Hat Company and Nectar Brand LLC) and has issued 15 closing letters regarding “Made in USA” claims.

By comparison, there were two settlements and 22 closing letters in 2017. If the current pace continues, the number of closing letters may exceed prior years.

What can we learn from these cases?

  • Qualified Claims Must Still Be Substantiated: Most closing letters involve unqualified “Made in USA” claims. However, qualified claims and those involving terms open to interpretation can still be the subject of scrutiny and must still be properly substantiated. Nectar Brands allegedly claimed in promotional materials that its mattresses were “Designed and Assembled in USA,” but the FTC’s complaint alleges that the mattresses were wholly imported from China, with no assembly taking place in the United States. “Crafted in America” was also among the claims that saw enforcement as was “Built in USA.”
  • Watch For Disclosure Issues: In addition to labeling wholly imported products as “Made in USA,” the FTC alleged that Bollman Hat Company and its subsidiary licensed the “American Made Matters” seal to any company that claimed it had a United States-based manufacturing factory or one product with a U.S.-origin label, and met several membership requirements, including self-certifying that at least 50% of the cost of at least one of their products was incurred in the United States, with final assembly or transformation in the U.S., and payment of an annual licensing fee of $99. The settlement requires the respondents to engage an independent auditor regarding use of the seal or to clearly and conspicuously disclose that products and services may display the seal based on self-certification.

Continue Reading

Big Government? FTC Advocates for More Authority in Congressional Hearing

Last week, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a Committee Hearing on the Oversight of the Federal Trade Commission. All five Commissioners attended and their message was largely the same: the FTC needs additional rulemaking and civil penalty authority to better protect consumers, especially as it applies to privacy and data security enforcement.

Privacy and data security were a focus of the Chairman’s opening statements, during which he noted that both were a top priority for the agency. Chairman Simons also discussed the need for the FTC to have jurisdiction over nonprofits and common carriers, imploring Congress to pass legislation giving the agency such authority, along with comprehensive data security legislation. Simons noted that the FTC was watching and assessing the EU’s implementation of its comprehensive privacy law, the General Privacy Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), to see how it may apply to the U.S. and he reaffirmed enforcement of the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, which the FTC has enforced in the past.

Chairman Simons also referenced the hearings that the Commission will be holding in the fall, emphasizing that he anticipated the agency would benefit from participant input on a number of topics—from merger guidelines to privacy and data security. Simons, a former student of Chairman Pitofsky, noted that the agency held similar hearings during the Pitofsky era that resulted in agency action, such as amendments to the merger guidelines. The Chairman noted that he wanted this year’s hearings to be similarly effective in setting the agency’s future agenda. Continue Reading

Read the Signs: FCC Unleashes Wave of Equipment Marketing Actions Involving LED Signs

As we enter the dog days of summer, the FCC continues to turn up the heat on equipment marketing enforcement. But while million dollar fines for marketing noncompliant devices capture the spotlight, the FCC also quietly issued a number of equipment marketing actions focused on a single type of device: LED signs. In just the last three months, the FCC has settled over ten investigations involving the marketing of LED signs used in digital billboards for commercial and industrial applications without the required authorizations, labeling, or user manual disclosures. Each action involved an entity that either manufactured or sold (or both) LED signs. The agency’s recent actions should be a shot across the bow to any retailer of LED signs to ensure that their devices are properly tested and authorized prior to sale. Otherwise, these companies may face significant fines and warehouses of unmarketable devices.

Most consumers might not think that LED signs fall within the FCC’s jurisdiction. However, the signs emit radio waves that can interfere with communications services. As a result, the FCC requires most LED signs and other “unintentional” radiators to be tested for compliance with its technical requirements prior to marketing. Importantly, the FCC’s rules prohibit the marketing of such devices unless they have been properly authorized, labeled, and carry the required disclosures. Even with the FCC’s recent efforts at simplification, the rules regarding equipment marketing are complex, requiring close attention to compliance at every step in the supply chain. Continue Reading

GDPR Sidebar: Comparing the California Consumer Privacy Act to the GDPR

California recently passed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), providing new rights for California consumers (broadly defined as California residents) regarding their personal data. The CCPA is modeled after the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which provides EU citizens with a number of rights related to data processing and imposes specific requirements on companies that process EU citizen data. The new California law provides similar requirements for businesses that collect data from California consumers. The following are some key points of comparison. Continue Reading

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