Subscription plans that automatically renew at the end of a term are becoming more popular with companies. They’re also getting more scrutiny from regulators. As we’ve posted before, some states regulate how these plans can be structured, and there have been both lawsuits and regulatory investigations targeting companies that have failed to comply. This week, Washington, DC joined the crowd by enacting a new law governing automatic renewals.

The law requires businesses that sell goods and services on a recurring basis to clearly and conspicuously disclose their automatic renewal provisions and cancelation procedures in their contracts. In addition, if a contract has an initial term of at least 12 months and will automatically renew for a term of at least one month, a business must take steps to notify consumers before renewal. This must be done by mail, e-mail, text message, or in-app notification. (For text messages, don’t forget the TCPA.) The reminder must be sent at least 30 – but no more than 60 – days before the deadline to cancel.

Businesses that offer free trials of at least one month that automatically renew must receive a consumer’s affirmative consent to sign up for the automatic renewal program one to seven days before the expiration of the free trial term.

Subject to narrow exceptions, violations of the law will constitute violations of the DC Consumer Protection Procedures Act and render the automatic renewal provision void.

Defendants have had a nice run recently in winning pleading-stage dismissal of “reasonable consumer” false advertising cases.  That run came to an end yesterday, however, when the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York reversed the dismissal of claims regarding Kellogg’s “Cheez-It” crackers.  The front of the “Cheez-It” package prominently describes the crackers as “Whole Grain,” but as a quick look at the Nutrition Facts panel on the side label would confirm, the crackers’ main ingredient is enriched white flour, not whole grain.

New York, California, and numerous other states apply a “reasonable consumer” test to false advertising claims.  The test is meant to be objective, with courts asking whether an advertisement would mislead an objectively reasonable consumer, not whether the actual plaintiff was or was not misled.  Federal courts regularly, and rightly, dismiss false advertising claims at the pleading stage where, as one court put it in a “slack fill” case involving an over-the-counter pain reliever, “the[] failure to read an unambiguous tablet count does not pass the proverbial laugh test.”

Courts have been much less likely to see the humor, though, in cases where a food package includes statements that plaintiffs contend are affirmatively misleading.  In yesterday’s case of Mantikas v. Kellogg Co., the Second Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs, at least at the pleading stage.  In the Court’s view, “the large, bold-faced claims of ‘WHOLE GRAIN’” on the front of the package could be construed as “misleading because they falsely imply that the grain content is entirely or at least predominantly whole grain.”  Quoting an oft-cited Ninth Circuit case, the Court wrote that the Nutrition Facts panel did not “cure[] the deceptive quality of the ‘WHOLE GRAIN’ claims because “reasonable consumers should not be expected to look beyond misleading representations on the front of the box to discover the truth from the ingredient list in small print on the side of the box.”

The main good news in this bad outcome for the defendant is that the Second Circuit reiterated another core principle in cases like this:  When ruling on an advertising claim, courts must “consider the challenged advertisements as a whole, including disclaimers and qualifying language.”  Plaintiffs, in other words, cannot just include snippets of a package in their complaint and hope to avoid judicial scrutiny of the entire package at the pleading stage.

A second good sign is that the Second Circuit distinguished—and thus impliedly blessed—other district court decisions dismissing similar claims on “reasonable consumer” grounds.  In one case the Court examined, for example, the plaintiffs claimed to have believed that crackers advertised as “made with real vegetables” contained a larger amount of vegetables than they actually did.  The district court in that other case thought reasonable consumers know “the fact of life that a cracker is not composed of primarily fresh vegetables.”  In the Cheez-It case, by contrast, reasonable consumers “understand that crackers are typically made predominantly of grain” and “look to the bold assertions on the packaging to discern what type of grain.”  The case survived, therefore, only because the alleged affirmative misrepresentation went to a central and material fact about the food product’s nature.

Because of these limitations, the Second Circuit’s decision should not be viewed as anything other than the reaffirmation of an established principle:  Food product manufacturers cannot expect to win dismissal of a false advertising case at the pleading stage by claiming that an accurate ingredient label cures an affirmatively misleading material statement on the front of a package.  If, by contrast, a plaintiff’s purported read of an advertisement is objectively unreasonable, courts still can and should examine the entire package and dismiss claims that fail the “laugh test.”

Editors of the ABA Journal have selected Ad Law Access as one of the 2018 ABA Journal Web 100, a list of the 100 best digital media resources for a legal audience. The Web 100 honors legal blogs, podcasts, social media and, as of 2018, web tools. In addition, the magazine added five more bloggers to its Blawg Hall of Fame—featuring the very best law blogs, known for their untiring ability to craft high-quality, engaging posts sometimes on a daily basis.

Ad Law Access is published by Advertising & Marketing practice at Kelley Drye & Warren LLP. The blog provides updates on advertising and privacy law trends, issues, and developments. The posts focus on issues that in-house attorneys need to know, summarizes them in a digestible manner, and provides readers with practical tips and thoughtful analysis.

“The web is a constantly evolving space, and we enjoy shining a light on new and useful blogs, tools and people for legal professionals to follow,” ABA Journal Editor and Publisher Molly McDonough said. “We hope the Web 100 provides readers with entertainment, engagement and a way to keep abreast of the newest developments in the legal industry.”

About Kelley Drye’s Advertising and Marketing practice:

Kelley Drye’s Advertising and Marketing practice is made up of highly respected and nationally ranked attorneys, with deep and ready knowledge of advertising law, courtroom-tested litigation skills, and a reputation for integrity and credibility earned through prior experience serving with, and working across the table from, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other government agencies. The practice help global brands and Fortune 500 companies that manufacture and sell products across a range of industries to navigate this dynamic and heavily regulated industry, ensuring that their marketing, advertising and promotions are both effective and compliant with federal and state laws and regulations, broadcast network and industry self-regulatory standards, and evolving best practices for traditional and new media marketing.

About the ABA Journal:

The ABA Journal is the flagship magazine of the American Bar Association, and it is read by half of the nation’s 1.1 million lawyers every month. It covers the trends, people and finances of the legal profession from Wall Street to Main Street to Pennsylvania Avenue. ABAJournal.com features breaking legal news updated as it happens by staff reporters throughout every business day, a directory of more than 4,000 lawyer blogs, and the full contents of the magazine.

About the ABA:

With nearly 400,000 members, the American Bar Association is the largest voluntary professional membership organization in the world. As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA works to improve the administration of justice, promotes programs that assist lawyers and judges in their work, accredits law schools, provides continuing legal education, and works to build public understanding around the world of the importance of the rule of law

Pop quiz: If you purchased a bottle of “One A Day” gummy vitamins, would you: (a) assume that you should take one a day; or (b) check the back of the label to figure out how many you should take? If you answered (a), and didn’t check the back of the label, you might have been surprised. That’s one of the issues in a putative class action pending against Bayer in California.

Despite the name of the product, the back panel of a bottle of “One A Day” gummy vitamins directs consumers to “chew two vitamins daily.” In 2016, a One-A-Day Bottleconsumer filed a putative class action against Bayer, arguing that the name of the product is misleading because it suggests that people only need to take one vitamin per day, when the company recommends otherwise. Bayer disagreed, arguing that consumers carefully read labels to look for nutritional values and, thus, that the disclosure on the back panel prevents the name of the product from being misleading. Although the lower court agreed with Bayer and dismissed the case, last week, a California appellate court reversed the dismissal.

“The front of the product makes no attempt to warn the consumer that a one-a-day jar of gummies is in fact full of two-a-day products.” Instead, consumers have to turn the bottle over to find a direction that they should chew two vitamins daily. (The court worried that this direction appeared “in the smallest lettering on the bottle, an ocular challenge even when the bottle is full-sized and held in good light.”) The product name made things worse. Although consumers may be more likely to look for the directions “if this product were called Gazorninplat Gummies or Every Day Gummies,” that isn’t the case here. “The front label fairly shouts that one per day will be sufficient.”

Although this case is still pending, it illustrates a critical point about disclosures. As the court put it: “You cannot take away in the back fine print what you gave on the front in large conspicuous print.” Lesley Fair at the FTC has made that same point slightly differently: “What the headline giveth, the footnote cannot taketh away.” Either way, keep in mind that there are limits to what you can do with disclosures. Although they can help to prevent a claim from being misleading, they only work if (a) they are presented in a “clear and conspicuous” manner and (b) they clarify, rather than contradict, the claim.

The California Food, Drug, and Medical Device Task Force announced a settlement this week with Goop, the lifestyle brand founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, which we’ve written about here and here. The complaint alleges that Goop made false and misleading representations regarding the effects or attributes of three products—the Jade Egg, Rose Quartz Egg, and Inner Judge Flower Essence Blend. According to the complaint, Goop advertised that the Jade and Rose Quartz Eggs—egg-shaped stones designed to be inserted vaginally and left in for various lengths of time—as well as the Inner Judge Flower Essence Blend could balance hormones, prevent uterine prolapse, increase bladder control and prevent depression. The complaint also alleges that none of Goop’s claims regarding these products were supported by competent or reliable scientific evidence.

The stipulated judgment prohibits Goop from (1) making any claims regarding the efficacy or effects of any of its products without possessing competent and reliable scientific evidence that substantiates the claims; and (2) manufacturing or selling any misbranded, unapproved, or falsely advertised medical devices. In addition, Goop agreed to pay $145,000 in civil penalties and will provide refunds to consumers who purchased the products during 2017.

Goop responded, in part, as follows: “Goop provides a forum for practitioners to present their views and experiences with various products like the Jade Egg. The law, though, sometimes views statements like this as advertising claims, which are subject to various legal requirements.”

Yep. True story. Here are a few other lessons:

  • When made on a site promoting sale of a product, statements by practitioners or other testimonialists about the benefits of that product are advertising (not sometimes, always) and can never be used to support claims that are not otherwise supported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.
  • Competent and reliable scientific evidence is a flexible standard. For health claims, though, it frequently requires well-designed clinical tests. Simply put, the standard isn’t whether there is any evidence; it is whether there is credible evidence that experts in the field would agree is reliable.
  • Fanciful claims that do not rise to the level of disease prevention aren’t necessarily puffery either. Advertisers need to clearly understand when they are making objectively provable claims and have an obligation to substantiate them before dissemination.
  • Products that feature claims of disease treatment or reduction may be classified as medical devices or drugs and may be subject to FDA clearance or approval prior to marketing.

Goop claims to have modified its claims to comply with the settlement. Notably, the Jade Egg remains available. We’ll let you decide what to do with that.

The Northern District of California recently ruled on DIRECTV’s motion for judgment on partial findings in a case where the FTC is seeking $3.95 billion in damages. The FTC’s case alleges that DIRECTV engaged in misleading advertising over a span of more than a decade and across a variety of media channels ranging from television to the company’s website, violating Section 5 of the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shopper’s Confidence Act (ROSCA).

Specifically, the FTC alleges that the company failed to prominently display certain key provisions, such as the 24-month contract requirement and that advertised prices would increase after 12 months, on over 40,000 advertisements. The agency did not allege that the advertising in question was false, but that the details were not displayed sufficiently.

In partially granting DIRECTV’s motion, the court found that the FTC failed to prove a Section 5 violation as to the company’s banner, print, or TV ads because the agency did not establish that there was a misleading net impression among consumers, and because the Commission did not sufficiently identify the alleged net impression. The proffered evidence did not establish that the advertisements were likely to mislead a reasonable consumer.

The FTC provided evidence for less than 1,000 of the challenged 40,000 advertisements at issue in the case. The court determined that this, along with the additional evidence that the FTC did provide, such as expert testimony regarding three specific ads, were not enough for the agency to meet its burden. The court noted that the agency was not required to introduce all 40,000 ads into evidence, but it did need to explain why the conclusions made about a few ads could be generalized among a large number of others that varied in format, content, and emphasis. The court also highlighted that DIRECTV’s print ads displayed the necessary disclosures in text that was in all caps, bolded, and in a dark font against a light background, which the court determined was likely sufficiently prominent and in compliance with the FTC’s .com Disclosure guidance.

Notably, the court declined to make a similar conclusion about DIRECTV’s website advertisements. The court found that the FTC’s evidence, although “far from overwhelming” was enough to defer a determination about the Section 5 and ROSCA claims associated with the website advertising at issue. Specifically, the court focused on the fact that the challenged advertising required consumers to hover over or click on a link or icon to learn about the pertinent terms of the offer. In theory, therefore, a consumer could have flowed through the entirety of the online order process without confronting important details about the offer.

The court also discussed the FTC’s nearly $4 billion potential remedy, suggesting that the agency would be unlikely to meet its burden to prove an adequate basis for relief due to the court’s partially granting DIRECTV’s motion. The court had issues with the FTC expert’s calculation of unjust gains because he presumed that all of the defendant’s subscribers for the time period at issue were misled in the same way, without a sufficient basis for that presumption other than the FTC’s instruction. This presumption was especially problematic because there were so many iterations of the advertisements. However, the court deferred the issue to see if the FTC would be able to prove liability with the remaining claims.

In a case that is historic for the breadth of advertising at issue and the amount of damages the FTC seeks, the court’s order creates significant challenges for the agency as to the remaining claims in the case. We will continue to monitor this case for any updates as it proceeds.

In the meantime, the case continues to be notable in highlighting the scrutiny that a company may face when failing to sufficiently disclose post-introductory prices and term commitments for subscription type plans. Following best practices and regulatory guidance on disclosing material terms are helpful steps to avoid such scrutiny in the first instance.

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 All That Glitters Is Not Gold: FTC Updates Jewelry Guides

The Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland – similar to the NAD in the US – recently issued a decision regarding a social media influencer that companies on this side of the Atlantic should note.

The case involves social media posts by Rosie Connolly, a fashion, beauty, and lifestyle blogger. Connolly posted pictures with flawless makeup, and mentioned RosieConnollyPostthat she was wearing Rimmel Foundation. The trouble is, Connolly’s face had been filtered and photo-shopped. A consumer complained to the ASA that people “may purchase the Rimmel Foundation thinking they would achieve the same results if they used the product,” when those results may not be likely.

Connolly said that Rimmel had approved the images and, therefore, that the complaint should be addressed to them. Rimmel, in turn, acknowledged that the image had been filtered using a built-in camera feature. The image was not intended to mislead people, but the company removed it because it did not reflect their values as a brand. Moreover, Rimmel said it had taken various steps to avoid future issues with heavily filtered images. For example, the company updated its policy to more explicitly require flagging an influencer’s use of filters/photo-shopping, and promised to monitor posts more strictly.

The ASA “considered that the use of post-production techniques which exaggerated the effects of an advertised product could mislead and they welcomed the steps the advertisers had taken in removing the posts.”

Although cases involving influencers in the US have focused mostly on whether the influencers have property disclosed their relationship to the brands whose products they touted, the FTC has made clear that both influencers and brands can be held liable for any misleading content in influencer posts. Moreover, outside of the influencer context, there are plenty of cases here regarding the use of mockups or enhancements. Accordingly, companies should take steps to ensure that influencer posts are not misleading, not only in their descriptions, but in the photos themselves.

A federal jury in Illinois recently awarded Dyson, Inc. over $16 million in damages after finding that SharkNinja falsely advertised that its Rotator Powered Lift-Away vacuum was better than Dyson’s best-performing vacuum, the DC65.  SharkNinja ran ads that claimed that independent testing showed that the Rotator Powered Lift Away vacuum was proven to have “more suction” and “deep-cleans carpets better than Dyson’s best vacuum.”

The commercial also featured a graph that purported to measure each machine’s cleanability, but Dyson alleged that the results were not actually from referenced independent tests but rather internal tests.  Dyson further alleged that the tests failed to comply with industry standards for vacuum cleaning testing in the first instance and that SharkNinja effectively rigged the third-party tests by directing the testing company on how to test the machines.  The jury found that SharkNinja’s advertising of results from unsound tests was an intentional act to mislead consumers and awarded significant damages accordingly.

The case underscores the importance of conducting objective and reliable testing and carefully tailoring ad claims to accurately convey the results of tests.  The decision also is striking in terms of the size of the award, particularly as the jury found it appropriate to disgorge nearly all of the $18 million in profits that SharkNinja made from its vacuum during the time the commercial aired.

Summer associate Vishwani Singh contributed to this post. Ms. Singh is not a practicing attorney and is practicing under the supervision of principals of the firm who are members of the D.C. Bar.

Although we normally try to stay away from celebrity gossip, we can’t ignore the latest controversy over Kanye West’s tweet. No, not that one – the other one.

In 2016, Kanye announced that he would release his album, The Life of Pablo, exclusively on Tidal. He tweeted: “My album will never never never be on Apple. And it will never be for sale… You can only get it on Tidal.” (That’s four “nevers” in 107 characters, if you’re counting.) Fans took that seriously, and rushed to sign up. In just over a month, Tidal’s subscriber base tripled, potentially saving the service from collapse.

Kanye Tweet

Six weeks after Kanye promised the album would never (x4) be available anywhere else, he released it on other services, including Apple Music. Many fans became angry that they’d signed up for Tidal based on Kanye’s promise, and one of them filed a lawsuit. The complaint alleged that the representations of exclusivity in the tweet constituted false advertising and asked the court to grant damages, disgorgement of profits, and restitution.

Last week, a New York court ruled on a motion to dismiss filed by Kanye’s legal team. Although the court dismissed some of the claims, it kept the allegations about the tweet alive. “Regardless of whether or not Mr. West’s argument will persuade a jury at a later stage in the case, the court has little difficulty concluding that the complaint plausibly pleads that Mr. West’s statement that his album would never never never be available on Apple Music or for sale was false.”

It’s too early to tell how this case will turn out, but the case raises at least two important points. The first is that claims made in social media are still subject to advertising laws. Even something as seemingly innocent as a short tweet can lead to liability, if what you say isn’t accurate. The second is that you should be careful about far-reaching promises. Many companies want to advertise that things will always be a certain way. Think carefully about making these promises because some consumers will take you at your word. If the market changes and you want to go back on your promises, those consumers may not be forgiving.