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The 2018 Farm Bill legalized cultivation and processing of industrial hemp and various by-products.  One hemp-based derivative of considerable interest to manufacturers of personal care products, dietary supplements, cosmetics, and OTC drugs is cannabidiol (“CBD”).  As industry races to commercialize and advertise CBD, it’s important to understand the regulatory hurdles that remain.  Ad law partner, Kristi Wolff, addresses several common misunderstandings in an article recently published online in Nutritional Outlook

About a year ago, the SEC issued a warning to celebrities and social influencers who promoted Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) on social media, noting that such promoters are subject to federal securities laws. Apparently, at least two celebrities weren’t paying attention because they recently settled the SEC’s first cases regarding promoting ICOs without proper disclosures.

Khaled Khaled, better known as music producer DJ Khaled, and professional boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. both allegedly promoted investments in ICOs for Centra Tech Inc. in 2017 without disclosing the compensation they received in exchange for their endorsements ($50,000 for Khaled and $100,000 for Mayweather). This triggered a violation of the anti-touting provision of the federal securities laws.

A few examples of these endorsements include Khaled referring to Centra’s ICO as a “Game changer” on various social media accounts, and Mayweather tweeting that Centra’s ICO “starts in a few hours. Get yours before they sell out, I got mine…”

Mayweather also allegedly failed to disclose his relationship with two other ICOs that paid him $200,000 for posts such as, “You can call me Floyd Crypto Mayweather from now on.”

In settling the charges, Khaled agreed to pay $152,725 in disgorgement, penalty, and prejudgment interest, while Mayweather agreed to pay $614,775 for the same. Mayweather and Khaled also agreed not to promote any securities, digital or otherwise, for three and two years, respectively.

Although proper disclosures in social media endorsements have been an area of concern for the FTC for years, this settlement indicates that the SEC is just as interested in making sure consumers understand when they’re seeing sponsored content in the marketing of financial products.

For more information on this topic, check out our earlier post on SEC activity and our webinar, “Advertising Under the Influence.”

On November 27, the FTC Commissioners testified on a range of issues before the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security. One excerpt that caught our attention was their comments on “Made in USA” advertising and the potential for increased scrutiny.

Here’s an excerpt of the Q&A between Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) and the FTC Commissioners (emphasis added):

CAPITO: Okay, last question I have on fraudulent marketing would be the… fraudulent Made in America label. How prevalent is this? And what are some of the means you’re going to try to curb this practice?

SIMONS: This is fairly prevalent. We get hundreds of these, hundreds of complaints a year, that people are improperly using the Made in the USA label. We are committed to investigating those, and usually a lot of times what happens is the firm, the company doesn’t even realize that it’s a violation. So we explain to them it’s a violation and they stop it.

Sometimes companies do it intentionally, sometimes we tell them and they don’t stop and those people we sue. And one of the things that we’re exploring now, as a general rule, we have only gotten injunctive relief in cases like this previously. Now we’re exploring whether we can find a good case that would be appropriate for monetary relief to serve as an additional deterrent.

CHOPRA: I just want to add here that I think there are manufacturers out there who hire American workers and who purposely do that because they want to put the flag on their product. And for those who lie, this cheapens the Made in the USA label so it’s not just hurting American consumers, it’s hurting every American manufacturer who is trying to do right. So I want us to be much more aggressive with this, actually. And if you and Senator Cortez-Masto want to team up, finding civil penalties for some of these bad actors, we can make sure we increase compliance levels. And I got to tell you — right now there’s a country of origin labeling issues in agriculture, country of origin issues in product marketing. We have to do more to put a stop to this because this is extremely unfair to honest companies.

Continue Reading FTC Testimony Signals Possible Increase in “Made in USA” Advertising Scrutiny

California Governor Jerry Brown recently signed into law Assembly Bill 2632, which amended California’s slack fill law to create several new exemptions, hopefully providing some relief from the plague of slack fill lawsuits that has hit the food and beverage industry, among others, particularly hard in recent years.  For those who are unfamiliar, slack fill is non-functional empty space in product packaging.  The argument that plaintiffs have been using is that this non-functional space renders the products misleading to consumers, causing them to think that they are getting more of the product than they actually are.  Although there have been many lawsuits filed, they have met with little success.  Nevertheless, they persist, as we’ve written about here.

Here’s a summary of the changes to California’s law:

    • Online Sales Exempted.       Perhaps the most significant change of the new law is that it exempts packaging sold in a mode of commerce that does not allow the consumer to view or handle the physical container or product. This would appear to exempt online sales, which is consistent with the rationale that a consumer could not be misled by packaging that he or she didn’t handle prior to purchase.
    • Only If It’s Substantial. The law was amended to add the clarification that “nonfunctional slack fill is the empty space in a package that is filled to substantially less than its capacity for reasons other than any one or more of the following:…” “Substantially” is not defined but seems likely to create an argument that some degree of non-functional space is acceptable provided that it is not substantial. Consistent with this, the new law also states that “slack fill shall not be used as grounds to allege a violation of this section based solely on its presence unless it is nonfunctional slack fill.”
  • Actual Size. The prior CA law required that the actual size of the product be depicted on the exterior packaging. The new law specifies that this depiction can be on any side of the packaging, excluding the bottom. “Actual size” must be noted in a clear and conspicuous disclosure.
  • Fill Line. The new law also allows for a line or graphic representing the “fill line” on either the actual product or the product container. The “fill line” must be clearly and conspicuously depicted. If the product is subject to settling, the fill line must represent the minimum amount of expected settling.

 

The changes also apply to California’s Sherman Food and Drug Act. Slack fill lawsuits against food and beverage companies declined between 2016 and 2017 as courts resisted indulging arguments such as an inability to understand basic item counts clearly labeled on a container’s front label.  We’ll see whether these changes collectively help drive numbers even lower.

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 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

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

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.

Those of us who spend our days at the intersection of law and advertising of health products generally accept that the prescription drug world is a universe unto itself, overseen by the FDA pursuant to the Prescription Drug Marketing Act. As prescription drug companies have increased their direct-to-consumer outreach through social media, native advertising, and health information platforms, questions have arisen as to the role that the NAD might play in regulating these advertisements.  For those who are unfamiliar, the NAD is the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau.  It is an industry self-regulatory body that is charged with hearing and rendering decisions in advertising disputes, typically among competitors.  It is commonly used amongst advertisers of consumer-directed products and services.  It is not commonly used amongst prescription drug advertisers and, until recently, many likely assumed that NAD did not have jurisdiction to hear prescription drug advertising challenges.

A relatively recent NAD decision makes clear that that body believes that it has jurisdiction over prescription product advertising, however. Late last year, the NAD evaluated advertising by Synergy Pharmaceuticals for its Trulance product, which is prescribed for chronic idiopathic constipation.  Allergan, maker of a competing product, challenged the advertising on the basis that it included false implied superiority claims, expressly false superiority claims, and undisclosed native advertising in the form of a waiting room pamphlet that allegedly was positioned as independent and impartial patient education material.  Continue Reading Think Your Prescription Drug Advertising is Beyond NAD’s Purview? NAD Disagrees.

Earlier this month, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a warning to celebrities and social influencers who use social media to encourage consumers to invest and/or purchase stocks. Recent celebrity endorsements for investment in Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) were highlighted as examples in the SEC’s warning. In the future, if celebrities and social influencers do not disclose the nature, source, and amount of compensation paid, directly or indirectly, by the company in exchange for the endorsement, they may face action for violations of the anti-touting and anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws, participating in an unregistered offer and sale of securities, and for acting as unregistered brokers.

This warning follows a wave of enforcement brought by the SEC earlier this year. In April 2017, the SEC filed civil fraud actions against 27 companies for the fraudulent promotion of stocks. These included three public companies, seven stock promotions/communications firms, two company CEOs, six individuals at the firms and nine writers. The actions were filed under Section 17(a) of the Securities Act and Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act, as well as Rule 10b-5, which prohibit fraudulent conduct in the offer or sale of securities and in connection with the purchase or sale of securities. In an effort by public companies to generate publicity for their stocks, defendants allegedly hired communications firms that paid writers to publish articles endorsing the company’s stocks. In one case, a firm allegedly had its writers sign non-disclosure agreements preventing them from disclosing that they were compensated.

More than 250 articles were published allegedly without proper disclosures regarding compensation received by the companies they were promoting. Seventeen parties have agreed to settlements with penalties ranging from $2,200 to $3 million based on the frequency and severity of the actions. One example of the kind of advertising that was targeted is shown here: It is a post on Seeking Alpha, an online forum dedicated to financial discussion, in which the post encourages investment in a particular Alzheimer’s therapy. The author’s name and picture allegedly were false as was a statement in the article that indicated that it was not sponsored content.

Here’s the lesson: The FTC is very much interested in ensuring that advertisers and their agents disclose when they disseminate sponsored content (as we’ve repeatedly written about here), but the FTC isn’t alone. The SEC clearly shares this concern, as does FINRA, which issued this notice in April 2017 addressing disclosure obligations relating to native advertising. For more information about how advertising standards apply to influencers and native advertising, check out our recent webinar here.

Associate Lauren Myers contributed to this post. She is practicing under the supervision of principals of the firm who are members of the D.C. Bar.