Success = Scrutiny: recent trends in FTC actions against affiliate/online marketers

Online marketing continues to evolve and affiliate marketing can be a great method of building brand awareness. Online marketers need to stay ahead of legal and regulatory compliance trends. This article looks at recent Federal Trade Commission (“FTC,” “Commission,” or “agency”) activity that impacts online marketing.

Given the lack of a comprehensive federal regulatory scheme, and the increasing awareness of deceptive marketing practices, it is not surprising that the FTC has ramped up enforcement efforts against entities not covered by existing, industry-specific federal regulations over the last decade. Notably, one company has defended itself against the FTC by challenging the FTC’s authority to pursue such broad enforcement.

Jurisdiction

The widely-watched case of FTC v. Wyndham Worldwide Corp is not just about Cybersecurity.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has just won the first major round of its fight with Wyndham Hotels over data security. However, the importance of the case has more to do with the FTC’s jurisdiction, challenged when Wyndham moved to dismiss the FTC’s case. Affirming the FTC’s broad jurisdiction, the federal judge overseeing the controversy noted that the case highlights “a variety of thorny legal issues that Congress and the courts will continue to grapple with for the foreseeable future.”

Affiliate Marketing: A Roadmap for Compliance: Text Message Marketing

The Commission is cracking down on affiliate marketers that allegedly bombard consumers with unwanted text messages in an effort to steer these consumers towards deceptive websites falsely promising “free” gift cards.

For example, in eight different complaints filed in courts around the United States, the FTC charged 29 defendants with collectively sending more than 180 million unwanted text messages to consumers, many of whom had to pay for receiving the texts. The messages promised consumers free gifts or prizes, including gift cards worth $1,000 to major retailers such as Best Buy, Walmart and Target.

By now, many in the Affiliate Marketing industry are familiar with the Legacy Learning Systems case. In March, 2011 the FTC settled charges against Legacy — which sells instructional DVDs — that Legacy represented, directly or indirectly, expressly or by implication, reviews of their products were endorsements reflecting the opinions of ordinary consumers or independent reviewers, when many of the favorable endorsements were posted by affiliate marketers who received a commission from Legacy for sales they generated.

Regardless of the form of affiliate marketing – email campaigns or text message campaigns – there are a couple key take-aways here.

First, identify and disclose a material connection between a product user or endorser and any other party involved in promoting the product. A “material connection” is a relationship that affects the credibility of an endorsement and wouldn’t be reasonably expected by consumers. See our article about complying with the endorsement guides here.

Second, set up and maintain a system to monitor and review affiliates’ representations and disclosures to ensure compliance. For example, Legacy looked at its top 50 revenue-generating affiliates at least once a month, visiting their sites to review their representations and disclosures. It has to be done in a way designed not to disclose to the affiliates that they’re being monitored.

Third, understand he requirements for conducting legally-compliant text message marketing. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) makes it unlawful to make any call (other than a call made for emergency purposes or made with the prior express consent of the called party) using any automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice … to any telephone number assigned to a . . . cellular telephone service … or any service for which the called party is charged for the call. The prohibition on calls to cell phones applies to text messaging.

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