Responsible Advertising for Responsible Business
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) exists to protect consumers and to promote responsible business. In the Internet industry, the FTC has taken action against false advertising. On December 22, 2010, the FTC announced a suit against a major Internet enterprise that was scamming consumers--out of millions-- for products that they never ordered. These cams came in the form of monthly fees, unstated shipping expenses, and one-time expenses.
As much as we love the Internet, we're always on guard for online scams. Even though the FTC exists to protect us, we can never be too sure. Fraud is tough to track down, and unless we've experienced substantial harm, we may not feel motivated to pursue legal action. As consumers, we have to protect ourselves from aggressive and irresponsible business. We can't necessarily rely on our legal system and business themselves. Above anything, businesses need to make a profit, and unfortunately, they will sometimes do that they want and need to do at our expense. Plus, it's important to keep in mind that the FTC is specific to the United States. Consumer protection laws don't always govern overseas businesses.
One gray area is advertising. As businesses, it's illegal for us to blatantly lie, and to an extent, we need to disclose as much as possible about what we're advertising. Even though we strive to be profitable, the FTC requires us to follow certain guidelines. For many businesses, the laws vary by industry-- which makes sense. For instance, aggressive marketing for a weight-loss product has a different impact from aggressive marketing for a $5 sweater. As professionals, it's important to understand how consumer protections laws apply to your business. It's also important to understand why these laws exist and whether it's important to approach them liberally or conservatively.
Those working in social media, public relations, and advertising-- how many of you are familiar with the laws that govern your everyday business decisions? How many of you approach your work from a CSR perspective? Especially in advertising and social media marketing, it's important to be vigilant of the most subtle details-- how you're phrasing information, how you're describing your product or service, and how you are engaging with your users.
When it comes to the FTC and responsible advertising, it isn't the execs and lawyers who should be taking the lead--it's all of us. As professionals, we are all accountable for the information that we distribute, even in a quick Tweet of Facebook status update. If we feel like we can't say it in 140 characters or less, then maybe we should say it somewhere else. As advertisers, it's imperative that we approach our business decisions from a consumer's perspective as well. The law can tell us what we need to do, but we shouldn't wait until we get slapped on the wrist for a mistake. Learn the law, cover your bases, and play by the rules by making responsible decisions ahead of time.