FTC Policy Statement Regarding Advertising Substantiation

FTC POLICY STATEMENT REGARDING ADVERTISING SUBSTANTIATION
Appended to Thompson Medical Co., 104 F.T.C. 648, 839 (1984),
aff’d, 791 F.2d 189 (D.C. Cir. 1986), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1086 (1987).

Introduction

On March 11, 1983, the Commission published a notice requesting comments on its advertising substantiation program.1 To facilitate analysis of the program, the notice posed a number of questions concerning the program's procedures, standards, benefits, and costs, and solicited suggestions for making the program more effective. Based on the public comments and the staff's review, the Commission has drawn certain conclusions about how the program is being implemented and how it might be refined to serve better the objective of maintaining a marketplace free of unfair and deceptive acts or practices. This statement articulates the Commission's policy with respect to advertising substantiation.

The Reasonable Basis Requirement

First, we reaffirm our commitment to the underlying legal requirement of advertising substantiation-that advertisers and ad agencies have a reasonable basis for advertising claims before they are disseminated.

The Commission intends to continue vigorous enforcement of this existing legal requirement that advertisers substantiate express and implied claims, however conveyed, that make objective assertions about the item or service advertised. Objective claims for products or services represent explicitly or by implication that the advertiser has a reasonable basis supporting these claims. These representations of substantiation are material to consumers. That is, consumers would be less likely to rely on claims for products and services if they knew the advertiser did not have a reasonable basis for believing them to be true.2 Therefore, a firm's failure to possess and rely upon a reasonable basis for objective claims constitutes an unfair and deceptive act or practice in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.

Standards for Prior Substantiation

Many ads contain express or implied statements regarding the amount of support the advertiser has for the product claim. When the substantiation claim is express (e.g.., "tests prove", "doctors recommend", and "studies show"), the Commission expects the firm to have at least the advertised level of substantiation. Of course, an ad may imply more substantiation than it expressly claims or may imply to consumers that the firm has a certain type of support; in such cases, the advertiser must possess the amount and type of substantiation the ad actually communicates to consumers.

Absent an express or implied reference to a certain level of support, and absent other evidence indicating what consumer expectations would be, the Commission assumes that consumers expect a "reasonable basis" for claims. The Commission's determination of what constitutes a reasonable basis depends, as it does in an unfairness analysis, on a number of factors relevant to the benefits and costs of substantiating a particular claim. These factors include: the type of claim, the product, the consequences of a false claim, the benefits of a truthful claim, the cost of developing substantiation for the claim, and the amount of substantiation experts in the field believe is reasonable. Extrinsic evidence, such as expert testimony or consumer surveys, is useful to determine what level of substantiation consumers expect to support a particular product claim and the adequacy of evidence an advertiser possesses.

One issue the Commission examined was substantiation for implied claims. Although firms are unlikely to possess substantiation for implied claims they do not believe the ad makes, they should generally be aware of reasonable interpretations and will be expected to have prior substantiation for such claims. The Commission will take care to assure that it only challenges reasonable interpretations of advertising claims.3

Procedures for Obtaining Substantiation

In the past, the Commission has sought substantiation from firms in two different ways: through industry-wide "rounds" that involved publicized inquiries with identical or substantially similar demands to a number of firms within a targeted industry or to firms in different industries making the same type of claim; and on a case-by-case basis, by sending specific requests to individual companies under investigation. The Commission's review indicates that "rounds" have been costly to both the recipient and to the agency and have produced little or no law enforcement benefit over a case-by-case approach.

The Commission's traditional investigatory procedures allow the staff to investigate a number of firms within an industry at the same time, to develop necessary expertise within the area of investigation, and to announce our activities publicly in circumstances where public notice or comment is desirable. The Commission intends to continue undertaking such law enforcement efforts when appropriate. However, since substantiation is principally a law enforcement tool and the Commission's concern in such investigations is with the substantiation in the advertiser's possession, there is little, if any, information that the public could contribute in such investigations. Therefore, the Commission anticipates that substantiation investigations will rarely be made public before they are completed.

Accordingly, the Commission has determined that in the future it will rely on nonpublic requests for substantiation directed to individual companies via an informal access letter or, if necessary, a formal civil investigative demand. The Commission believes that tailored, firm-specific requests, whether directed to one firm or to several firms within the same industry, are a more efficient law enforcement technique. The Commission cannot presently foresee circumstances under which the past approach of industry-wide rounds would be appropriate in the ad substantiation area.

Relevance of Post-Claim Evidence in Substantiation Cases

The reasonable basis doctrine requires that firms have substantiation before disseminating a claim. The Commission has on occasion exercised its discretion, however, to consider supporting materials developed after disseminations The Commission has not previously identified in one document the circumstances in which it may, in its discretion, consider post-claim evidence in substantiation cases.5 Such guidance can serve to clarify the program's actual operation as well as focus consideration of postclaim evidence on cases in which it is appropriate.

The Commission emphasizes that as a matter of law, firms lacking a reasonable basis before an ad is disseminated violate Section 5 of the FTC Act and are subject to prosecution. The goal of the advertising substantiation requirement is to assure that advertising is truthful, however, and the truth or falsity of a claim is always relevant to the Commission's deliberations. Therefore, it is important that the agency retain the discretion and flexibility to consider additional substantiating evidence, not as a substitute for an advertiser's prior substantiation, but rather in the following circumstances:

  • When deciding, before issuance of a complaint, whether there is a public interest in proceeding against a firm;
  • When assessing the adequacy of the substantiation an advertiser possessed before a claim was made; and
  • When deciding the need for or appropriate scope of an order to enter against a firm that lacked a reasonable basis prior to disseminating an advertisement.

First, using post-claim evidence to evaluate the truth of a claim, or otherwise using such evidence in deciding whether there is a public interest in continuing an investigation or issuing a complaint, is appropriate policy. This does not mean that the Commission will postpone action while firms create post-claim substantiation to prove the truthfulness of claims, nor does it mean that subsequent evidence of truthfulness absolves a firm of liability for failing to possess prior substantiation for a claim. The Commission focuses instead on whether existing evidence that claims are true should lead us in the exercise of our prosecutorial discretion to decline to initiate a law enforcement proceeding. If available post-claim evidence proves that the claim is true, issuing a complaint against a firm that may have violated the prior substantiation requirement is often inappropriate, particularly in light of competing demands on the Commission's resources.

Second, post-claim evidence may indicate that apparent deficiencies in the pre-claim substantiation materials have no practical significance. In evaluating the adequacy of prior substantiation, the Commission will consider only post-claim substantiation that sheds light on pre-existing substantiation. Thus, advertisers will not be allowed to create entirely new substantiation simply because their prior substantiation was inadequate.

Finally, the Commission may use post-claim evidence in determining the need for or appropriate scope of an order to be entered against a firm that lacked a reasonable basis. Thus, when additional evidence offered for the first time at trial suggests that the claim is true, the Commission may frame a narrower order than if there had been no post-claim evidence.

The Commission remains committed to the prior substantiation requirement and further believes that these discretionary factors will provide necessary flexibility. The Commission will consider post-claim evidence only in the circumstances listed above. But, whether it will do so in any particular case remains within its discretion.

Self Regulation Groups and Government Agencies

The Commission traditionally has enjoyed a close working relationship with self regulation groups and government agencies whose regulatory policies have some bearing on our law enforcement initiatives. The Commission will not necessarily defer, however, to a finding by a self-regulation group. An imprimatur from a self-regulation group will not automatically shield a firm from Commission prosecution, and an unfavorable determination will not mean the Commission will automatically take issue, or find liability if it does. Rather the Commission will make its judgment independently, evaluating each case on its merits. We intend to continue our useful relationships with self-regulation groups and to rely on the expertise and findings of other government agencies in our proceedings to the greatest extent possible.

By direction of the Commission.

__________

' The distinction between pre-claim and post-claim evidence is only relevant when the charge is lack of substantiation. For other chases, such as falsity, when evidence was developed is irrelevant to its admissibility at trial.

1 48 FR 10471, March 11, 1983.

2 Nor presumably would an advertiser have made such claims unless the advertiser thought they would be material to consumers.

3 Individual Commissioners have expressed differing views as to how claims should be interpreted so that advertisers are not held to outlandish or tenuous interpretations. Notwithstanding these variations in approach, the focus of all Commissioners on reasonable interpretations of claims is intended to ensure that advertisers are not required to substantiate claims that were not made.

4 The Commission's evidentiary rule, 16 C.F.R. 3.40, has sometimes been interpreted as precluding introduction of post-claim substantiation. In fact, it does not. Section 3.40 only provides a sanction against the introduction of evidence that should have been produced in response to a subpoena, but was not.