Truth in app-vertising

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Here’s how AcneApp and Acne Pwner were supposed to work.  Buyers downloaded the apps from their favorite app store.  After selecting a light — blue to fight bacteria or red to heal, some ads said — they rested their smartphone against their skin.

“Kill ACNE with this simple, yet powerful tool,” promised the marketer of Acne Pwner.  (No, that’s not a typo.  For readers old enough to remember when phones had curly cords, gamers use “pwn” to mean to “own” in a manner signifying victorious domination or supremacy.  Government blogs:  Nothing if not educational.)

But don’t just believe us, said the Acne App ads.  “A study published by the British Journal of Dermatology showed blue and red light treatments eliminated p-acne bacteria (a major cause of acne) and reduces skin blemishes by 76%.”

Hiding your face behind a smartphone emitting red and blue lights may make it less likely anyone’s going to notice that pesky blemish.  But aside from that, the FTC’s complaints against the two unrelated companies charged that they didn’t have the science to support their anti-acne claims.  The settlements with DermApps, Koby Brown, and Gregory W. Pearson and Andrew N. Finkel are the FTC’s first against marketers of health-related apps.

The cases restate some important principles for companies jumping into the burgeoning apps business.

1.  No matter where you go in the mobile marketplace, Section 5 of the FTC Act will be there to greet you.  The same truth-in-advertising principles apply regardless of how you market your products.

2.  Thinking about citing studies or stats in your ads?  Take care to report them accurately.

3.  Pro forma “disclaimers” don’t work.  An AcneApp ad included the statement, “This app is for entertainment purposes only and is not intended for treatment of any disease or medical condition.”  Especially given the express anti-acne claims the company made for its product, lines like this aren’t likely to change the net impression conveyed to consumers.

4.  Consumer endorsements aren’t substantiation.  AcneApp’s ads quoted positive reviews that had been posted in one of the apps stores.  But if you don’t have proof to back up a health claim, repeating the claim in the form of an endorsement doesn’t change your substantiation obligation. You still need science.  Read The FTC’s Revised Endorsement Guides: What People Are Asking to find out more.

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