FTC staff sends warning letters about anti-Zika claims

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Mosquitoes aren’t just another picnic pest. They can carry serious diseases running the gamut from A to Zika virus. And just as illness can follow when mosquitoes infest, consumer injury can follow when ads are deceptive. The FTC staff just sent 10 warning letters about anti-Zika claims for wristbands, patches, stickers, and the like, reminding recipients that representations must be backed by proper proof.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that Zika is spread primarily through the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito. According to the FTC warning letters, claims that a product repels mosquitoes that carry Zika or otherwise protects users from any mosquito-borne disease must be supported by well-controlled human clinical testing. FTC staff “strongly urges” recipients to take a close look at their Zika-related claims – and claims made by their distributors and affiliates – to make sure they meet that standard.  

What if that review reveals questionable representations? Delete or revise them immediately, says the staff, and instruct your distributors and affiliates to do the same. The letters ask the companies to get back to us within 48 hours with a description of what they’ve done to address those concerns.

Even if you don’t sell products making Zika-related claims, the warning letters illustrate principles that apply across the board.

Understand the kind of evidence you need to support your claims. Marketers need competent and reliable scientific evidence to support all health, safety, or efficacy claims their ads convey to consumers expressly or by implication. And they need it in hand before the ad is disseminated. For most disease-related representations – especially claims as serious as Zika prevention or risk reduction – that means well-controlled human clinical testing.

Make sure your proof “fits” your claim.  “But we have a study!” some companies say. But does it correspond to what you promise in your ads? The warning letters remind recipients that to support claims that a product will protect people from Zika or other mosquito-borne diseases, well-controlled human clinical testing must use the species of mosquito that carries the disease in question, and must demonstrate that the effects last as long as advertised. A related “fit” issue mentioned in the letters: If ads suggest expressly or by implication that using the product on one part of the body provides whole-body protection, companies must have appropriate proof to back up that promise.

Exercise caution with “follow the headlines” health claims.  When scientists raise a public health concern, marketers won’t be far behind. If they have sound science to support their prevention or treatment claims, it can be a win-win for consumers and the company. But with something as serious a Zika, savvy advertisers don’t go to market without first putting their claims to the appropriate test.

Check with the CDC for more information about Zika.


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