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Direct Response Marketing

Truth-In-Advertising Dot-Com Guidelines Could Hit By Year End

10 Oct, 2012 By: Doug McPherson


WASHINGTON – The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has announced marketers can expect an update to the “Dot-com Disclosure” guides by the end of the year. Mary Engle, FTC associate director, says the new guidelines will advise marketers how to convey key information to consumers – including the terms and conditions of offers – on mobile devices and social media platforms.

The FTC sought input on revisions to the Dot-com Disclosures between May 2011 and July 2012. The current guides, created in 2000, state that advertising rules requiring disclosure of material information apply to online ads, as well as ads in traditional media. But the examples are clearly outdated. For example, the old guides said that if companies placed disclosures at the bottom of a page, the design should encourage consumers to scroll down.

According to Engle, a workshop on the topic this summer found:

  • Context matters. It is not possible to devise a universal rule for disclosures, but the FTC will try to eke out as many black-and-white areas as it can from among the shades of gray.
  • Media platforms must adapt to the law and not vice versa. If it is not possible to run a compliant ad on a particular platform, then the ad simply should not run on that platform.
  • Using hyperlinks for disclosures may be acceptable in some circumstances, but the label of the link itself needs to be attention getting and accurately descriptive. For example, “Disclosures,” “Details,” or “More Information” generally will not suffice as a link title.
  • The timing of disclosures – i.e., placement of a hyperlink on the page, proximity to the claim being clarified, placement in relation to the flow of purchase – is important to consumer attention and comprehension.
  • Icons (for privacy disclosures in particular) or hashtags (for Twitter) may be useful, but they depend on consumer understanding. The lingering question is, “Who should be responsible for educating consumers?”
  • The solution for some digital media may be to revise claims so that no disclosure is necessary.

The new guides are expected to recommend how to convey the key information on 4-inch smartphone screens, or platforms like Twitter where marketers are limited to 140 characters.

FTC Commissioner Julie Brill says the key issue isn’t just what marketers say, but how they say it. “Context is really critical,” Brill adds. “It is just as important to consider when consumers are provided with critical information, and the context in which they are provided the information, as it is to consider what they are told.”

Peter Koeppel, owner of Koeppel Direct, a multi-channel DR firm in Dallas (and a member of the Response Advisory Board), says as consumers migrate to consuming more and more information, media and advertising through their smartphones and tablets and as marketers are trying to influence consumers through these mediums, “It’s timely to have guidelines in place to address these changes. I think everyone benefits when there are more specific rules in place, but those rules also need to be balanced so they provide a platform for the consumer to be properly informed about an offer, while at the same time not severely limiting a marketer’s creativity.”

Tim Hawthorne, founder of Hawthorne Direct (and a member of the Response Advisory Board) says 12 years to update online media rules is “a century in ad years.” He adds, “Smartphones and tablets weren’t even a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye back then. Updating these regulations will be a shock to many, but welcomed by consumers.”


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