Back in the heyday of advertising, advertisers were able to get away with pretty much anything. There was little or no legal regulation on how a company promoted its products. There was no shortage of misrepresentations, exaggerations or downright lies. All one needs to do is look at the advertising on old 19th century and early 20th century newspapers and magazines to see how outrageous things got. That was then, this is now.
These days, advertising is regulated on so many levels. From federally-mandated “Truth in Advertising” laws, down to your local municipality having laws on whether or not you can post your prices on your ads. The regulations seem endless. Depending on your industry, it can be downright difficult to stay within legal boundaries.
More than anything, disclosure of key information is required on most advertising. For example, in Florida, if you’re in travel-related business, you must display your company’s “Seller of Travel” license registration number on all forms of advertising. To not do so may result in heavy fines. In highly regulated states like California, you may be required to post several consumer protection disclaimers pertaining to your business or industry.
Beyond what is required by law, many advertisers are finding that they have to post disclaimers or footnotes on their ads to protect themselves from legal liability. So even if your ad is 100% truthful and legal, you may actually be liable to being sued by someone for not providing a certain disclaimer. These disclaimers are actually brought on as a result of legal precedents. An attorney may search over certain court decisions, and find that due to a particular case on the books, your company may now have to protect itself from the liability established by that historical case. Expect to see a lot more disclaimers being needed to ward off liability as attorneys jump on this lawsuit bandwagon.
Outside of the USA, it’s not any better. The European Union has imposed very strict regulations on advertising that has even mega-corporations scrambling to get within compliance. They are adding new advertising regulations and restrictions to various industries at an almost breakneck speed. Penalties can be stiff, and there’s no shortage of bad PR resulting from well-publicized ad violations.
So what does a company do to ensure that their advertising is legal and protected on all fronts?
1. Check your trade publications regularly for developments regarding legal requirements in advertising. Most publications have a legal columnist that will discuss key information with its members regarding the more important legalities involved in advertising for your industry. Read and heed this information!
2. Do your research. Check out your pertinent government websites. Most have a consumer protection or trade regulation section that will give you the lowdown you need. Don’t forget to check out the federal advertising laws too! A good place to start for those would be the Federal Trade Commission (http://www.ftc.gov), The Securities Exchange Commission if you’re involved in financial-related products or services (http://sec.gov). If your company does direct mailings, then it’s also suggested you check out the Postal Service’s website for anything you may need to know regarding the legality of your mailings (http://www.usps.gov). Still can’t find everything you need to know? There’s always Google.
3. Be sure to periodically meet with a qualified attorney regarding your advertising. Make sure the attorney is confirming that you meet all the laws pertaining to your jurisdiction. Attorneys are never cheap, but a few hours of research now may save your company tons of money in fines and lawsuits later.
Yes, keeping advertising fully legal within today’s climate is no small task. But take heart in knowing that your competition has to do it too. Maintaining legality should not be an obstacle to getting the message out to your customers, it just has to be done right.