"Results not typical."
How often have you seen that footnote to a testimonial from someone who's shed tonnage with a new diet potion or gained vast wealth with minimal investment? If such disclosure is in the ad at all, it may be hard to spot, even though federal guidelines require advertisers to post it "clearly and conspicuously" when the product endorser's situation is unusual.
For that matter, when was the last time you heard a news program announce that a celebrity using its airtime to tout some new device or drug is actually being paid for that purpose? The program is supposed to, according to the rules. The same batch of rules, meanwhile, stipulates that people giving testimonials must actually be using a product when they endorse it, and that ads containing their endorsements must be pulled when their usage stops or if the product stops working for them.
If an ad is misleading, file a complaint with: ¢ The Federal Trade Commission, www.ftc.gov/ftc/consumer.htm. ¢ The National Advertising Division, www.nadreview.org. Explain in writing why the ad is misleading, and enclose original or copies if possible. For a radio or TV ad, name the product, the claim and where and when you saw the ad.
Truth is, testimonials can bend the rules because the industry that hatches them is largely self-regulated, with the government stepping in to enforce what guidelines it has only after fraud has harmed the health or picked the pockets of lots of consumers. Among entities with some power over advertisers:
¢ The Federal Trade Commission. The FTC's Ad Practices Program is responsible for enforcing federal truth-in-advertising laws, an amalgam of statutes, regulations and guidelines covering everything from truthfulness to the use of "free." Among the rules specific to testimonials: Experts must have the credentials and expertise their endorsement implies, and a professional group that backs a product should do so based on some direct comparison with competing brands. The FTC also says that people who, for example, lost 100 pounds with a particular product should represent what most customers will lose. Yet there's a loophole that lets advertisers put atypical users front and center - provided there's that clear and conspicuous disclosure. Weapons the FTC wields to combat ad transgressions include restraining orders, fines, restitution to consumers, and litigation.
¢ The Food and Drug Administration. The FDA sends warning letters when it finds misleading ads for prescription drugs, but it can also seize products and pursue criminal penalties.
¢ The Better Business Bureau. This private, nonprofit organization's National Advertising Division (NAD) operates a court-like system in which anyone can challenge the veracity of national or regional ads. Challengers (mostly advertisers' competitors) describe the deception, the accused submits a defense and the NAD experts suggest a change or not, based on federal rules and precedents from earlier NAD cases.