Federal Trade Commission

In mid-April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent out 90 letters to advertisers, celebrity endorsers and influencers who use their fame and the power of digital advertising to help promote products.  The facts in each letter vary, but the FTC’s message was a strong reminder that clear and conspicuous disclosure is required if a “material connection” exists between and endorser and the marketer of a product.

Typically, the marketer is a manufacturer, importer or an advertising agency that establishes a relationship with an endorser.  In 2009, the FTC created endorsement guides to ensure that consumers are on notice that an endorser or influencer is being compensated by a marketer.  In 2015, the FTC published an Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements.  Those sources provide straightforward guidance to inform consumers that an endorser is acting on behalf of a marketer and to differentiate advertising from truly independent news or reviews of products.

Throughout history, producers of consumer goods marketed their wares with endorsements from famous people and “satisfied consumers.”  Social media provides an enormous boost to the most ancient form of marketing, “word of mouth.”  An image of your product with a celebrity or the perfect “ordinary consumer” in a creative setting can quickly go viral to millions of consumers or receive hundreds of thousands of likes on Facebook.

All ads should be truthful, targeted appropriately, and compliant with industry codes.  If appropriate, ads should also be clearly identified as paid endorsements or advertising material to reduce the risk of consumer deception.  These principles are especially important in the digital domain where viewers tend to move rapidly from one destination to another.

A successful ad that includes use of celebrities or influencers should meet the FTC’s standards to avoid future enforcement initiatives.  The reputation of the advertiser and endorser as well as the integrity of the brands should not be placed at risk by the failure to include clear and conspicuous notices or disclaimers.  Congress granted the FTC broad jurisdiction to police deceptive ads.  The FTC’s guidance has now been around long enough to be on the checklist of every advertiser—particularly those under pressure to publish the next iconic image on Facebook or Instagram!

Arthur DeCelle wrote this bylined article describing how brewers can use product labels, point of sale (POS) advertising, social networks, and other media to tell customers about their environmental responsibility efforts. Such information “must be truthful and substantiated by evidence [and] must not be deceptive to reasonable consumers,” Mr. DeCelle wrote, urging brewers to “carefully consider the language you use and any potential for consumer deception [regarding] false or deceptive environmental claims.”

Read the full article.

Originally published in New Brewer, March/April 2017.

On March 13, the European Commission approved a report that calls on members of the alcohol beverage industry to develop a comprehensive self-regulatory system of ingredient and nutritional labeling for beer, wine, and distilled spirits. The Commission is composed of representatives of each member nation of the European Union (EU) with a range of administrative responsibilities and authority to develop and propose legislation for consideration by the European Parliament.

The European Commission characterizes access to ingredient and nutrition information as a right of EU consumers, and called on industry members to develop a self-regulatory proposal over the next year. Current EU policy on alcohol beverage labeling is analogous to US policy. The EU regulation on food labeling exempts alcohol beverages containing more than 1.2 percent alcohol-by-volume.

The European Commission proposal warrants careful attention by US alcohol beverage suppliers across all beverage categories. The initial industry response by European suppliers will likely start a lengthy process leading to new ingredient disclosures.

US regulations are largely based on the presumption that consumers have a working knowledge of ingredients in alcohol beverages. Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) and its predecessor agency considered and rejected mandatory ingredient labeling proposals several times since 1970s. TTB’s most recent assessment of ingredient and nutritional labeling of alcohol beverages was an advance notice of proposed rulemaking published in 2005 soliciting public input on the existing TTB policy. No further rulemaking activity followed the TTB inquiry.

Existing TTB regulations focus on disclosures of certain ingredients that pose unique health risks or allergic reactions. Industry members are permitted to disclose ingredients on a voluntary basis.  A few alcohol beverages are subject to US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, which require comprehensive ingredient and nutritional labeling.

Many US products are exported for consumption in the EU. If a new system is adopted in the EU, producers in the US must provide ingredient and nutritional information to their customers overseas with no corresponding requirements in their home markets. EU suppliers are major players in the US market and may decide to voluntarily provide the same information to their American customers that they will ultimately have to provide in their home markets.

These dynamics will likely reinvigorate calls by consumer advocacy organizations and government agencies (e.g., Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and National Institutes of Health) in support of ingredient labeling of alcohol beverages in the US. In the current era of dwindling government resources, the European Commission’s call for an industry self-regulatory initiative provides an opening for a similar initiative in the US. Industry members and associations should monitor developments in the EU and consider appropriate responses directly to the EU initiative and to analogous proposals in the US.

An English version of the European Commission proposals is available here.

On December 22, 2015, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published an “Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements” (2015 Policy Statement) with unanimous support of the Commissioners.[i]  The Policy Statement applies to advertising and promotion of all goods and services, and it supplements prior FTC guidance that advertisers have relied on since the 1960s.[ii]  Given the FTC’s longstanding interest in alcohol beverage advertising by large and small suppliers, industry members should pay particular attention to the latest guidance on deception.

The 2015 Policy Statement focuses on so-called “native advertising” or “sponsored content,” which reasonable consumers may perceive to be “non-promotional content” such as news, articles, feature stories or educational information.  The FTC provides an example of digital advertising content in a publication that is formatted in the same manner as the publication itself.  The deception standard is summarized as follows:

Regardless of the medium in which an advertising or promotional message is disseminated, deception occurs when consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances are misled about its nature or source, and such misleading impression is likely to affect their decisions or conduct regarding the advertised product or the advertising.[iii]

Extensive guidance is provided for advertisers to avoid consumer deception in online and digital placements using fairly straightforward disclosures or other means of distinguishing ad content from the publication in which the ad content appears.  Recent enforcement actions are also discussed.  The key to compliance and avoiding FTC enforcement actions is to clearly inform consumers that they are viewing or reading advertising content.

The FTC has also prepared further specific guidance with discussions of issues arising in all forms of media and examples of recommended disclosures and formatting.  Guidance supplementing the 2015 Policy Statement is titled, “Native Advertising:  A Guide for Businesses.”[iv]

Over the last 15 years, several FTC special orders have been issued to beer, wine and spirits manufacturers requiring production of virtually all advertising content for a specified period (e.g., six months or a year).  The FTC staff reviewed those materials thoroughly with a focus on (i) voluntary compliance with industry advertising codes and (ii) compliance with federal laws prohibiting deceptive and unfair advertising practices.  The 2012 special orders issued to the top 14 beer, wine and spirits suppliers in the U.S. also requested privacy policies and terms and conditions of web sites and social media pages.[v]

Four detailed reports on alcohol beverage advertising have been issued since 1999 summarizing the FTC’s findings on alcohol beverage advertising.  The 2014 report was one of the first widely publicized reviews of digital advertising practices by a consumer products industry.[vi]


[i] Full statement is available at https://www.ftc.gov/public-statements/2015/12/commission-enforcement-policy-statement-deceptively-formatted

[ii] See, e.g. Statement in Regard to Advertisements That Appear in Feature Article Format, FTC Release, (Nov. 28, 1967), 73 F.T.C. at 1307 and FTC Statement on Deception, 103 F.T.C. 174, 175 (1984) (appended to Cliffdale Assocs., Inc., 103 F.T.C. 110 (1984)) (“Deception Policy Statement”).

[iii] See, 2015 Policy Statement, p. 2 and p. 10.

[iv] https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/native-advertising-guide-businesses

[v] Cite 2012 Special Order April 12, 2012; press release and link to order available at https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2012/04/ftc-orders-alcoholic-beverage-manufacturers-provide-data-agencys.

[vi] Because the https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/blogs/business-blog/2014/03/alcohol-advertising-ad-placement-self-regulation

On October 14, 2014, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in a case that could have significant implications for hybrid public/private “regulatory” bodies.  Many such bodies, like state and local wine commissions, operate in the alcohol beverage space.

In North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners v. Federal Trade Commission, 717 F.3d 359 (4th Cir. 2013), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that the actions of a state’s Board of Dental Examiners (Board) were subject to antitrust scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  North Carolina clothes the Board with considerable authority to enforce the state’s laws concerning the unauthorized practice of dentistry by non-licensed persons.  The majority of the Board, however, consists of practicing dentists and dental hygienists.

The case arose from the Board’s actions to stop non-licensed persons from offering “teeth whitening” services within the state.  Seemingly responding to complaints from established dental practices, the Board issued cease-and-desist letters to numerous non-dentists offering teeth whitening services, effectively driving such over-the-counter services from the state.  The FTC subsequently investigated the Board’s actions, ultimately issuing an order prohibiting the Board from taking further action to restrict competition in teeth whitening services to persons licensed by the Board.

The issue before the Supreme Court is whether the Board’s actions are immune from antitrust scrutiny under the State Action Doctrine.  That doctrine shields from antitrust scrutiny the actions of a state when functioning in its capacity as a sovereign government.  For example, while private parties cannot set or fix prices, the legislature of a state may fix prices free from the restrictions of antitrust law.

The Fourth Circuit, agreeing with the FTC, held that the state action doctrine did not apply.  The Court of Appeals explained that public/private hybrid entities (such as bar associations) remain subject to the antitrust laws to ensure that their private members do not act in their own commercial self-interest.  Relying heavily on the Supreme Court’s 1980 Midcal Aluminum decision that struck down a post-and-hold price posting law in California, the Fourth Circuit required the Board to show “active supervision” by the state government before it would permit the Board’s actions to receive the benefit of state action immunity.  The court then agreed with the FTC that the Board had failed to make that showing.

How the Supreme Court rules in the North Carolina State Board of Dental Examiners case will impact how public/private hybrid entities must operate within the alcohol beverage industry.  A number of states, for example, have established wine boards and commissions consisting primarily or wholly of private participants in the state’s wine industry.  These boards, however, may have the power to shape and implement state policies, such as establishing marketing orders, state wine trails and the like.  Clear national application of the antitrust laws to such bodies’ conduct could restrict current activities or at least require more careful internal policing to avoid potential exposure under the antitrust laws.

Alcohol beverage suppliers were among the first U.S. business sectors to embrace self-regulation of advertising and marketing in the 1930s and 1940s.  Voluntary codes have evolved from simple commitments to truthful advertising to comprehensive guidance documents containing mechanisms for independent review of consumer complaints.

Compliance with voluntary industry codes does not absolve an advertiser from compliance with laws and regulations covered in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series.  The codes cover areas that would be difficult for government to regulate such as non-misleading advertising content, which enjoys significant First Amendment protection.  The codes also provide best practices in minimizing exposure of persons under the legal drinking age to alcohol advertising.

As indicated in Part 1 of this series, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) views compliance with voluntary codes as an essential part of an alcohol beverage advertising and marketing function.  A detailed FTC review of advertising practices initiated in 2012 will likely result in a report to Congress by the end of 2013.  That report will include a detailed analysis of digital advertising activities and expenditures along with recommendations for future code enhancements.

The codes subject the digital marketing space to the same list of traditional “dos and don’ts” in advertising content that apply to all other media.  Beyond those fundamentals, digital advertising is subject to unique placement and audience measurement requirements that require communication with host networks and/or advance research on the audience demographics of traditional web sites or networks.

Voluntary industry codes are developed and disseminated by trade associations for distillers, vintners, and brewers.  Similar guidelines exist across all codes for advertising content.  Audience demographic standards are included in the codes of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Beer Institute and Wine Institute.  Those standards are the same as they are based on U.S. Census data.  Links to major industry codes and examples of media policies follow:

Beer Institute Advertising and Marketing Code and Buying Guidelines

Brewers Association Advertising Code

Distilled Spirits Council of the United States Code of Responsible Practices and Note on Responsible Digital Marketing Communications

Facebook Alcohol Advertising Policy

Google Alcohol Advertising Policy

Wine Institute Code of Advertising Standards

This past year brought examples of federal regulation and oversight of social media.  Both illustrate the general policy concerns of federal agencies that regulate alcohol beverage advertising.

TTB Industry Circular 2013-1, reviews the application of TTB regulations to beer, wine and spirits advertising in social media and other forms of digital advertising.  TTB’s primary concerns are the clear disclosure of the company responsible for an advertisement and prohibiting communication of false and misleading information.   The circular makes clear that TTB’s advertising regulations apply to digital advertising, including user-generated content.  Helpful references are provided to key sections of TTB advertising regulations for beer, wine and spirits.

FTC 2012 Special Order (FTC Matter No. P104518) requested a broad range of information on advertising expenditures and practices from companies in the alcohol beverage industry to make sure that they comply with the Federal Trade Commission Act and voluntary industry advertising codes.  The FTC has broad authority to prohibit and take enforcement action against advertising that is deceptive or unfair.  FTC officials have long maintained that this authority empowers the agency to limit exposure of persons under the legal drinking age to alcohol beverage advertising content in all media.  The Special Order requested information about online and social media activity at pages 4-6 and 9-10, and companies should recognize that advertising content, planning documents and placement information may be requested in similar special orders in the future.

Tremendous opportunities exist for advertising brands, events and other promotional activities in digital media, which includes traditional web sites, social networks and integrated advertising platforms.  Properly executed marketing efforts provide great flexibility to reach and interact with adults of legal drinking age on a range of devices.  “Properly executed” is the key, particularly in digital media where campaigns can go from the conceptual stage to dissemination to millions of consumers in a matter of days.

Many professionals in the rapidly evolving media landscape grew up in a culture of free expression unparalleled in human history and several generations removed from the post- Prohibition mindset that inspired existing restrictions on alcohol advertising.  Those who are anxious to use their creative talents in alcohol beverage advertising campaigns must become familiar with unique federal and state laws governing alcohol advertising as well as voluntary industry codes.  Failure to take basic compliance measures can result in a devastating delay or removal of an innovative app, social network site or geo-targeting plan.  In addition to the loss of a key part of a campaign, government enforcement actions can result in penalties and reputational damage.

  • At the federal level, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulate alcohol beverage advertising.  Both agencies have shown recent interest in online and social media.
  • Each state has alcohol beverage and consumer protection statutes and policies.
  • Several industry trade associations and many digital media outlets have self-regulatory codes or unique rules that apply to content and placement of alcohol beverage advertising.

Basic principles of government regulation and industry self-regulation include societal concerns over issues such as alcohol abuse and potential appeal of advertising content to underage audiences.  The power of digital media triggers additional issues such as privacy and data security.

The next three parts of this series will address federal regulation, state regulation and industry self-regulation.