16 CFR § 255.2 - Consumer endorsements.

§ 255.2 Consumer endorsements.

(a) An advertisement employing endorsements by one or more consumers about the performance of an advertised product will be interpreted as representing that the product is effective for the purpose depicted in the advertisement. Therefore, the advertiser must possess and rely upon adequate substantiation, including, when appropriate, competent and reliable scientific evidence, to support express and implied claims made through endorsements in the same manner the advertiser would be required to do if it had made the representation directly, i.e., without using endorsements. Consumer endorsements themselves are not competent and reliable scientific evidence.

(b) An advertisement containing an endorsement relating the experience of one or more consumers on a central or key attribute of the product will likely be interpreted as representing that the endorser's experience is representative of what consumers will generally achieve with the advertised product in actual, albeit variable, conditions of use. Therefore, an advertiser should possess and rely upon adequate substantiation for this representation. If the advertiser does not have substantiation that the endorser's experience is representative of what consumers will generally achieve, the advertisement should clearly and conspicuously disclose the generally expected performance in the depicted circumstances, and the advertiser must possess and rely on adequate substantiation for that representation. The disclosure of the generally expected performance should be presented in a manner that does not itself misrepresent what consumers can expect. To be effective, such disclosure must alter the net impression of the advertisement so that it is not misleading.

(c) Advertisements presenting endorsements by what are represented, expressly or by implication, to be “actual consumers” should utilize actual consumers in both the audio and video, or clearly and conspicuously disclose that the persons in such advertisements are not actual consumers of the advertised product.

(d) In procuring, suppressing, boosting, organizing, publishing, upvoting, downvoting, reporting, or editing consumer reviews of their products, advertisers should not take actions that have the effect of distorting or otherwise misrepresenting what consumers think of their products, regardless of whether the reviews are considered endorsements under the Guides.

(e) Examples:

(1) Example 1.

(i) A web page for a baldness treatment consists entirely of testimonials from satisfied customers who say that after using the product, they had amazing hair growth and their hair is as thick and strong as it was when they were teenagers. The advertiser must have competent and reliable scientific evidence that its product is effective in producing new hair growth.

(ii) The web page will also likely communicate that the endorsers' experiences are representative of what new users of the product can generally expect. Therefore, even if the advertiser includes a disclaimer such as, “Notice: These testimonials do not prove our product works. You should not expect to have similar results,” the ad is likely to be deceptive unless the advertiser has adequate substantiation that new users typically will experience results similar to those experienced by the testimonialists.

(2) Example 2.

(i) An advertisement disseminated by a company that sells heat pumps presents endorsements from three individuals who state that after installing the company's heat pump in their homes, their monthly utility bills went down by $100, $125, and $150, respectively. The ad will likely be interpreted as conveying that such savings are representative of what consumers who buy the heat pump can generally expect. The advertiser does not have substantiation for that representation because, in fact, fewer than 20% of purchasers will save $100 or more. A disclosure such as, “Results not typical” or “These testimonials are based on the experiences of a few people and you are not likely to have similar results” is insufficient to prevent this ad from being deceptive because consumers will still interpret the ad as conveying that the specified savings are representative of what consumers can generally expect.

(A) In another context, the Commission tested the communication of advertisements containing testimonials that clearly and prominently disclosed either “Results not typical” or the stronger “These testimonials are based on the experiences of a few people and you are not likely to have similar results.” Neither disclosure adequately reduced the communication that the experiences depicted are generally representative. Based upon this research, the Commission believes that similar disclaimers regarding the limited applicability of an endorser's experience to what consumers may generally expect to achieve are unlikely to be effective. Although the Commission would have the burden of proof in a law enforcement action, the Commission notes that an advertiser possessing reliable empirical testing demonstrating that the net impression of its advertisement with such a disclaimer is non-deceptive will avoid the risk of the initiation of such an action in the first instance.

(B) The advertiser should clearly and conspicuously disclose the generally expected savings and have adequate substantiation that homeowners can achieve those results. There are multiple ways that such a disclosure could be phrased, e.g., “the average homeowner saves $35 per month,” “the typical family saves $50 per month during cold months and $20 per month in warm months,” or “most families save 10% on their utility bills.”

(ii) Disclosures like those in this Example 2, specifically paragraph (e)(2)(i)(B) of this section, could still be misleading, however, if they only apply to limited circumstances that are not described in the advertisement. For example, if the advertisement does not limit its claims by geography, it would be misleading if the disclosure of expected results in a nationally disseminated advertisement was based on the experiences of customers in a southern climate and the experiences of those customers was much better than could be expected by heat pump users in a northern climate.

(3) Example 3. An advertisement for a cholesterol-lowering product features individuals who claim that their serum cholesterol went down by 120 points and 130 points, respectively; the ad does not mention the endorsers having made any lifestyle changes. A well-conducted clinical study shows that the product reduces the cholesterol levels of individuals with elevated cholesterol by an average of 15% and the advertisement clearly and conspicuously discloses this fact. Despite the presence of this disclosure, the advertisement would be deceptive if the advertiser does not have competent and reliable scientific evidence that the product can produce the specific results claimed by the endorsers (i.e., a 130-point drop in serum cholesterol without any lifestyle changes).

(4) Example 4.

(i) An advertisement for a weight-loss product features an endorsement by a formerly obese person who says, “Every day, I drank 2 QRS Weight-Loss shakes, ate only raw vegetables, and exercised vigorously for six hours at the gym. By the end of six months, I had gone from 250 pounds to 140 pounds.” The advertisement accurately describes the endorser's experience, and such a result is within the range that would be generally experienced by an extremely overweight individual who consumed QRS Weight-Loss shakes, only ate raw vegetables, and exercised as the endorser did. Because the endorser clearly describes the limited and truly exceptional circumstances under which they achieved the claimed results, the ad is not likely to convey that consumers who weigh substantially less or use QRS Weight-Loss under less extreme circumstances will lose 110 pounds in six months. If the advertisement simply says that the endorser lost 110 pounds in six months using QRS Weight-Loss together with diet and exercise, however, this description would not adequately alert consumers to the truly remarkable circumstances leading to the endorser's weight loss. The advertiser must have substantiation, however, for any performance claims conveyed by the endorsement (e.g., that QRS Weight-Loss is an effective weight-loss product and that the endorser's weight loss was not caused solely by their dietary restrictions and exercise regimen).

(ii) If, in the alternative, the advertisement simply features “before” and “after” pictures of a woman who says, “I lost 50 pounds in 6 months with QRS Weight-Loss,” the ad is likely to convey that the endorser's experience is representative of what consumers will generally achieve. Therefore, if consumers cannot generally expect to achieve such results, the ad would be deceptive. Instead, the ad should clearly and conspicuously disclose what they can expect to lose in the depicted circumstances (e.g., “women who use QRS Weight-Loss for six months typically lose 15 pounds”). A disclosure such as “Average weight loss is 1-2 pounds per week” is inadequate because it does not effectively communicate the expected weight loss over six months. Furthermore, that disclosure likely implies that weight loss continues at that rate over six months, which would not be true if, for example, the average weekly weight loss over six months is .57 pounds.

(iii) If the ad features the same pictures but the testimonialist simply says, “I lost 50 pounds with QRS Weight-Loss,” and QRS Weight-Loss users generally do not lose 50 pounds, the ad should disclose what results they do generally achieve (e.g., “women who use QRS Weight-Loss lose 15 pounds on average”). A disclosure such as “most women who use QRS Weight-Loss lose between 10 and 50 pounds” is inadequate because the range specified is so broad that it does not sufficiently communicate what users can generally expect.

(iv) Assume that a QRS Weight-Loss advertisement contains a disclosure of generally expected results that is based upon the mean weight loss of users. If the mean is substantially affected by outliers, then the disclosure would be misleading. For example, if the mean weight loss is 15 pounds, but the median weight loss is 8 pounds, it would be misleading to say that the average weight loss was 15 pounds. In such cases, the disclosure's use of median weight loss instead could help avoid deception, e.g., “most users lose 8 pounds” or “the typical user loses 8 pounds.”

(v) Assume that QRS Weight-Loss's manufacturer procured a fake consumer review, reading “I lost 50 pounds with QRS Weight-Loss,” and had it published on a third-party review website. This endorsement is deceptive because it was not written by a bona fide user of the product (see § 255.1(c)) and because it does not reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the endorser (see § 255.1(a)). Moreover, the manufacturer would need competent and reliable scientific evidence that QRS Weight-Loss is capable of causing 50-pound weight loss.

(vi) Assume that QRS Weight-Loss is a diet and exercise program and a person appearing in a QRS Weight-Loss ad says, “I lost 50 pounds in 6 months with QRS Weight-Loss.” Very few QRS Weight-Loss users lose 50 pounds in 6 months and the ad truthfully discloses, “The typical weight loss of QRS Weight-Loss users who stick with the program for 6 months is 35 pounds.” In fact, only one-fifth of those who start the QRS Weight-Loss program stick with it for 6 months. The disclosure is inadequate because it does not communicate what the typical outcome is for users who start the program. In other words, even with the disclosure, the ad does not communicate what people who join the QRS Weight-Loss program can generally expect.

(vii) Assume that QRS Weight-Loss's manufacturer forwards reviews for its product to a third-party review website. If it forwards only favorable reviews or omits unfavorable reviews, it is engaging in a misleading practice.

(5) Example 5. An advertisement presents the results of a poll of consumers who have used the advertiser's cake mixes as well as their own recipes. The results purport to show that the majority believed that their families could not tell the difference between the advertised mix and their own cakes baked from scratch. Many of the consumers are pictured in the advertisement along with relevant, quoted portions of their statements endorsing the product. This use of the results of a poll or survey of consumers represents that this is the typical result that ordinary consumers can expect from the advertiser's cake mix.

(6) Example 6. An advertisement appears to show a “hidden camera” situation in a crowded cafeteria at breakfast time. A spokesperson for the advertiser asks a series of patrons of the cafeteria for their spontaneous, honest opinions of the advertiser's recently introduced breakfast cereal. Even though none of the patrons is specifically identified during the advertisement, the net impression conveyed to consumers may well be that these are actual customers. If actors have been employed, this fact should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed.

(7) Example 7.

(i) An advertisement for a recently released motion picture shows three individuals coming out of a theater, each of whom gives a positive statement about the movie. These individuals are actual consumers expressing their personal views about the movie. The advertiser does not need to have substantiation that their views are representative of the opinions that most consumers will have about the movie. Because the consumers' statements would be understood to be the subjective opinions of only three people, this advertisement is not likely to convey a typicality message.

(ii) If the motion picture studio had approached these individuals outside the theater and offered them free tickets if they would talk about the movie on camera afterwards or post about it on social media, that arrangement should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed. (See § 255.5.)

(8) Example 8.

(i) A camping goods retailer's website has various product pages. Each product page provides consumers with the opportunity to review the product and rate it on a five-star scale. Each such page displays the product's average star rating and a breakdown of the number of reviews with each star rating, followed by individual consumers' reviews and ratings. As such, the website is representing that it is providing an accurate reflection of the views of the purchasers who submitted product reviews to the website. If the retailer chose to suppress or otherwise not publish any reviews with fewer than four stars or reviews that contain negative sentiments, the product pages would be misleading as to purchasers' actual opinions of the products.

(ii) If the retailer chose not to post reviews containing profanity, that would not be unfair or deceptive even if reviews containing profanity tend to be negative reviews. However, it would be misleading if the retailer blocked negative reviews containing profanity, but posted positive reviews containing profanity. It would be acceptable for the retailer to have a policy against posting reviews unrelated to the product at issue or related services, for example reviews complaining about the owner's policy positions. But it would be misleading if the retailer chose to filter reviews based on other factors that are only a pretext for filtering them based on negativity. Sellers are not required to display customer reviews that contain unlawful, harassing, abusive, obscene, vulgar, or sexually explicit content; the personal information or likeness of another person; content that is inappropriate with respect to race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity; or reviews that the seller reasonably believes are fake, so long as the criteria for withholding reviews are applied uniformly to all reviews submitted. Neither are sellers required to display reviews that are unrelated to their products or services. A particular seller's customer service, delivery, returns, and exchanges are related to its products and services.

(iii) Assume now that each product page starts with a glowing five-star review that is labeled as “the most helpful review.” Labeling the review as the most helpful suggests it was voted most helpful by consumers visiting the website. If the initial review on each such page was selected by the retailer and was not selected as the most helpful review by other consumers, labeling it as the most helpful would be deceptive.

(9) Example 9. A manufacturer offers to pay genuine purchasers $20 each to write positive reviews of its products on third-party review websites. Such reviews are deceptive even if the payment is disclosed because their positive nature is required by, rather than being merely influenced by, the payment. If, however, the manufacturer did not require the reviews to be positive and the reviewers understood that there were no negative consequences from writing negative reviews, a clear and conspicuous disclosure of the material connection would be appropriate. (See Example 6).

(10) Example 10.

(i) In an attempt to coerce them to delete their reviews, a manufacturer threatens consumers who post negative reviews of its products to third-party review websites, with physical threats, with the disclosure of embarrassing information, with baseless lawsuits (such as actions for defamation that challenge truthful speech or matters of opinion), or with lawsuits it actually does not intend to file. Such threats amount to an unfair or deceptive practice because other consumers would likely be deprived of information relevant to their decision to purchase or use the products, or be misled as to purchasers' actual opinions of the product. 2

2 The Consumer Review Fairness Act makes it illegal for companies to include standardized contract provisions that threaten or penalize people for posting honest reviews. 15 U.S.C. 45b.

(ii) Assume now that one of the third-party review websites has a reporting mechanism that allows businesses to flag suspected fake reviews. The manufacturer routinely flags negative reviews of its products as fake without a reasonable basis for believing that they actually are fake, resulting in truthful reviews being removed from the website. This misuse of the reporting option is an unfair or deceptive practice.

(11) Example 11. A marketer contacts recent online, mail-order, and in-store purchasers of its products and asks them to provide feedback to the marketer. The marketer then invites purchasers who give very positive feedback to post online reviews of the products on third-party websites. Less pleased and unhappy purchasers are simply thanked for their feedback. Such a practice may be an unfair or deceptive practice if it results in the posted reviews being substantially more positive than if the marketer had not engaged in the practice. If, in the alternative, the marketer had simply invited all recent purchasers to provide feedback on third-party websites, the solicitation would not have been unfair or deceptive, even if it had expressed its hope for positive reviews.