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Advertising in the Age of COVID? Be Ready to Prove What You Preach.

by Ben Spradling | Aug 20, 2020 3:04:51 PM

Accurate information feels like it’s at a premium, right? Circumstances surrounding the pandemic are unprecedented. Updates on closures, mandates and other regulations are arriving at a rapid-fire rate. It’s understandably difficult to know what’s real right now. Maybe more importantly, it’s tough to know what isn’t.

For businesses that thrive on deceiving customers, all the confusion has created opportunity. Chuck Harwood, regional director for the Federal Trade Commission, reported in a recent webinar hosted by Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific that more than 160,000 customer complaints related to COVID-19 have been filed to the agency. Nationally, those filings already reflect upwards of $106B in losses.


Thankfully, most businesses have good intentions. But as it relates to advertising products and services to consumers, that may not be enough. The FTC requires that businesses be able to substantiate any claims they make in the marketplace. So, businesses that feel they have solutions to problems created by the pandemic better be ready to back up any statements they make.

“If you say that a product works, a product cures, a product treats, a product fixes, you have to have proof before you make that claim.”

“If you say that a product works, a product cures, a product treats, a product fixes, you have to have proof before you make that claim,” said Harwood. “It has to be in hand. You can't make a claim then say later, ‘Well, you know, now that you called me, I'll check to see if I can prove it.’ No, in fact, it has to exist before you make the claim.”

Backing up statements prior to their inclusion in advertisements fits within a set of standards that Hardwood advises businesses practice right now:

  • Substantiation. If your business is going to market a product a certain way, there needs to be proof backing up what you’re messaging. The coronavirus is still largely an unknown, with very little analysis available to accurately predict what does or does not impact its survival. Businesses advertising treatments or cures for COVID-19 likely don’t have enough science to justify their comments, so those claims automatically raise red flags with the FTC.

  • Disclosure. Information clarifying the products and services your business provides consumers needs to BE shared clearly and upfront. Burying that information is considered a deceitful to the FTC and can result in some financial and/or operational consequences. Broadly advertising one message and then clarifying those statements in some fine print is not an allowable practice.

  • Responsibility. Third-party marketers employed by businesses to advertise their products may be the party responsible for any messages that mislead consumers. Harwood shared an example of a marketer packaging auto sales discounts to look like economic stimulus checks. Businesses should make sure advertising meets the necessary standards, especially if they’re not the ones directly producing what’s being shared.

  • Supply. If your business is promising to deliver a product by a certain time or date, then your business needs to follow through on that. Thousands of the complaints filed to the FTC the past five-plus months have been shipping-related. Definitely do not make shipment claims about any products that are not currently in supply.

Supplemental information for making sure your business’ advertising practices align with FTC expectations is available by visiting the agency’s business center at www.FTC.gov. Additional resources can be found at www.bulkorder.ftc.gov.

Learn more about advertising honestly during the pandemic, as well as practicing Better Business Bureau’s other Standards for Trust in your organization, by visiting trust-bbb.org.

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