By: Brian J. Meli
If the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) were a division of the Department of Defense, its recent Operation Full Disclosure would be the equivalent of dropping leaflets over a battlefield. Part bid to win hearts and minds, part fair warning before punitive actions start raining down, the September initiative consisted of a salvo of choicely worded warning letters addressed to more than 60 U.S. companies, including 20 of the largest 100 national advertisers. The message contained in those letters was clear: advertising has changed dramatically, but advertiser’s disclosure obligations have not.
The FTC didn’t make the identities of those 60-plus advertisers public; only that they represent a sample of various industries and product categories, and that their traditional advertising (print and television) contained seriously inadequate disclosures that could lead to consumer confusion. The consumer protection agency also made a point to emphasize that if an advertiser didn’t receive a letter they shouldn’t take that to mean their advertising complies with current disclosure requirements, suggesting this was a narrowly focused effort to draw attention to a widespread problem.
So what exactly did the FTC hope to accomplish with its Operation Full Disclosure initiative, and what should advertisers take away from it?