It was a big press day for the FTC announcing its $25 million settlement with Reebok last Wednesday over allegedly deceptive ads for its toning shoes promising “a better butt and better legs with every step.” The Commission's press release trumpeted that "[t]he FTC wants national advertisers to understand that they must exercise some responsibility." (Pun most certainly intended). David Vladeck, Director of the agency's Bureau of Consumer Protection, said, “Consumers expected to get a workout, not to get worked over."
If we applied the FTC's own standards for advertising to its press release, would an average reasonable consumer believe that the company had "exercised" no responsibility? In fact, a closer examination of the record suggests that Reebok had undertaken scientific testing, but that its testing was alleged to be inadequate. In other words, Reebok lacked adequate substantiation. A recent NAD case involved some of the same products and claims in the FTC action -- NAD examined Reebok’s testing to support claims for the EasyTone footwear and found Reebok had conducted an independent study by a qualified expert, but concluded the study was too small and the testing in a lab did not necessarily reflect real world conditions of women using the shoes in daily life. Reebok's own press release in connection with the settlement states that the company conducted sway tests, pressure tests, EMG tests, and wear tests, and that additional testing is underway (Which, since Reebok is paying consumer redress, raises the interesting question of whether, if the additional testing substantiates the claim, can they get their redress money back?). Given these additional facts, as the company that pretty much put aerobics shoes on the map (who remembers these classics appropriately coupled with a gold headband and legwarmers for step class), surely Reebok exercised “some responsibility”.
Now, we're not suggesting that the FTC shouldn’t go after misleading claims, even if the advertiser's intentions were good or their studies are insufficient rather than nonexistent. But, in this electronic age, press releases live forever on Google and elsewhere. And few, if any, people are likely to read the FTC's complaint or other materials to get "the rest of the story." We're all for trying to make information entertaining, heck, we try to do that here, but we wonder whether the public, and advertisers, might not be better served by a bit more balance sometimes in the Commission's press releases.