Truth in Advertising – Deceptive Word Choices can be Costly

My Vibram Fivefingers by Lavender Dreamer from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

My Vibram Fivefingers by Lavender Dreamer from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’m sure you’ve heard about the class action lawsuit that claimed that Vibram misrepresented how its FiveFingers shoes benefited consumers’ health.  In the settlement, Vibram offered to provide a refund to any purchaser who requests it. Vibram created a site about the settlement that will provide information, including how to file a claim if you qualify.

Unfortunately, cases like this are not uncommon. I saw a similar article in the Wall Street Journal last week where Proctor & Gamble (makers of Crest) sued Hello Products for false advertising when Hello put a claim on its toothpaste that said the product was “99% Natural.” Hello was forced to remove ~100,000 tubes of toothpaste from store shelves, change the claim “99% Natural” to “Naturally Friendly,” and pay “six figures” for legal fees related to this case.

So how do you avoid these problems? It’s pretty easy – just be truthful.

Federal rules about truth in advertising require that all your advertisements be “truthful and non-deceptive.” If you make any claims, you must be able to back them up with evidence. If you have endorsements, they must be truthful and accurate, and you must disclose when a person is compensated for giving their opinion. (This includes getting free products.)

If you violate these rules, you might receive a cease and desist letter from your competition or the Federal Trade Commission which is tasked with protecting consumers. You could also be fined by the FTC, be sued for unfair competition and/or false advertising by another company, and/or face a class action lawsuit from consumers who claim that they were deceived into buying your product.

When you are working on your marketing campaigns, be careful that your marketing team doesn’t create content that crosses the line from mere puffery into false advertising. If you haven’t done so yet, review the FTC’s Truth in Advertising website.  They have useful information about required disclosures, using endorsements and testimonials, and making health or “green” claims about your products. If you have legal counsel, consider inviting them to your marketing meetings or at least have them review your materials to make sure that your team doesn’t inadvertently cross the line into false advertising.

If you want to talk more about truth in advertising, you can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. There’s also a chapter dedicated to endorsements and blogging in my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

What was up with General Mills’ Legal Terms?

General Mills Kids Breakfast Cereals by Mike Mozart from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

General Mills Kids Breakfast Cereals by Mike Mozart from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I got lots of messages last week when it came out that General Mills’ legal terms said that if you downloaded their coupons, connected with them on social media, entered a contest, or purchased any of their products that you agreed to resolve all disputes with the company through binding arbitration or informal negotiation via email.

And everybody lost their minds.

I can understand requiring arbitration for disputes related to contests. I write terms of service for websites all the time and I also include a dispute resolution where my client specifies where, how, and using which state’s law problems will be resolved. I would never tell a client to write their terms in a way that dictates how they’re going to resolve problems that are not related to a website.

I think it’s ridiculous that they’d even try to tell consumers that making a purchase forces them to resolve disputes in arbitration unless those provisions are available on the packaging and in print that might make a consumer take notice. I’ve never thought to examine a cereal box for contract terms.

Thankfully General Mills saw the light and reversed its decision and voided the offensive terms this past Saturday. In a blog post, General Mills spokesperson Kirstie Foster wrote, “No one is precluded from suing us by purchasing our products at a store, and no one is precluded from suing us when they ‘like’ one of our Facebook pages.”

General Mills still supports arbitration for resolving disputes and I understand why. It can be a faster and more cost-effective way to resolve problems. However, some disputes are better left to litigation where there is the option to pursue a class-action lawsuit when the situation warrants it.

We agree to contract terms all the time. Every time we click the “I agree” button for an online service or to create an account on a social media platform, we are agreeing to the terms of the contract (even if we don’t read the terms). The next time you go to a concert or a professional sporting event, flip over your ticket and read the fine print on the back. That’s a contract. I have no problem with these contracts as long as they make sense for the situation and don’t overreach into scenarios where it would be unreasonable for the terms to extend.

My Neighborhood Whataburger

My Neighborhood Whataburger

For example, I recently heard that there was a sign at a Whataburger restaurant that put consumers on notice that by eating in the restaurant, they agreed to resolve all disputes related to their dining experience via arbitration. I tried to confirm this but I didn’t see such a sign in my neighborhood Whataburger. I visited their website and didn’t see such a provision; however, I was perturbed to see terms and conditions that said:

By giving us permission to use your post or tweet, you agree that we may, at our discretion, use your real or social media user name and the content of your post or tweet (including all accompanying images) on our website to promote our company, products and services for such time period as we wish. You give us the right to edit your post or tweet for brevity, clarity and the like and to modify any image in any manner we deem necessary to use it on our website. You will not have the advance right to review or approve what we post on our website….You will not receive any compensation for granting us the above rights. We agree that you may withdraw the permission you have given us at any time by sending us an email at customerrelations@wbhq.com.

Whataburger’s Facebook page says they can use anything you post on their page but I didn’t see any similar verbiage on their Twitter profile. I think they’re trying to set themselves up so they can use anything you post about the company on social media, including editing it which I’m not too keen about the verbiage they used.

This is a topic that is worth watching to see what becomes the norm in social media marketing. I f you want to talk more about terms of service or social media law, connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. Please subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter and visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

How To Change Your Business Address with the Arizona Corporation Commission

A.C.C. Statement of Change Paperwork for Carter Law Firm

A.C.C. Statement of Change Paperwork for Carter Law Firm

One of the exciting things that’s happened at Carter Law Firm in the last few months is we’ve moved from being a virtual law practice to having a brick-and-mortar office. It’s been wonderful settling in to our new digs.

My New Office!

It’s Official!

As you all know, one of the things you have to do when you move is update your address. The firm’s mail service is paid up until March 2014 so we have plenty of time to update our information with all of our vendors, but then I started thinking about what we’d have to do with State and these were the type of questions that went through my head:

  • Ugh – How much of a pain in the ass is it going to be to update our information at the Corporation Commission?
  • Is it going to be expensive?
  • Do we have to publish?

I jumped on the Corporation Commission’s forms page for LLCs and started digging around. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that updating the business and statutory agent’s address would be relatively simple to do. According to them, all it takes is a Statement of Change and a $5.00 fee – and no publication required. The paperwork was straightforward – old address, new address, and a signature. I didn’t change my statutory agent, just their address, so I didn’t have to complete the statutory agent acceptance form. I slapped on their cover sheet, wrote a check, made a copy of the paperwork for my records, and popped it into the mail.

Rosie Watching the Office Through her Baby Gate

Rosie Watching the Office Through her Baby Gate

I could have paid an extra $35.00 to expedite it, but it wasn’t necessary so I didn’t. It will take them up to a month to update my file at the Corporation Commission, but I’ve had no trouble updating my address with anyone. I was surprised the bank didn’t ask to see my paperwork; they just took my word for it when I showed them my driver’s license.

Now we’re in the process of getting everything updated – ordering new business cards and checks, updating the website, etc. It feels good to be in a proper office – especially one that lets Rosie come to work with me. She’s still getting used to office life. Watching the world through the office baby gate is less exciting than watching the street through the front door screen, but she loves the attention from my officemates.

You can connected with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

Independents Week Specials at Carter Law Firm

Carter Law Firm Independents Week 2013One of the things I love about being a solo attorney in Phoenix is I get to be part of Local First Arizona. This is an organization for locally-owned businesses and it’s a great place to meet and connect with amazing professionals in the state.

Independents Week is coming up June 30 – July 7, 2013. Local First created the Golden Coupon program for this week to celebrate these businesses and give you another reason to check out the independent businesses in your community. Dozens of businesses will be giving patrons a 20% discount if they shop with a Golden Coupon during Independents Week. Dozens of Local First members all over Arizona are participating. Check out the full list on the Local First website and my list of places I’m excited to visit on The Undeniable Ruth.

After seeing the success of last year’s Golden Coupon program, Carter Law Firm is participating in this year’s program and offering 20% off legal consultations. Since there are only so many hours in the day, the firm only requires you to contact us during Independents Week to get in on the discount. You can schedule the consultation itself anytime in July 2013 and use your Golden Coupon.

Here’s how to use your Golden Coupon with Carter Law Firm:

  1. golden-couponPrint the Golden Coupon from Local First Arizona.
  2. During Independents Week (June 30 – July 7) contact the Ruth and say you want to book a legal consultation with your Golden Coupon.
  3. Schedule you appointment for any mutually agreed upon time during July 2013.

Please note, that you should schedule an appointment to talk about your business, intellectual property, social media, or flash mob law needs. All other legal questions are outside the firm’s scope of practice.

Don’t forget to check out all the other locally owned businesses that are participating in the Golden Coupon program. This is a great opportunity to try out a new place or revisit a business you love in your community.

You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.

How To Trademark a Business Name

Can programming language names be trademarks? by opensourceway from Flickr

Can programming language names be trademarks? by opensourceway from Flickr

Last week a friend asked me if a business could trademark their name. Anyone who’s spent much time with me knows that the answer to every legal question is “It depends.” In this case it depends on whether your business name is trademarkable and if anyone else had claimed the same or a similar name for your category of goods or services.

When you start a business, check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) database to see if anyone has registered the name you want to use (or a similar one) for selling the same goods and services as you. If someone’s already using the name you want, you will likely be infringing on their trademark rights if you use the name on your products. They could force you to change your name and rebrand if you use the name that someone’s already registered. If you were using the business name on your products and someone registers the name before you, you’ll be in the Burger King situation where you can keep using your name, but only in your established market.

Once you establish that your desired name hasn’t been registered by someone else, you have to look at whether the name you want is trademarkable. Not every business or product name can be a registered trademark. Here are the five types of trademarks.

1. Fanciful Marks: Fanciful marks are words that didn’t exist before you stuck it on your products. Examples include Exxon and Kodak. These marks can be registered with the USPTO main registry.

2. Arbitrary Marks: Arbitrary marks are words in real life, but they are stuck on a product that has no connection to the word. For example, the mark “Apple” for computers, cell phones, and digital music players is an arbitrary mark. The fruit has nothing to do with digital machines and gadgets. These marks can be registered with the USPTO main registry.

3. Suggestive Marks: Suggestive marks are marks where if you think about it, you can make a connection between the mark and the product. “Playboy” as a mark for a men’s magazine is a suggestive mark. These marks can be registered with the USPTO main registry. It’s sometimes hard to discern the difference between suggestive and descriptive marks.

4. Descriptive Marks: Descriptive marks merely describe the product. This includes businesses where the owner names the business after themselves. These marks can be registered on the USPTO main registry after they’ve established “acquired distinctiveness,” which usually means you’ve been using the mark for five years.

5. Generic Marks: Generic marks are the name of the products themselves. It would be if you had an apple orchard and wanted to sell your apples using the mark “Apples.” If the USPTO let you register that mark, no other apple farmers could call their apples “apples” without infringing on your trademark rights. Generic marks can never be registered with the USPTO.

This video may help. You can watch it below or see it here.

If you want to know if your business name can be your trademark and the risks and rewards surrounding registering your mark, contact a trademark attorney in your community.

You can connect with me on TwitterGoogle+FacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me.
You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm monthly newsletter.
Please visit my homepage for more information about Carter Law Firm.