FTC Makes Celebs Actually Use What They Hawk

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What could Britney Spears, Shaquille O'Neal and Bob Dole have in common? Pepsi. They've all appeared in its TV ads. The use of celebrities to pitch products is as old as, well, Bob Dole. But proposed updated guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission are more specific about what's allowed in such endorsements.

The basic rule is simple. If, say, Madonna appears as herself in an ad and says she uses Acme cooking oil, her statement must be true. The proposed guidelines offer examples of ads that cross the line. One scenario: While shooting an infomercial for a roasting bag that's supposed to cook a chicken in 30 minutes, an actor sees the bag repeatedly fail. If he then makes the claim on camera, he is breaking the rule—even if he's reading from a script. "If consumers are likely to view the statement as the person's experience or his opinion, then he can be liable if he has information that suggests that what he's saying is not true," says Richard Cleland, assistant director of the FTC's Division of Advertising Practices. That could mean a payment or an order to stop making the claim.

A fine line

The line between acceptable and not acceptable can be thin. If an actress appears in an apple juice ad and says, "I really like this apple juice," that's not a problem, Cleland points out; it's a subjective statement. But if she says, "I buy only Mott's for my family," then she'd better buy only Mott's.

The amended guidelines also address, for the first time, celebrities' informal mention of products in media appearances (on talk shows, for instance) or in new media such as blogs. Celebrities who have a financial relationship with the product's manufacturer should disclose that link in their product plug.

Kelly in her kitchen

We asked nine celebrities, through their representatives, whether they use the product they pitch and when they started. Of the reps we heard back from, two agreed to answer our questions. Asked whether Kelly Ripa, co-host of "Live with Regis and Kelly," uses Electrolux appliances simultaneously to cook a roast for a dinner party, mac and cheese for a sleepover, and more, as she does in a TV ad, her rep said, "Confirmed." Ripa has used Electrolux appliances for over 30 years, the rep said, "ever since her parents first bought an Electrolux vacuum cleaner for their home." Greg Renker, co-owner of Guthy-Renker, a company that makes direct-response TV ads, says that ads for Proactiv Solution include only celebrities who have already used the anti-acne product, including singer Jessica Simpson and actress Jennifer Love Hewitt.

Are the FTC rules enforceable? After all, nobody's going to shadow Jamie Lee Curtis to make sure she eats Activia yogurt (at least we hope not). The last time the FTC filed suit against a celebrity, in 2000, it alleged that former baseball player Steve Garvey knowingly made false claims in infomercials for Fat Trapper and Exercise in a Bottle. A court cleared Garvey, but the FTC ultimately won a settlement from the manufacturer.

If you suspect that an ad is skirting the rules, you can report it to the FTC.

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