BBB National Programs Insights

COVID ADVERTISING: WHAT CONSUMERS NEED TO KNOW

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some advertisers are capitalizing on the public’s fear, promising that products or treatments will protect consumers from this still relatively unknown virus. To safeguard their health and the health of their families, consumers need to view these new, fast-moving claims with skepticism and understand how advertising claims are and are not evaluated for truthfulness.   

Consumers who operate under the impression that a product’s health claims are reviewed by government regulators for accuracy before hitting store shelves (virtual or otherwise) may be surprised to discover that different kinds of products have varying degrees of oversight.  

For example, for a surface cleaner to claim that it kills 99.9% of viruses and bacteria, the advertiser must first complete a rigorous registration process with the EPA where they submit data proving that the product can do what is promised. Everything down to the product directions, which explain the frequency and contact time necessary to obtain those results (i.e., disinfection), are included in the process.1  

Because of the rigorous testing and trail of data, the EPA can identify the products that it expects to be effective against the COVID-19 virus and provide the consumer public with reliable, trustworthy information, even though those products have not been specifically tested against SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19.2  

What many consumers don’t know is that dietary supplement advertising is not subject to the same rigorous review. Neither is an advertiser selling a simple, non-surgical face mask. 

Although all advertisers are required by law to ensure that their advertising claims are truthful and accurate, misleading claims can enter the marketplace before government, self-regulatory, or third-party entities can get to it. When a flurry of new products that consumers are less familiar with – such as face masks - bombard the market, consumers can be deceived about what a product does or does not do. And we are seeing this happen with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Recently the FTC and FDA sent out several warning letters to companies that are making claims that their products prevent, treat, or cure COVID19.3 The products identified by the government in these letters range from a facial brush that is advertised to “fight off coronavirus” to IV-administered treatments advertised as having immunity boosting properties. State regulators are also taking notice of coronavirus advertising claims. For example, New York’s attorney general recently ordered a company specializing in CBD products to stop marketing that its product cures or treats COVID19.4   

To be clear, there are currently no FDA-approved products to prevent or treat COVID-19.5 

If a product claims to protect against a virus, that claim must be approved by the FDA before the product enters the marketplace. It is a detailed process that requires scientific evidence, such as the results of a human clinical trial, to prove the accuracy of the promise the advertisement is making. Just as there has not been enough time to develop a vaccine for this virus, there also hasn’t been enough time to reliably test products to fight against it.  

 

What is being done to protect consumers? 

 

The advertising industry’s self-regulatory system at BBB National Programs, the National Advertising Division (NAD) as well as the Direct Selling Self-Regulatory Council (DSSRC) are currently reviewing advertising claiming to treat or prevent COVID19. Our system of advertising self-regulation responds to complaints by competitors or consumers if advertising is believed to be misleading and their decisions represent the largest body of advertising decisions in the U.S.  

Digital platforms also have policies prohibiting false or misleading advertising. For example, Google and Facebook use algorithms to prevent certain claims from being made at all or they will take down misleading claims after complaints or other measures prompt review. They too have committed to removing COVID-19 claims that could cause harm or convey misleading health-related information.    

Consumers concerned about their health during the COVID-19 crisis should know that COVID-19 is a new disease, and advertisers claiming that their products prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19 are breaking the law. A dietary supplement producer may be able to make a truthful and accurate claim about a vitamin that was “formulated to help support the immune system,” 6 but if that advertiser expressly or impliedly ties that immune support to COVID19, consumers should be skeptical. For that to be true, the COVID-19 claim would need reliable scientific support that specifically includes endpoints for that disease.7 This, of course, is impossible as COVID19 is too new for such claims to be scientifically proven yet.    

Understanding the rules of the road for how and when advertising claims are reviewed for truthfulness empowers consumers allowing for better decision-making. It may also do more to protect their health and wallets than taking products sold by companies capitalizing on our fears.