Protecting and Empowering Consumers: Recognizing False Advertising During COVID-19

May 14, 2020 by BBB National Programs


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 that of their families, consumers need to view these new, fast-moving advertising claims with skepticism and understand how they are 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.


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.


What many consumers don’t know is that advertisements for a wide range of items, from dietary supplements to a simple, non-surgical face mask, are not subject to the same rigorous review


Although all advertisers are required by law to ensure that their 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 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.


Recently, the FTC and FDA sent out dozens of warning letters to companies claiming that their products prevent, treat, or cure COVID-19. The products identified by the government in these letters range from a facial brush 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 COVID-19.


To be clear, there are currently no FDA-approved products to prevent or treat COVID-19.


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 results of a human clinical trial -- to prove the accuracy of the advertisement’s promise. 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. That means products claiming to treat, cure, or prevent COVID-19 are violating the law.


What is being done to protect consumers?

The advertising industry’s self-regulatory system at BBB National Programs, the National Advertising Division (NAD) and the Direct Selling Self-Regulatory Council (DSSRC), are currently reviewing advertisements that claim to treat or prevent COVID-19. Our system of advertising self-regulation responds to complaints by competitors or consumers if advertising is believed to be misleading, and those 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 this 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,” but if that advertiser expressly or impliedly ties that immune support to COVID-19, 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. This, of course, is impossible as COVID-19 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.  




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