The ERSP Online Complaint Program
Stephen Barrett, M.D.
In April 2004, the Electronic Retailing Association (ERA) and the National Advertising Review Council (NARC) announced that they had launched a program to counter the dissemination of unsubstantiated and false advertising claims. The new Electronic Retailing Self-Regulation Program (ERSP) will be funded by the ERA but administered by the NARC. The FTC has expressed support for the program, which is set up to work like this:
- Anyone with a complaint about a false or unsubstantiated infomercial or direct-response ad can fill out the complaint form at the Savvy Shopper Web site.
- The complaint will go to the attorney at the NARC for review.
- The marketer is notified and has 15 days to provide substantiation.
- Once the marketer provides the materials, the independent attorney has no longer than 45 days to review the materials and render a decision. Thus the process should be completed within 60 days.
- If the claims and campaign are found to be misleading, the marketer will be asked to stop them.
- If the false ads are not stopped, the matter will be referred to the FTC and reports, press releases and letters will be issued to notify the media and cable stations of the review's findings.
- However, if the ad is found to be substantiated, no action will be taken.
The ERA is the trade association for major companies who use electronic media to advertise goods and services to the public. Its membership is involved in multi-channel electronic marketing that includes infomercials and short-form commercials, live shopping channels, the Internet, radio, and convergence. (Convergence marketing involves integration of online and offline media.) The Savvy Shopper site and complaint form have been online for several years without with little or no public attention. However, increased publicity and the NARC involvement are likely to have an impact.
The NARC was formed in 1971 by the Association of National Advertisers, Inc., the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Inc., the American Advertising Federation, Inc., and the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB), Inc. Its purpose is to foster truth and accuracy in national advertising through voluntary self-regulation. The NARC establishes the policies and procedures for the CBBB’s National Advertising Division (NAD), which has been the investigative arm of NARC's self-regulation program since its inception. The ERSP will be run by attorney Peter Marinello of NARC and conduct its investigations independently from NAD.
The ERSP complaint form asks when and where you saw the infomercial, so be sure to write them down as you view it. If you intend to challenge several claims, it is useful to prepare a summary in a separate document so you can copy and paste the text into the small spaces that the form provides. Note that the program evaluates the truth and accuracy of “core” claims of the direct response advertisements and is not set up to deal with financial concerns such as refunds and unauthorized charges.
Between April 2004 and January 2007, the ERSP monitored more than 4,200 advertisements for more than 1,900 products offered through direct response campaigns. So far it has published 125 decisions. In 119 of the cases, the challenged ads were either modified or discontinued. The ERSP has also complained to the FTC about infomercials for 13 health-related products: 7 Day Miracle Cleanse, AbGONE, Centro Natural de Salud, Hepatol Complex, HoodiaLife, Nexiderm-SP Anti-Wrinkle Formula, Phenterprin HCL, Renuva Anti-Aging System, Rev XP, Sea Vegg Nutritional Supplement, Super Prostate Formula, Ultimate HGH, and Zantrex-3.
Complaints can also be made directly to the Federal Trade Commission, which is concerned about both advertising and improper sales practices such as unauthorized charges and failure to provide refunds. The most efficient way to exert leverage against misleading infomercials is to complain online to both agencies. If you do so, please let me know.
This page was revised on February 8, 2007.