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New BBB Standards Reflect 21st Century Advertising in Traditional, New Media

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Better Business Bureau (BBB) recently made comprehensive changes to its cornerstone product, the BBB Code of Advertising, to reflect the many new ways advertisers reach consumers via web sites, social media, texting and other channels. BBB’s foundation of business self-regulation and truth-in-advertising has earned the support of federal regulators who take seriously cases referred to their agencies. BBBs across the U.S. and Canada monitor advertising for compliance with the code.

“BBB’s mission is to advance trust in the marketplace, and nothing is more fundamental to that mission than truth-in-advertising,” said Mary Power, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. “Businesses must be truthful in what they say, what they infer and what they omit from their advertising. This core message of the code is unchanged, but this comprehensive update covers the many new channels businesses have to reach potential customers.”

The key provision of the code is that “the primary responsibility for truthful and non-deceptive advertising rests with the advertiser” and that advertisers “should be prepared to substantiate any objective claims or offers made before publication or broadcast.”

One of the most significant changes to the code is an update to the section on testimonials and endorsements, to reflect the Federal Trade Commission’s current thinking on, among other things, the use of such testimonials in social media. The most noticeable change to the code is the elimination of the requirement that advertisers include a range of savings whenever an “up to” price savings claim is made (for instance, up to 40%); the code retains the requirement that at least 10% of the class of items identified in the ad must be offered at 40% off.

Other updates address close-out and liquidation sales, duration of sale periods, rebate promotions and distinctions between puffery and objective superlative claims. New additions to the code cover environmental benefit claims, “Made in USA” and “Product of Canada” claims, and continuity programs often offered with free and low-cost merchandise.

The goal is to make industry self-regulation track with regulatory approaches to encourage the most honest and ethical marketing by businesses.

The National Vigilance Committee, later changed to BBB, was founded in Dallas in 1912 by ethical business leaders, with principles based on “The Ten Commandments of Advertising” by Samuel Candler Dobbs of Coca-Cola. The first BBB opened in Minneapolis that year, followed by Cleveland and Salt Lake City in 1913. BBB serving Greater Maryland is currently celebrating its 98th year.

Today, when BBB learns of an advertisement or questionable marketing claim, it notifies the business and seeks voluntary substantiation, modification or discontinuation of the claim(s) in question. BBB Business Reviews include a section where concerns about advertising that BBB is aware of may be highlighted.

In 2014, the BBB system conducted more than 11,000 ad reviews with 240 completed on businesses operating in the region. For more information about BBB or the BBB Code of Advertising, contact BBB serving Greater Maryland at 410-400-4BBB or info@greatermd.bbb.org.

Angie Barnett is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of Greater Maryland. She can be reached at 410-347-3990 and abarnett@greatermd.bbb.org.