As you learned in the previous post, the FTC wants website disclosures to be clear and conspicuous. The FTC also wants disclosures to be read at the same time as the claims they qualify. There are other guidelines that website operators must follow when using disclosures to qualify some claim made on the website. Any disclosures that fail to meet these requirements are illegal. What are the other requirements that website operators must follow when using website disclosures?
The following 14 rules summarize FTC website disclosures guidelines:
Proximity and Placement
The Disclosure Golden Rule: First, you must understand the Golden Rule: always place disclosures next to or as close to the underlying claim as possible for maximum effectiveness. The closer the disclosure is to the claim, the more effective and better off you will be. This is especially the case for disclosures which are an integral part of the claim. According to the FTC, disclosures that are an “integral” part of a claim are inseparable from it and should be placed next to the claim and on the same page.
Disclosures relating to cost, safety, and health or other disclosures material to the customer’s purchase are integral to the underlying claim. Basically, if the disclosure would influence the customer’s decision to purchase, the disclosure is integral to the claim and should be in close proximity. (i.e. penalties upon cancellation of a membership or side effects of an “energy boosting” herbal supplement).
Often, disclosures consist of a word or phrase that may be easily incorporated into the text, along with the claim. These are known as “in-line” disclosures. For example, “imitation pearls,” “imitation Rolex watch” or “replica jersey.” These are the best types of disclosures since they are always read in conjunction with the claim.
Lengthy or Complex Disclosures
The FTC recognizes that some disclosures might be too long to place next to the claims they qualify. In this case, you should place the disclosure on the bottom of the screen, but be sure to follow these rules:
Rule #1: Your viewers should not have to scroll down to the bottom of the screen to understand the importance of the disclosure. The FTC wants you to use text or visual cues to encourage consumers to scroll. For example, “Please read important information below!” Statements that are general and do not stress the importance of the information should be avoided. “See details below” is too vague and generic. Simply placing a scroll bar on the side of the screen is not an effective visual cue, according to the FTC.
Rule #2: You should consider how the Web page will be displayed by all web browsers. Also, you should avoid webpage formats that discourage scrolling.
Linking to a Separate Disclosure Page
Depending upon how you use it, a disclosure on a separate page accessible by a link may be considered to be close enough to the underlying claim to be considered effective. Using links to a separate page is useful if the disclosure is lengthy or if it needs to be repeated. If the details about a claim are too complex or long to describe adjacent to the claim, a link can be effective. But, a statement about the existence and nature of the information apart of the disclosure should always be placed next to the claim. According to the FTC, the link should convey the importance, nature and relevance of the underlying disclosure. Using text that is actually a part of or describes the disclosure is a very good way to accomplish this.
Rule #3: Label your disclosure links so that your consumers are compelled to click on the link.
EXAMPLE: “Click here to read important information about cancellation penalties” in conjunction with a price advertisement for some monthly service, or “Some Parts are Used. Click here for Specific Information” in relation to an ad about electronic replacement components. Such links placed immediately next to the relevant ads containing the price or description of the weight would compel the reader to click on the link. The nature of the information is identified by the title of the link and its obvious importance will lead the viewer to want to find out more.
A link that is labeled “Click here for details,” “See details” or “Disclaimer” is too generic and the viewer is much less likely to be compelled to want to see what the disclosure says. Again, the link must convey the importance, nature, and relevance of the underlying disclosure. So, you must avoid general and vague link titles. A link titled “3/4 Ct” to identify a disclosure about the exact weight of a diamond would be ineffective. Similarly, a link titled “Vinyl” next to the claim “pure virgin vinyl” would not indicate the nature of a disclosure about important information concerning the actual purity of the vinyl.
According to the FTC, the key considerations for effective hyperlinks are:
the labeling or description of the hyperlink;
the consistency in the use of hyperlink styles;
its placement and prominence on the Web page, and
the handling of the disclosure on the click-through page.
Rule #4: Avoid using asterisks or other symbols such as stars without accompanying text. Viewers tend to gloss over these innocuous symbols as they don’t convey the nature or importance of the underlying disclosure.
Rule #5: Use the same type of style for all disclosure links you use on your website to maintain consistency. The FTC says that using hyperlink styles consistently allows consumers to know when a link is available. Treating disclosure links inconsistently within your website can increase the chances that consumers will not notice or click on the link.
For example, if all links usually are underlined on your site, consumers may not recognize italicized text or text in all-caps as being a link instead. Don’t use graphics, such as stars or other symbols, as a disclosure link if those symbols or graphics are not exclusively used on the website to lead to disclosures. Again, the idea is you cannot mislead the consumer, so you should not confuse them with inconsistent usage of disclosure links.
Rule #6: Place any links near relevant information and make them noticeable. Any link leading to a disclosure should be next to the claim that triggers the disclosure so that consumers can notice it easily and read it in conjunction with the claim. Typically, this means that the hyperlink is immediately adjacent to the triggering term or other relevant information.
EXAMPLE: The FTC provides an example in their guides regarding disclosing that the weight of a diamond claimed to be ¾ carat may not weight precisely ¾ carat. If this disclosure were placed as text at the bottom of the screen away from the original claim, it would be ineffective. According to the FTC “because of the blank space between the textual description of the product and the disclosure, even consumers who scroll down the page will probably think that there is no more information to view and are likely to miss the disclosure.” In this case, the most effective way to place the disclosure using a link is to include the text link “Diamond Weights Not Exact. Click Here for Weight Ranges” immediately next to the claim that the diamond is ¾ carat.
Rule# 7: The separate disclosure page must contain the complete disclosure and the link must lead directly to the disclosure page. Don’t place the disclosure language in the middle of the page and then link to the top of the page where consumers must scroll down to find the disclosure. The link should bring consumers directly to the disclosure language.
TIP! You can monitor how often consumers click on a link and view the click-through page to determine the effectiveness of the link. According to the FTC, advertisers also can evaluate the amount of time visitors spend on a certain page, which may indicate whether consumers are reading the disclosure or not.
Alternative ways of Placing Disclosures
Disclosures may be displayed on websites in many ways other than text links or inline text disclosures. As an example, a disclosure may be placed in a frame that remains constant even as the consumer scrolls down the page or navigates through another part of the site, via pop-up windows or on interstitial pages that appear while another page is loading. Always keep other web browsers in mind when creating alternative methods of displaying disclosures.
As the FTC points out, a scrolling marquee (information that scrolls through a box on a website) may display differently depending on the type of web browser it is displayed upon. Similarly, some web browsers may not support or display frames properly, so a disclosure placed in one portion of the frame may not be viewable. Talk to your web programmer as there are tools out there to ensure frames are displayed properly. Obviously, any required disclosure needs to appear no matter what format you decide to utilize.
Keep in mind, pop-up windows or interstitial pages may disappear and viewers may be unable or unaware of how to re-access them. If you use a pop-up screen that contains the disclosure and it appears when visitors first access this page. Then, if a visitor clicks on another portion of the page, the pop-up window minimizes and disappears from the display area. The pop-up screen does not reappear when the page is re-accessed. In this case, visitors may miss the disclosure, especially if they do not understand how to display a minimized window.
The FTC believes that there may be ways to get around this, such as requiring visitors to take some affirmative action to proceed past the pop-up or interstitial page. For example, you could require your visitors to click on a “continue” button to proceed.
TIP! The FTC believes that conducting research may be useful to help advertisers determine whether a particular technique is an effective method of displaying disclosures. Research may show that viewers do not actually read information in pop-up windows because they immediately close the pop-up on the page they want to view.
Rule #8: Disclosures must be effectively communicated to consumers before they make a purchase or incur a financial obligation. Don’t place disclosures only on the order page. According to the FTC, disclosures are more likely to be effective “if they are provided in the context of the ad when the consumer is considering the purchase.” A disclosure cannot be so far removed from the underlying claim that the customer will not effectively read the two together. For example, you should not place a disclosure regarding the payment made to a customer in connection with his or her testimonial on the ordering page. In this case, the disclosure is likely to be far removed from the testimonial it qualifies to resonate in the mind of the customer.
Rule# 9: Disclose required information in the banner ad itself when possible. Obviously, you may not be able to place lengthy disclosures in a banner ad. The disclosure can be made available on a click-through page in this case, but you should indicate there is additional important information available. The FTC does allow the use of Scrolling text or rotating panels in a banner to provide a required disclosure, or that indicates the existence of the disclosure on a separate page.
EXAMPLE: A banner ad that advertises a product is “free” but where the customer must pay shipping and handling, this fact should be disclosed directly in the banner ad somewhere.
You should display the disclosure prominently so the text is noticeable to consumers and captures their attention. In other words, make sure all disclosures stand out to the consumer so that he or she will be drawn to it. The size, color, and graphics of the disclosure can determine its prominence.
Here are some rules you should follow according to the FTC:
- The font size of the disclosure text should be at least as large as the other text contained on the page;
- Use a text color that contrasts with the background and makes the disclosure more noticeable. Don’t use text that blends in with the background and doesn’t stand out (such as light grey text on a white background);
- Using graphics is not required, but it may make a disclosure more noticeable (i.e. text boxes, buttons, bordering, etc.);
- Using the same color or same type of graphics to identify a disclosure that is also used for the underlying claim can be helpful;
- Don’t bury the disclosure in the middle of unrelated text or surround it with graphics-the disclosure must stand out.
Rule #10: Don’t distract the viewer or divert attention away from the disclosure.
Elements like graphics, sound, text or links may divert attention away from the disclosure. For instance, using flashing images or animated graphics not related to the disclosure may reduce the prominence of the disclosure since the viewer may focus on those elements instead of the disclosure. Use your common sense. If you are drawn to these other elements as opposed to reading the disclosure, so will your customers. According to the FTC, graphics alone on a webpage may not undermine the effectiveness of a disclosure. You must consider all the elements in the ad, including the text, to figure out if distractions exist. If you are going to place a disclosure on a separate page via hyperlink, I suggest only placing the disclosure text on the separate page.
Rule #11: Don’t rely on a single disclosure to qualify repeated claims. In some situations, a disclosure is tied so closely to a claim that it must always accompany the claim to prevent deception. Depending on the disclosure, a clearly-labeled hyperlink could be repeated on various pages so that the full disclosure would be placed on only one page of the site. Many visitors may access a website through a page other than the homepage. Visitors also might not click-on every page of the site or may not want to scroll to the bottom of each page. Most won’t read every word on every page of your site. Because of this, the FTC wants you to question whether viewing only a portion of an ad on your website will lead to missing any necessary disclosure.
Multimedia (Audio/Video) Messages
Rule #12: If you make audio claims, use audio disclosures. The disclosure should be in a volume and cadence sufficient for a reasonable consumer to hear and understand it. The volume of the disclosure can be evaluated in relation to the rest of the message, and in particular, the claim. Of course, consumers who do not have speakers, appropriate software, or appliances with audio capabilities will not hear the claim or the disclosure. Because some consumers may miss the audio portion of an ad, disclosures triggered by a claim or other information in an ad’s text should not be placed solely in an audio clip.
Rule #13: Display visual disclosures for a sufficient duration. Visual disclosures should appear long enough for consumers to notice, read and understand them.
Rule #14: Use clear and simple disclosure language
Your customers must understand any disclosures you make on your website. Make your disclosures clear and simple. Avoid technical or legal jargon as much as you can. Draft the disclosure as if the customer is right in front of your face and you are explaining it to them directly.