FTC Chairman Joseph Simons used his opening keynote address at the 2019 ANA Advertising Law & Public Policy Conference to put his audience on notice: the FTC has its eye on national advertisers.  Simons made it clear that even during a Republican administration, under his leadership, the Bureau of Consumer Protection will no longer be the forgotten half of the agency.  Simons characterized the FTC as the “primary cops on the beat,” the foot soldiers charged with enforcing the “level playing field” on which companies compete, “based on the merits and unique features of their products and services.”

Simons made it clear that consumer protection is not limited to policing “worthless or harmful” products.  Instead, he reminded the audience that the FTC has, does, and will continue to bring enforcement actions against bona fide products if they make claims that overstep or play fast and loose with the truth.  Citing a dozen high-profile examples, he emphasized that the Commission will take these cases into federal court where necessary.  National advertisers can expect no quarter for being white hat providers of “legitimate” goods and services if they employ unscrupulous methods of advertising.

Going forward, he stressed, the FTC will reconsider its approach to remedies in consumer protection matters.  He cited civil monetary penalties, corporate officer liability, and consumer notices as primary tools in the FTC’s toolbox.  The FTC’s penalties can be severe—rising into eleven figures, even—and its enforcement eye is not blinded by only high-profile cases.

Chairman Simons closed his remarks with the example of data privacy as a growing focus of concern for the Commission.  While stakeholders from the FCC to the plaintiffs’ bar to industry self-regulators each try to carve out enforcement powers over Big Data, the FTC reminded the ANA that it continues to retain jurisdiction over the messaging that consumers receive.  When it comes to disclosing how data will be collected and used, Chairman Simons was clear about the standard the FTC will hold advertisers to: “Tell the full truth.”

Thus, while other regulatory bodies under the Trump Administration have taken a lighter touch, the FTC under Simons appears to be ready to come down heavy and hard.