Car dealerships are notorious for running loud, flashy ads with too-good-to-be-true offers for outrageous deals to buy or lease cars. Some dealerships downplay or even hide the seemingly endless list of qualifications on those offers which render many potential buyers ineligible for the deals, much to the irritation of misled consumers. The FTC has taken action to stop these misleading practices by continuing its effort to crack down on deceptive advertising among automobile dealerships, which began in 2014 with the FTC’s “Operation Steer Clear,” a nationwide sweep of deceptive car dealership advertising. The FTC’s efforts in this area have continued, most recently resulting in settlement with two Las Vegas auto dealerships.
Planet Hyundai and Planet Nissan of Las Vegas were the subject of FTC enforcement actions alleging that the dealers’ ads misrepresented the cost to buy or lease a car by omitting critical information or deceptively hiding it in fine print. For instance, Planet Hyundai advertised a car for sale with “$0 Down Available,” but fine print revealed that a buyer would have to trade in a car worth a minimum of $2,500 or meet other qualifications in order to take advantage of the offer. Planet Nissan’s advertisements ran purportedly reduced prices side by side with former prices which had been struck through (“Was
$12,888, Now $9,997”). However, the ads did not adequately disclose the qualifications which buyers had to meet to get those prices. Similarly, the ads touted that the cars were for “Purchase! Not a lease!,” when in fact many of the cars were leases. In both cases the FTC alleged that the prominently advertised prices are not generally available to consumers. The dealerships both entered into consent agreements in which they did not have to admit guilt or pay any fines or penalties, but were obligated to abide by relevant laws and regulations pertaining to deceptive advertising.
Further automobile enforcement efforts may be on the horizon. In a late July regulatory filing, GM disclosed that it is currently the subject of an ongoing FTC investigation regarding “certified pre-owned vehicle advertising where dealers had certified vehicles allegedly needing recall repairs.” GM and the FTC declined to comment further, so it is not immediately clear whether the individual dealers were following GM corporate policy when certifying the pre-owned cars in need of recall repairs, or specifically how the ads were allegedly deceptive.
While many of the FTC’s enforcement actions focus on lower-cost products with a large national customer base, such as dietary supplements sold over the internet, these cases serve as a reminder that the FTC’s advertising requirements apply equally to big-ticket items sold locally. Merchants and service providers of every type, whether operating online or in brick and mortar shops, must ensure that their advertisements adequately disclose all material terms and conditions in a way that is not misleading or deceptive.
In e-commerce, user reviews can make or break a business. Review sites such as Yelp are a double edged sword for merchants and service providers: on one hand satisfied customers can generate buzz about the company and bring in new customers, and on the other hand dissatisfied customers can use it as a very public platform to air their grievances and discourage new business.
Review sites such as Yelp maintain policies protecting users’ anonymity, a major source of frustration among business owners. By remaining anonymous, users can make potentially defamatory statements and leave the businesses with little recourse to hold the individuals accountable. A recent ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court has demonstrated the long and tortured road that businesses must take to challenge the anonymity of these unnamed users.
In 2012 a small Virginia company, Hadeed Carpet Cleaning Inc., brought suit against unnamed Doe defendants for allegedly defamatory statements published about Hadeed on the Yelp review website. According to Hadeed, a number of negative reviews did not match up to records of the company’s existing customers, and therefore the company suspected that the false statements were published by individuals who had never used the company’s services. The Circuit Court for the City of Alexandria, Virginia, issued a subpoena to Yelp requiring it to provide identifying information about the anonymous users. Yelp refused to comply, and the Circuit Court held Yelp in contempt.
Yelp appealed, arguing that the court’s order violated the First Amendment by forcing the company to identify the anonymous users. In January 2014 the Court of Appeals upheld the Circuit Court’s order, applying a six-prong procedure Virginia’s “unmasking statute,” which provides that the court may issue a subpoena to unveil the identity of an individual speaking anonymously over the internet where (1) notice of the subpoena was served on the anonymous speaker through his internet service provider, (2) the plaintiff has a legitimate, good faith basis to contend that communications may be tortious or illegal, (3) other efforts to identify the speaker have been fruitless, (4) the identity of the communicator is important, (5) there is no pending motion challenging the viability of the lawsuit, and (6) the entity to whom the subpoena is addressed is likely to have responsive information.
The Court of Appeals noted that Hadeed had followed the proper procedure in requesting the subpoena. The court found that the company’s evidence that the reviews did not match customer records was sufficient to establish they were not published by actual customers of the company, and were therefore likely to be false.
Yelp appealed the Circuit Court decision to Virginia’s Supreme Court. Last month, the Virginia Supreme Court issued an anticlimactic ruling dismissing the case on jurisdictional grounds, stating that the case should have been brought in California where Yelp is headquartered and where the responsive records are located.
If Hadeed chooses to resume the case in California, if will face a somewhat higher burden in obtaining the names of the users. Notably, Virginia is the only state in the country to have enacted an unmasking statute. In most states, the courts will no issue a subpoena until the plaintiff has established a prima facie case for defamation—significantly more than the “legitimate, good faith basis” used in Virginia.
Photo at vi.wikipedia.org
A recent legal case in the UK between singer Rihanna and fashion retailer Topshop has highlighted differences between publicity rights in the UK and some US jurisdictions. Rihanna sued Topshop for its sale of a t-shirt bearing a large photograph of her. Rihanna had not approved or endorsed the sale of the t-shirt; rather, an independent photographer had taken the picture and licensed it for use on the shirts.
In the United States, many jurisdictions have laws governing the right of publicity; that is, the right to control the use of your image for commercial gain, or to be compensated for the commercial use of your image. The UK, however, does not have corresponding laws on image rights. Instead, Rihanna had to allege that Topshop engaged in “passing off” the shirts as being endorsed by the singer, thereby damaging her goodwill and business. In support, Rihanna argued that the circumstances of the sale of the shirts were likely to mislead customers into thinking that she had endorsed the product because the photograph was similar to those used in official album promotions, the nature of the shirt itself, and the fact that Topshop is a major and reputable retailer.
The lower court considered Rihanna’s prior connections to the store in considering whether passing off occurred. It noted that Topshop had previously run a competition in which the winner was awarded with a shopping trip to Topshop. Also, only weeks before the shirts went on sale, Topshop tweeted that Rihanna was shopping at one of its locations. Against that background, the court noted that the particular photograph on the shirt could have led her fans to believe that it was associated with the marketing campaign for the album, since the particular hairstyle and scarf worn by Rihanna in the photograph were widely used in a music video and associated publicity.
Ultimately Rihanna’s passing off arguments were successful, and the court granted an injunction prohibiting Topshop from selling the shirts without informing customers that they had not been approved or authorized by Rihanna. However, it is interesting to think what the result might have been in an instance where it was more obvious that Rihanna had not endorsed the product; for instance, if the t-shirts were sold, not through a trusted retailer which has been associated with the singer but instead by an independent seller hawking t-shirts on the street corner. In such circumstances the case in favor of passing off may have been weaker and Rihanna might not have been able to control the use of her image.
In contrast, the outcome under such a scenario might be very different in a state like California, which has strong right of publicity laws. California Civil Code §3344(a) forbids the use of another’s likeness “on or in products, merchandise, or goods, or for purposes of advertising or selling, or soliciting purchases of, products, merchandise, goods or services, without such person’s prior consent…” The law establishes liability $750 or actual damages, whichever is greater, as well as “any profits from the unauthorized use that are attributable to the use and are not taken into account in computing the actual damages.” Punitive damages and attorney’s fees and costs are also available under the statute.
While Rihanna’s victory in UK court does not establish a right of publicity in the country, it does provide an interesting case study in the workarounds that celebrities must use in order to protect their image from being improperly used in jurisdictions which do not have a right of publicity.