New BBB advertising standards reflect 21st Century advertising in traditional and new media

The Better Business Bureau has made comprehensive changes to its cornerstone product, the BBB Code of Advertising, to reflect the many new ways advertisers reach consumers via websites, social media, texting and other channels. Every business that advertises in North America is expected to follow BBB’s Code, and compliance is monitored by 112 BBB offices in the U.S. and Canada. Industry self-regulation of truth-in-advertising rules has earned the support of federal regulators who take seriously cases referred to their agencies.

“BBB’s mission is to advance trust in the marketplace, and nothing is more fundamental to that mission than truth-in-advertising,” says Mary E. 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 proviso 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 percent); the Code retains the requirement that at least 10 percent of the class of items identified in the ad must be offered at 40 percent 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.

All 112 BBBs across North America have Advertising Review Specialists who work with businesses in their service area to help ensure truth-in-advertising in all channels. 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. All 4.7 million BBB Business Reviews include a section where concerns about advertising that BBB is aware of may be highlighted. In 2014, BBBs conducted more than 11,000 ad reviews at the local level, and nearly 250 national advertising reviews were conducted by various programs at the Council of Better Business Bureaus.


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