Online Supplement Sales: Staying in Compliance with the FTC

Selling dietary supplements online presents business owners with a unique set of considerations. With consumer protection in mind, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) has taken note that the rapid accumulation of scientific research regarding the uses and effects of dietary supplements has left consumers highly susceptible to inaccurate claims and manipulative marketing techniques. As a result, there are strict rules and regulations with which businesses selling dietary supplements online must be compliant to remain in the good graces of the FTC.

Truthful, Substantiated Claims

The primary objective of the FTC is to enforce laws prohibiting “unfair or deceptive acts or practices.” As applied to dietary supplements, the aim of the FTC is to ensure that consumers are provided with accurate information to inform their decisions to buy and use certain products. This means that companies selling dietary supplements online must ensure their online content – whether it be a company website or in online marketing and advertising materials – must be truthful, not misleading, and any claims made about a product being advertised must be supported by adequate substantiation.

This “truthfulness” requirement applies to more than just the claims that are expressly stated. Phrases, statements, and even overall impressions created by online content create the risk of conveying an underlying implication that is untruthful, misleading, or unsubstantiated. As a result, it is important to exercise caution and fully evaluate the words contained within your online content and how they could be interpreted by your target audience.

Prominent and Clear Disclosures

The information you fail to provide is just as important as the words that make up your content. Businesses selling dietary supplements are required to disclose “material information” that a consumer should be aware of in light of the representations made or suggested by a business, as well as any information that is relevant to how consumers should use a product. This information includes, among other things, whether a product poses any safety risks and whether the claims made about a product apply only to a certain number of individuals. Moreover, merely disclosing material information does not mean a business has fulfilled its duty. The information must be prominently and clearly displayed so that it will be noticed by consumers. This means fine-print disclosures at the bottom of advertisements and disclaimers buried in a body of text or at the bottom of a website where they are likely to be overlooked just won’t cut it.

Testimonials and Expert Opinions

Providing consumer testimonials and expert opinions is a common practice for companies selling dietary supplements. However, businesses should be aware of the additional considerations brought forth by the use of testimonials and expert opinions online. Testimonials, like claims made about products, must be backed by adequate substantiation. Businesses must state the results that are generally expected to occur when a consumer takes a supplement they are selling, and they must indicate whether a consumer’s experience is expected to differ from the experience described in a testimonial. Vague disclaimers, such as “results may vary” are likely insufficient.

Should a business decide to present an expert’s endorsement, the business must ensure the expert providing the endorsement is appropriately qualified and has conducted sufficient testing and examination of the product beforehand. It is also important to note that connections between a business and their expert that affect the weight or credibility of the expert’s opinion, such as the existence of a personal or financial relationship, must be disclosed to consumers alongside the presentation of the expert’s opinion.