shutterstock_130589042“Advertising and marketing cannot be used as a tool to confuse and endanger New York consumers.” – New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, April 2015

When you think about police work in the city of New York, you’re likely to think about officers patrolling the streets – not the billboards above it.  The fact is, however, that just as the city works to prevent violent crime, it also devotes law enforcement resources to ensuring that advertising and marketing in the city is not deceptive or otherwise in violation of the law.

The quote above, direct from the New York Attorney General, is proof of just how high that commitment reaches.  It comes from an announcement this spring of lawsuits the city filed against two indoor tanning businesses, for falsely advertising supposed health benefits associated with UV tanning.  That is just one of numerous legal battles that the New York AG’s office has taken on against companies – and entire industries – over advertising and marketing practices, ranging from an initiative to ensure that “cause marketing” campaigns to raise funds for charities are legitimate to a recent $8 million settlement with maker of the Snuggie over inadequate disclosure of handling charges for “free” products.

Under AG Schneiderman, New York has also used marketing as a proactive tool to inform consumers.  For instance, a settlement that the AG’s office reached this spring with the three largest credit reporting agencies included a commitment by the agencies to conduct a three-year consumer education campaign (telling consumers that they have a right to dispute information in their credit report, for instance) via paid spots on radio, television, print, and online media.

The Way I See It

  • There may be a tendency to think of consumer protection as the domain of federal administrative agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission.  However, it’s appropriate that state and city governments – particularly New York City, home to Madison Avenue and so much advertising activity – also play a role in regulating advertising and marketing.
  • The effective policing of marketers and advertisers that run afoul of the law is something that the larger marketing and advertising community should welcome.  Efforts like those undertaken by the New York AG to eliminate malicious marketing ultimately helps the “good guys” by increasing public confidence that existing marketing campaigns are safe and trustworthy.
  • I have respect for the city’s appetite for big battles, such as the one it recent undertook against the credit reporting agencies.

 The Way the Industry Sees It

I sat down with Jane Azia, Bureau Chief of the Consumer Fraud and Protection Bureau of the New York Attorney General’s Office.

How would you describe the mission of the Bureau of Consumer Frauds and Protection of New York?

The Bureau seeks to protect consumers from fraudulent, misleading, deceptive and illegal business practices, especially those that target the most vulnerable New Yorkers.  We mediate thousands of individual complaints each year, recovering a significant amount of money for consumers.  We also seek to ensure a vigorous market that is fair to consumers and businesses alike through both consumer education and the legislative process.

How do you determine your enforcement priorities—that is, how do you decide which types of advertising and marketing practices, companies or industries to investigate?

We look at a variety of factors.  We look at the target audience and whether it consists of a vulnerable population.  For example, it is important for our office to address practices directed at the elderly, veterans or individuals in distressed economic circumstances.  We also look to the egregiousness of the practice.  Was the practice clearly deceptive or is it on the line?  We seek to assist the most consumers possible, so we ask how many New Yorkers were affected by a scam.   And there might be cases where there is a repeat offender that we will choose to pursue even if a small number of New Yorkers were affected.  Our priorities can also be set by the economy, or simply what is going on in the world.  For example, we have taken a number of actions against foreclosure scams targeting homeowners in distress, loan modification companies with deceptive advertising or debt settlement companies targeting consumers trying to reduce their debt.  And in the last few years we have increasingly turned our attention to companies making fraudulent health claims.  We recently sued two tanning salons for deceptively representing that tanning provided health benefits when it is clearly established than tanning increases the risk of skin cancer.  We are also in litigation against Monster for its promotion of energy drinks with alcohol.

The Attorney General office clearly isn’t afraid to venture into the digital, online, and social worlds as it did a few years ago in its investigation of fake online reviews for local businesses.  Do you see the state spending more time and resources to tease “new” advertising media?

Yes, I see the state spending more time in the digital, online and social worlds.  In fact, the consumer protection work of the Attorney General’s office is not limited to the Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau.  We have a very proactive Internet Bureau that closely examines advertising in the digital, online and social worlds.  For example, in 2013, after a year-long investigation called “Operation Clean Turf,” our office announced settlements with 19 companies for writing fake online reviews.  We intend to continue working together to identify deceptive marketing practices in these areas.

What is the most common complaint you hear from the public regarding advertising and marketing?  And do you depend on the public for leads on possibly illegal advertising?

We look to many sources for leads on deceptive advertising.  Complaints from the public are certainly one source, but not the only one.   Leads can also come from investigative reports, consumer advocates, and from our own review of advertising.  We are all consumers, so complaints we see that seem too good to be true or that appear to lack reasonable substantiation are fair game.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

It sounds corny but the most rewarding part of my job is helping the little guy and stopping those who seek to take advantage of the little guy.

What’s the most interesting object in your office?

I have two interesting objects in my office.  One is a green Jeff Koons piggybank.  The other is a lithograph of the World Trade Center Towers.  It stands as a constant reminder of the lives we lost and of the importance of helping others.