In the United States, a business must abide by many laws when it advertises and markets its services, whether it is a multinational conglomerate or a home-based operation. With so many different laws on the books, covering a wide variety of situations and threatening a vast array of penalties, it can be difficult to remember everything you need to know. This guide will help demystify the rules of marketing and advertising for everybody.

General Offers and Claims: Products and Services

Many advertising laws are applicable to all businesses. Offers and claims must fall within the bounds of truth in advertising, and avoid misrepresenting products—no matter what the product or service in question happens to be. Other guidelines cover the transmission of commercial messages through various media, and the use of certain "special" advertising methods, such as testimonials and endorsements. These rules form the bedrock of consumer protection from unscrupulous claims, and every business must adhere to them.

  • Federal Trade Commission: The official website of the main federal agency tasked with protecting consumers and regulating business matters related to false advertising and fraud. It offers information, news, and resources for consumers seeking to protect themselves, and for business owners making sure their companies are in compliance.
  • Federal Trade Commission Legislation: The full text (provided by Cornell University Law School) of the legislation that established the FTC and delineated its specific purpose and powers.
  • Federal Communications Commission: The official website of the federal regulatory body principally responsible for broadcast media such as television and radio, and for the enforcement of laws relating to false advertising and fraud across these media.
  • Truth in Commercials and Product Misrepresentation: A detailed article from the Princeton University Law Journal that discusses laws and regulations pertinent to product misrepresentation and truth in broadcast commercials, and how relevant laws are applied and enforced.
  • The Lanham Act: The full text of the main (but not the only) legislation dealing with the registration of trademarks, service marks, and related indicia.
  • Refund Law & Legal Definition: Basic information on the tenets of refund law as they apply generally throughout the United States.
  • Refund Policies: Further information on California refund laws, provided by the state attorney general's office.
  • Advertising to Children: An extremely detailed article discussing the legislation that applies to advertising aimed at children, and the role of the FCC in enforcing these laws.
Protecting Consumer Privacy Online

Consumer privacy online is an emergent and serious concern among federal regulatory bodies. Though it is difficult to legislate matters online and much activity goes on that is completely within the scope of current regulation, lawmakers are continually engaged in assessing what kinds of changes may be necessary to protect consumers and encourage fair dealing online.

  • Digital Privacy Guide: An informational guide that provides direct links to information informing you about protecting your consumer privacy.
  • Children's Online Privacy Protection Act: Information on the principal legislation governing the ways in which website owners may and may not collect information from users below the age of majority.
  • The CAN-SPAM Act: Legislation related to the use of unsolicited commercial communication ("spam") as an advertising tool on the Internet. Note, this legislation did not pass and nothing new is currently on the table.
Laws Enforced by the Federal Trade Commission

The Federal Trade Commission is the major regulatory body tasked with overseeing matters of commerce in the United States. Because of its broad powers, the FTC is in charge of enforcing many significant laws that touch on commercial transactions across the economic spectrum. For instance, the FTC enforces the credit and leasing regulations that shape the financial landscape for millions of Americans every year.

  • Franchise: A library of resources for evaluating the legitimacy of a franchise opportunity. This page includes details on the specific legislation concerning franchises enforced by the FTC.
  • Legal Principles of Multi-level Marketing: An extremely detailed and well-referenced article discussing the legal implications of all aspects of multi-level marketing, including compliance with relevant legislation and FTC guidelines.
  • Truth in Lending: Information from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation on the Truth in Lending Act, which helps to protect consumers from predatory lending and interest practices.
  • Fair Credit Billing Act: A brief overview (including links to further resources) of the Fair Credit Billing Act, which requires creditors to promptly and thoroughly investigate all claims related to credit card billing fraud and charge disputes.
  • Equal Credit Opportunity Act: Information from the Department of Justice about the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which provides protection from unlawful discrimination related to credit applications.
  • Electronic Fund Transfers: The text of the act regulating electronic fund transfers in the United States.
  • What Is the Consumer Leasing Act? An explanation of the act that compels leasing companies to provide facts about the costs and terms of all contracts.
  • Provisions of the Federal Trade Commission's 900 Number Rule: A consumer-oriented summary of legislation pertaining to the fair use and billing of telephone calls to 900 numbers, which are typically used by businesses and commercial interests.
  • How to Protect Yourself: Negative Option Marketing Plans: A basic overview of the protections that apply to "negative option" marketing techniques, in which consumers (typically after receiving a sample) are billed for a product or service they did not request.
  • Pre-Sale Availability of Written Warranty Terms: The full text of legislation that requires the provision of written warranty information to consumers for transactions in which more than $15 was exchanged.
  • Environmental Marketing Claims: Information from the Environmental Protection Agency on lawful and unlawful uses of environment-related claims in the marketing of products and services.
  • Jewelers Vigilance Committee: The website of a not-for-profit trade organization that provides legal information and self-regulation both to members of the jewelers' trade and to consumers of jewelry and related products. The site offers free publications that cover a range of information, including the laws and statutes that apply to buying, selling, producing, and altering jewelry.
  • Fairness to Contact Lens Consumers Act (FCLCA): FTC rules related to the commercial sale of contact lenses.
Penalties for Non-Compliance

Non-compliance with FTC regulations can carry serious penalties for businesses, particularly in cases where misleading business practices actually endanger consumers. Because of the sheer volume of commercial activity that goes on around the country every day, the FTC and other regulatory bodies often depend on affected consumers to take action and file a report when the law has been violated.

  • FTC Complaint Assistant: A Federal Trade Commission website that provides consumer-oriented information about filing a complaint against a business that has violated FTC regulations.
  • Consumer Watchdog: The website of a not-for-profit organization that offers information about spotting business noncompliance and settling grievances against businesses.
  • False or Misleading Advertising: An overview of advertising laws and types of false advertising, including detailed information on possible penalties for noncompliance.

About the Author

Written by Michael Marcin of Crest Capital. When Mike was little, there was no such thing as the internet (or color TV). Today, he oversees all operations and finance for Crest Capital, a national equipment finance lender. Mike writes on a variety of business topics including equipment, vehicle, and software finance and associated tax implications.