On June 21, 2016, the Federal Trade Commission settled claims against the purveyors of the “Doctor Trusted” seal certification program. The FTC’s action was against defendants SmartClick Media LLC, d/b/a Doctor Trusted, and the company’s owner. According to the FTC’s complaint, defendants marketed the “Doctor Trusted” certification and seal to health-related websites claiming that it was “one of the most effective ways to increase sales with the least amount of effort.” Despite representing to consumers that websites carrying the Doctor Trusted seal were “carefully evaluated by an independent medical doctor who reviewed its medical information, claims, products, terms of service, and policies,” the FTC alleged that the certification review was a sham. In fact, the Doctor Trusted review process consisted of two freelance physicians who only gave a cursory review of member websites, with no scientific evaluation of the sites’ health claims.
In addition to selling Doctor Trusted certifications to over 800 websites (including several targets of separate FTC actions), SmartClick Media operated several “independent” lifestyle blogs and consumer ratings sites. The FTC’s complaint alleges that these sites were not independent, nor did the reviews accurately reflect consumer opinion. Rather, the defendants’ sites served as advertising vehicles for promoted products, with defendants gaining a commission when consumers clicked through promoted links or made a purchase of promoted products.
The FTC’s settlement requires the defendants to refrain from:
- Misrepresenting (1) the extent to which medical or technical expertise is used to evaluate the products they sell, (2) the non-profit or consumer protection status of their corporate structure, (3) the frequency with which they evaluate or reviewed products and services, or (4) providing others with the means and instrumentalities to make such misrepresentations.
- Treating a website or publication as an independent source of product information, online reviews, health information or scientific breakthroughs.
Defendants also must affirmatively disclose when any of their website content is actually paid advertising or product placement rather than objective, independently-written material, and must disclose any material connections between themselves and any product, website or service reviewed on their websites.
Finally, the settlement imposes a monetary judgment of slightly over $600,000, suspended upon payment of $35,000.