Tips For Keeping Your Marketing Legal

Tips For Keeping Your Marketing Legal

January 10, 2018
5 min read

Everybody, including the FTC, customers, competitors, and random people on the street, are looking to catch your business in a lie. If they do catch your business doing something wrong, especially in your marketing, it can mean a major payday for them, typically in the form of a lawsuit.

As the public face for the company, it’s incredibly important to keep your work in line, legally speaking. Failing to do this could mean getting negative attention, lawsuits, losing consumer trust, and damaging your brand.

Here are some tips to avoid common mistakes businesses make in their marketing that could land them in legal hot water.

Just Don’t Lie

To start, a great rule of thumb for all of your marketing is to never lie. If you lie in your marketing, and you get caught, expect major repercussions. The FTC might come looking to fine you or a misled customer might be suing you.

But marketing is more than just truth and lies — it’s how a marketer presents that truth to their audience. What truth do they include and what is left secret? What information is emphasized and what is left in the small print at the bottom?

When making statements, slogans, and opinions, it’s important to make sure you aren’t lying. Even unintentional lies or false statements can land you in a heap of trouble. It happens to everybody, including the largest corporations around.

Here are just a few examples of slogans and ad statements that have gotten companies sued:

  • Red Bull – The slogan “Red Bull Gives You Wings”
  • Kellogg’s – That Rice Krispies boosted the immune system
  • Kellogg’s – That Mini-Wheats could make you smarter
  • Eclipse Gum – That their gum killed germs
  • Papa John’s – The slogan “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza” got them sued by Pizza Hut
  • Listerine – That mouthwash was just as effective as flossing

If your business makes a statement, either make sure it’s an opinion or that you can back it up with facts and data. If you want to convey that your product is better than your competitors, saying something like “The #1 Product on the market” is dangerous. You either need to have proof, like you are #1 in sales or in an independent study, or go with an opinion. Instead of saying “the #1 product,” say “Our Product is the best around.” This is more of an opinion than the first statement.

It not just slogans that can mislead. As you produce content for your company’s blog, writing interesting content can be hard. It might be tempting, in order to get people to read your content, to overhype, exaggerate, and stretch the truth. Be careful, because if you take it too far, you could be on the hook for misleading consumers.

Be Careful With Your Images

A major part of marketing is the visual element. If your marketing isn’t pleasing to the eye, people won’t look at it. Photos especially are necessary to keeping people interested and engaging with them. Using photos incorrectly, though, can land your business in a heap of trouble.


The first major legal problem happens when using photos the company doesn’t own. Unless you have a professional photographer on staff, it’s likely you’ll be utilizing photos you find online. If the photos are going to be used for marketing purposes, you need to own the rights to use them. There are some ways to get free photos through creative commons, but if you want to be completely safe, buy stock photos.

Using a photo you don’t own for business or marketing reasons is a violation of copyright and can get your company sued. Even if you take an existing photo and make significant changes to it, you are still in legal danger. Before you use any image, either in a brochure or on your website, be certain that you own the rights to it.

Misleading Images

Copyright isn’t the only legal slippery slope though. How you make changes to images, especially those used in advertisements or representing your product, can land you in hot water too.

A great example of this are ads for Olay’s Definity eye cream. The ad featured former model Twiggy, (who at the time was in her 60s) looking wrinkle-free and much younger. Turns out, the photos for the ad were photoshopped to completely get rid of her wrinkles. This mislead consumers on the effectiveness of the product based on the photos in the ad, resulting in the ad being banned in many countries.

Even if you don’t alter the photos, but utilize them to mislead consumers, you can get in trouble. Make sure any photos you use, especially around specific products, don’t oversell the actual results.

The Murky Waters of Social Media

The laws of social media are still being created and figured out. Businesses share posts from their followers and others all the time, post links to content they didn’t create, and engage directly with consumers publicly. As businesses push to become huge on social media, they often forget to watch their backs legally.

Many marketers assume that businesses can act the same as individuals do on their personal social media accounts. They can’t. While a person can share a picture they don’t own on social media with little fear of getting sued, businesses can’t.

A good rule for posting anything on social media you don’t own is to ask permission first. Posting things like videos, images, quotes, reviews, comments, and more that were created by somebody else should always be preceded by asking for permission. It’s polite, thoughtful, and could make somebody’s day.

More importantly, it could help avoid a lawsuit. If somebody doesn’t want something posted, they won’t give you permission and you can move on.

Now, when it comes to creating your own content, follow the same rules as above. Don’t lie, make sure you own the rights to what you are creating, and don’t mislead. If you are making a video with music, use music you have the rights for. Including the newest pop song might really spice up the video, but could also have the artist’s lawyers chasing you down.

Contests and Giveaways

A very popular tactic to improve your social media following and engage with fans is to do a contest and give away fabulous prizes. Doing these kind of giveaways though can be tricky legally. Make sure you check your local area’s laws concerning sweepstakes, giveaways, contests, lotteries, etc.

Make sure the rules for any giveaways are publicly available; that way people know exactly their chances for winning. Is the chance random or based on their performance? What information is required in order to be considered? Are there limitations on who can enter, like geographical or age restrictions? This information needs to be available for those interested in entering.

Don’t be afraid to have contest participants sign a contract agreeing to your rules. Thanks to digital and electronic signature software, it’s pretty easy to have a legally binding contract to help cover your business. Have a qualified lawyer look it over, and use it to help prevent a lawsuit.

Stay Up to Date on Legal Changes

The legal landscape changes from year to year, so keep yourself up to date. As other companies and corporations get sued, analyze your business and see if you could be sued for the same reason. If you are worried about something, consult a relevant lawyer to see what kind of risks your marketing might have. Be proactive about finding causes for potential lawsuits and fix them immediately.

To start with, make sure you have permission from your audience or leads before you target them on any channel. Permission marketing is key to ensuring you don’t interrupt (or annoy) your customers while keeping within your legal rights to broadcast your message.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula", and Founder of Marketing Insider Group. Recognized as a Top Content Marketing expert and Digital Marketing Leader, Michael leverages his experience from roles in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as his leadership in leading teams and driving growth for thriving startups. Today, Michael delivers empowering keynotes on marketing and leadership, and facilitates actionable workshops on content marketing strategy. Connect with Michael today.