The FTC recently conducted a study on the marketing claims made by window marketers following settlements with five separate companies. The study specifically focused on the claim that windows were “proven to save up to 47% on your heating and cooling bills” in marketing materials. The study found that close to half the survey respondents expected the claim to mean that over 50% of people would save 47%. Even people who were told that the average customer actually saves around 25%, still tended to believe that a majority of people should save 47%.
I’ve seen similar claims in other segments of heating and cooling. When I purchased a new furnace at the beginning of 2010, the sales literature pointed to significant decreases in energy usage. I remember doing a back of napkin calculation that suggested the furnace would pay for itself within the first three years if the claims were even close to accurate. As it turns out, the amount of money spent on energy in my house changed very little after installing the new furnace.
What does heating and cooling have to do with affiliate marketing? Online marketing as a whole is coming under increasing scrutiny. The FTC has taken a number of steps to crack down on claims about diet products and work-from-home type opportunities. It looks like they are broadening their scope to closely examine any potentially suspect marketing claim.
I know I have used “up to” marketing copy provided as part of affiliate offers in the past, particularly for offers with stacked discounts where you could potentially apply two or three separate criteria upon purchase. In many of the cases, these discounts were limited to new customers or some other criteria that made the purchaser a subset of all potential buyers. While I generally read the fine print on every offer, it’s clear from the FTC study that the average buyer likely does not.
One of the other interesting nuggets from the study is the assumption that the company had done tests to support the claims of bill reduction. While the study gives no indication that the company provided supporting evidence, I’m not sure that matters. The “results may vary” disclaimers on financial and diet offers have come back to bite a number of online marketers in other industries. If customers infer that specific details of a claim exist, the FTC is going to be looking at whether or not customers have a reasonable expectation of understanding the claim.
Like many of the past studies done by the FTC, we should probably view the “up to” study as a warning shot. The FTC will be looking more closely at savings claims made by a broader spectrum of offers. If you have an affiliate program that relies on claims that include fine print, it might be time to re-evaluate the level of supporting evidence that goes with them. Up to 100% of affiliate marketers can avoid FTC fines by making sure their offer copy is accurate.