Truth in advertising applies to accountants
Truth in advertising is not just a slogan – it’s the law. The Australian Consumer Law ensures businesses compete on a level playing field in advertising products and services.
Advertising is commonplace in the accountancy world. Big firms promote their credentials widely and individual practitioners pitch their services to attract new business. On the client side, accountants who take a management approach to small business customers may also find themselves being asked to provide some basic sales and marketing advice.
Whether you are advising others or advertising your own services, two fundamental rules apply. First, don’t engage in conduct that is likely to mislead or deceive. Second, don’t make false or misleading claims.
Don’t mislead or deceive
It is illegal for businesses to engage in conduct that leads a customer into
error or to believe something that isn’t so. In other words, you cannot lie to people or lead them to a wrong conclusion; you cannot create a false impression or leave out important information; and you cannot make false or inaccurate claims.
Don’t make false or misleading claims
Any statements made about your services must be true and accurate. You must be able to substantiate your claims, so take care when making statements about employment opportunities, price and the benefits of services.
For instance, when using two-price comparison advertising such as ‘was/now’ pricing, ensure consumers are not misled about the savings they can make during the sale. Likewise, if you are claiming a discount has been offered off the original price, be prepared to back up your statements with facts and documented evidence.
Same rules apply to selling online
While the online environment has led to innovative selling methods, the law still applies. For example, using social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as promotional tools brings with it the responsibility to ensure all content on your pages is accurate, irrespective of who put it there.
It is also misleading to write or commission reviews about your own firm as if they are from a genuine consumer. The same goes for posting fake negative reviews about your competitors.
Overall impression counts
The most important question to ask is whether the overall impression created by advertising is false or inaccurate. Sometimes problems can arise from what you don’t say, as well as what you do say.
When considering the overall impression, put yourself in the shoes of the consumers likely to be affected by the advertising. Have important details been left out or hidden in the fine print? Is the total price displayed? Are there any contradictory statements or unnecessary jargon? Do logos, symbols and pictures create confusion or the wrong impression?
The ACCC has a range of tools to take action against false or misleading claims. This includes powers to require businesses to substantiate their claims and the ability to issue infringement notices. We also make use of court enforceable undertakings and have the ability to seek penalties in the courts of up to $1.1 million.
The Australian Consumer Law covers all aspects of your marketing and promotions, not just traditional advertising. The ACCC’s free online advertising and selling guide is available at accc.gov.au/publications/advertising-selling.