The Federal Trade Commission pursued 11 advertising program cases in fiscal 1985, including one in which it reached an agreement with Commodore Business Machines Inc., the big manufacturer of home computers, that the company would no longer advertise that its computers can run certain popular software programs unless they can do so at the time the claim is made.
Other cases involved more obscure companies, which has lead FTC critics to charge that the agency turns its big guns on relatively small targets.
But FTC officials argue that the cases involved the potential for substantive harm.
One case involved a company, Liquid Assets, which advertised a product called Breath Fresh 502 in national publications, including Penthouse, Cosmopolitan, Rolling Stone, National Lampoon and Outdoor Life.
The ads claimed that the mouthwash, which sold by mail for $14.95 a bottle, could be used "before drinking as a preventative, or after to save you embarrassment, time and money. Proven to help you beat any breath analyzer. Put yourself in control."
An FTC background paper on Breath Fresh says: "We do not know how much of Breath Fresh 502 has been sold, nor do we know the manufacturer's future advertising and sales intentions . . . . It may be that sales have been and are de minimis." The paper added, however, that the manufacturer appeared to have the ability to enter and exit the market at will. "Ordinarily, staff would not recommend pursuing a matter where sales are likely to have been so small, and probably have stopped.
"The extraordinary claims made for this product, however, warrant commission action," the paper continued. "The sale of even small quantities of this product pose the risk of substantial injury."
C. Lee Peeler, associate director for advertising practices at the FTC, said: "The product is a $14.95 bottle of hydrogen peroxide. That, itself, would not have qualified to make it a federal case.
"Our concern was that, if someone got this product and relied on the representations, that they could kill themselves and could kill other people," he added. "It sort of encourages people to drive while they're intoxicated, and it has no effect," he said. "It just didn't seem, when we looked at it, like we could walk away from it.
"People are right that it was a real unusual case," he said. "If people believed the advertising , we're talking dead people. It was advertised for two months, and we got on it real quickly."
As a result of FTC actions, if the manufacturer of the product advertises his product again, the FTC will be able to get criminal sanctions against him, Peeler said. The FTC has gotten injunctions against other advertisers and has been able to send them to jail for violating injunctions against them, which is additional evidence of the agency's seriousness in the area of advertising claims, he added.