FTC Director Vladeck Stepping Down, Leaving Activist Legacy

Industry Watchers Expect Tough Enforcement to Continue

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David Vladeck, who led an aggressive approach on privacy, green marketing, health claims and other advertising issues over the past three years, will step down Dec. 31 as director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

David Vladeck
David Vladeck

The move comes as some advertising-law experts expect FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz to also step down soon. But since President Obama will name his successor, there's also very little reason to expect any let up in a more activist FTC stance, said Randy Shaheen, attorney with the Venable law firm in Washington.

"He's revitalized the bureau," Mr. Shaheen said of Mr. Vladeck. "It's been a very active three years, with a lot of new initiatives and guidance" on such issues as how to substantiate health claims, privacy and environmental marketing.

"I think we'll all remember the Vladeck years for sure," said Linda Goldstein, chair of the advertising division of Manatt Phelps & Phillips in New York. "He created a legacy. He was both feared and greatly respected."

Mr. Vladeck revised FTC Green Guides released in September, taking a tougher stance on vague claims of environmental benefits. And even specific claims -- for example, that a product has less packaging -- could run afoul of the FTC policy now if they're deemed to give an unwarranted impression that the product is better overall for the environment than it once was.

Mr. Vladeck's bureau helped forge a comprehensive framework for privacy regulation and brought enforcement actions against Google and Facebook.

Under Mr. Vladeck, the FTC "brought more than 100 cases against scammers trying to take consumers' last dollar with false promises of mortgage assistance, debt relief, jobs or other money-making opportunities, government grants and health insurance," the FTC said in a statement.

The commission also won settlements totaling $65 million from Reebok and Skechers over charges that they made false claims behind "butt-shaping" shoes, and nearly $24 million from the Reader's Digest Association, which acquired its way into liability for advertising claims behind the Ab Circle Pro exercise device, which the FTC said were false.

However, Mr. Shaheen said that under new leadership, "I don't really expect there to be much change." Charles Harwood, who has been deputy director under Mr. Vladeck the past three years, will serve as acting director, and Mr. Shaheen said he sees no reason the career FTC executive will change course.

The reality is that the FTC has been getting more aggressive on penalties and enforcement for more than a decade, Ms. Goldstein said. "I'd be surprised if that ends with David Vladeck leaving," she said.

"We've always found him accessible and very smart," said Dan Jaffe, group exec VP-government relations of the Association of National Advertisers. "So even if we disagreed, the lines of communication were always open."

Mr. Vladeck will return to Georgetown University Law Center, where he co-directed the Institute for Public Representation before taking his current post in 2009. Before that , he spent nearly 30 years working for the Public Citizen Litigation Group, including 10 years as a director.

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