The legal issues with running an advertising campaign
Whilst we’d all love to be able to grow our businesses through word of mouth alone, dental practices, in common with most modern businesses, will, from time to time, be likely to consider advertising in order to attract new patients.
However, before embarking on any type of advertising, you need to ensure you understand the laws relating to advertisements in general, which are now numerous and diverse, and the additional specific requirements of the General Dental Council in relation to advertising. Adverts which fall foul of the regulations may lead not only to legal sanctions, but the resulting bad publicity has the potential to destroy, in a matter of weeks, a reputation which has taken years to carefully craft.
Our “top tips” to stay on the right side of the law, public opinion and protect your business, are:
- know your codes. The CAP code applies to all non-TV and radio advertising, including on-line, the BCAP code applies to broadcasted adverts (TV and radio);
- ensure your adverts are decent, honest, accurate and fair;
- take care not to mislead in your adverts;
- consider where your adverts will appear. Laws on trespass and planning restrictions restrict where you can put bill boards for example;
- if you do mention your prices, make sure its clear (including all taxes for example);
- be cautious with comparative advertising (identifying/comparing your services to those of a competitor) – there is a risk of defamation, and potential problems if you use their trademark or other intellectual property rights;
- ensure you protect your own intellectual property rights (in your name or brand for example) when using an advertising agency. Consider their terms of business carefully, particularly as regards ownership of copyright and responsibility for compliance with advertising regulations;
- be able and prepared to substantiate any claim you make in your adverts; and
- ensure native adverts (advertorials) are clearly identifiable as adverts.
There are yet more issues to consider if you’re planning to use sponsorship or celebrity endorsements, prize draws or promotions, customer reviews or advertising techniques like “behavioural” advertising (targeting adverts to people’s preferences as established from their browsing patterns and website choices).
Dentists have the additional concern that any potentially misleading advert could lead to problems with the General Dental Council and a fitness to practice referral. Guidance from the GDC advises dentists to:
- steer away from using the term “specialist” unless they are on the GDC list of specialists;
- avoid comparing their skills or qualifications with other dentists;
- make sure their GDC registration number is included in the advert;
- avoid statements likely to create an unjustified expectation about the results they can achieve;
- make it clear whether their practice is private, NHS or mixed;
- only recommend products if they are the best way to meet a patient’s needs; and
- take care to accurately reference academic qualifications.
A lawyer’s guidance on both your contract with a media agency and the content of your adverts may save you a costly mistake.