Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody filed a lawsuit against advertising agency Traffic Jam Events for creating direct mail advertising for a used car dealer that was designed to look like a COVID-19 stimulus check.  

The Florida AG charged that Traffic Jam Events sent mailers for MK Automotive to more than 35,000 consumers to attract them to an automotive tent sale.  The mailer included a check, for more than $3,000, from the "Stimulus Relief Program."  The memo line on the check read, "COVID-19 AUTO STIMULUS."  

The mailers created the misleading impression that the car dealer had COVID-19 relief funds available to consumers and that the funds could be used to purchase cars from the dealer, according to the Florida AG's allegations.  Saying that the advertising agency and its owner "unapologetically seek to capitalize on the vulnerability, confusion and fear plaguing Florida consumers during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic," the Florida AG also alleged that the advertising agency misled consumers into thinking they were receiving an official government mailing.  

The Florida AG charged that the advertising agency's actions violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, which prohibits "unconscionable, deceptive or unfair acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce."  The AG argued that, "A reasonable prospective purchaser who receives the COVID-19 Stimulus Mailer could believe they are being offered official government COVID-19 Stimulus funds when, in fact, they are being lured to a used-car Tent Sale." 

In a statement, Attorney General Moody said, “This type of deceptive marketing is completely unacceptable and is even more outrageous during these challenging times. These marketing ploys prey on people’s desperate anticipation of stimulus assistance and falsely suggest that there is government stimulus funding for auto purchases.”

The Florida AG is seeking civil penalties, an injunction, and other relief against the advertising agency.  The car dealer, MK Automotive, is cooperating with the Florida AG's investigation and already entered into an Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, which resolves potential claims that the AG had against the dealer in connection with the promotion.  As part of the AVC, MK Automotive agreed to stop using the advertising agency and to pay restitution and civil penalties. 

While misleading consumers about whether a direct mail piece is an official government document is never a good idea, this enforcement action is an important reminder that advertising agencies can also be held liable for false advertising when they participate in the development of deceptive advertising campaigns.