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Truthfulness, transparency, and totality: AADR’s marketing and advertising standards

By Stacey Silva

Marketing matters. It sets a company’s persona and is central to how firms connect with consumers. World famous management guru Peter Drucker even proclaimed marketing is “the distinguishing, unique function of the business.” 

Talk to consumers and lawmakers, though, and you will likely get a very different impression of the marketing profession. Some conjure the slick (and depraved) ad men in the drama Mad Men or recall predatory marketing campaigns that have manipulated vulnerable people into buying products they do not want or need, or even have harmed them. 

At the AADR, we understand both the importance of marketing, and the skepticism. That is why, for our corporate members — members who are debt resolution service providers — we have set strict marketing and advertising standards that build trust by providing truthfulness, transparency, and totality. Issued this spring, the standards build upon the best practices the AADR previously offered member companies. Those best practices were robust, yet it was time to transform guidelines into expectations companies would need to adhere to as a condition of membership in the AADR. 

Through these standards, we can restore a sense of calm for Americans in financial distress. We help individuals know that while they may be suffering hardship at the moment, with an AADR accredited debt resolution provider as their partner, they can feel secure about their path out of debt.

Truthfulness: evidence that debt resolution works

While federal regulators set standards for the debt resolution industry through the Telemarketing Sales Rule and Unfair, Deceptive, or Abusive Acts or Practices regulations, the AADR is committed to going beyond those rules. 

A key part of our commitment is that AADR corporate members cannot make any promises or guarantees they are not able to substantiate based on past performance. (Corporate members are audited against those expectations.) These performance claims encompass any statement made with respect to an historic program outcome, including any reference to settlement percentages, client savings, program duration, and program completion rates.

To ensure compliance with this standard of truthfulness, the AADR accreditation audit will examine the guarantees each company makes and require them to provide evidence showing those promises are well-founded. 

Because Americans who seek debt resolution are under severe pressure, our marketing and advertising standards make it clear AADR member companies cannot create a false sense of exclusivity or urgency. An AADR corporate member cannot, for example, tell a potential client they are likely to fall into bankruptcy or be sued if they do not “sign up now!”  

The standards also state that AADR corporate member companies “shall not use language that states or implies that, unless the consumer takes some action within a relatively short period of time, the consumer will suffer a negative financial or other consequence.” 

Transparency: being clear with stressed clients is the right thing to do

If you have ever tried reading the terms and conditions for a savings account, you know how confusing financial services can be.

The AADR’s marketing and advertising standards set the expectation that companies are to use plain language to describe the product they offer. Specifically, the standards state that companies “shall clearly and concisely describe the debt resolution service offered, including, without limitation, the amount of money a consumer must regularly dedicate to the offered program, the cost to the consumer of the offered program and the anticipated term of the offered program.”

Without prior exposure to the debt resolution industry, even policymakers are often unaware of the difference between debt resolution and other services like debt consolidation, or even bankruptcy. When considering options for a path forward, consumers in financial distress should not have to decipher jargon or open Webster’s Dictionary in order to understand our companies’ products and services. Clear, concise, direct language is an essential part of helping Americans in financial distress understand the path forward and determine whether or not debt resolution is right for them.

Next, AADR corporate member companies must make it clear to potential clients, and to people already undergoing debt resolution, that they can opt out at any time. These Americans already feel there is no way out. Debt resolution companies do provide a path toward financial freedom, but at the AADR, we also recognize that journey is not right for everyone. Debt resolution clients deserve to know they always can change their mind.  

This transparency helps to dial back the stress and pressure potential clients feel they are under and to restore a sense of calm to their lives.  

Totality: it’s not just AADR members who must comply

Each of these standards not only applies to AADR corporate member companies, but to the third parties that market and advertise on behalf of, and with, debt resolution service providers. If, for example, an AADR corporate member hires a social media firm to do a campaign on Instagram, the AADR member must make sure that campaign complies with all of the AADR’s marketing and advertising standards. 

Additionally, AADR corporate members may not assist or engage in the manipulation of reviews posted on third party websites such as the Better Business Bureau or Google Reviews. They certainly cannot post fake reviews, but they also cannot edit or alter meaning or provide incentives to give reviews unless those incentives are disclosed. 

When a debt resolution company joins the AADR as a corporate member, they attest that they will live by these standards in their daily practice. The AADR accreditation seal, found on member companies’ websites, makes it clear to consumers that this company is living by AADR’s marketing and advertising standards. 

If corporate member companies do not comply, they risk losing their AADR membership. As of April 1, 2024, the AADR required corporate members to conduct reviews every six months of their own marketing and advertising content, and content created and disseminated on their behalf by third parties, for compliance. Next those bi-annual reviews are then verified as part of the independent accreditation audit. The robust two-tier process helps to uncover and elevate any concerns clients, policymakers, or other stakeholders may have.

While the AADR and its leadership will continually evaluate our marketing and advertising standards, along with all of our compliance and accreditation processes, we are proud that these rules are written in a manner that they will evolve as consumers’ expectations, regulatory policy, and the marketplace change. 

Quite simply: our marketing and advertising standards allow the AADR and its corporate member companies to lead the industry, putting U.S. consumers in financial distress first — while restoring calm and peace of mind to their lives too. 

Silva is AADR’s head of compliance. In this capacity, Silva leads the program that creates and oversees AADR standards and works with AADR member companies as they adhere to all federal and state laws.