Does a Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) Policy Violate the Antitrust Laws?

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We see many antitrust issues in the distribution world—and from all business perspectives: supplier, wholesale distributor, authorized retailer, and unauthorized retailer, among others. And at the retail level, we hear from both internet and brick-and-mortar stores.

The most common distribution issues that come up are resale-price-maintenance (both as an agreement and as a Colgate policy), terminated distributors/retailers, and Minimum Advertised Pricing Policies or MAP.

Today, we will talk about MAP Policies and how they relate to the antitrust laws.

What is a Minimum Advertised Price Policy (more commonly known as a MAP policy)?

A MAP policy is one in which a supplier or manufacturer limits the ability of their distributors to advertise prices below a certain level. Unlike a resale-price-maintenance agreement, a MAP policy does not stop a retailer from actually selling below any minimum price.

In a resale price maintenance policy or agreement, by contrast, the manufacturer doesn’t allow distributors to sell the products below a certain price.

As part of a “carrot” for following MAP policies, manufacturers often pair the policy with cooperative advertising funds for the retailer.

The typical targets of a MAP policy are online retailers. These policies also do not typically restrict in-store advertising. The manufacturers that employ MAP policies are usually the ones that emphasize branding in their corporate strategy or have luxury products and fear that low listed prices for those products will make them seem less luxurious. But these policies exist in many different industries.

In any event, MAP policies are accelerating in the marketplace. Indeed, brick and mortar retailers that fear “showrooming,” will often pressure manufacturers to implement either vertical pricing restrictions or MAP policies.

Do MAP Policies Violate the Antitrust Laws?

MAP policies don’t—absent further context—violate the antitrust laws by themselves. But, depending upon how a manufacturer structures and implements them, MAP policies could violate either state or federal antitrust law. So the answer is the unsatisfying maybe.

But we can add further context to better understand the level of risk for particular MAP policies.

There is some case law analyzing MAP policies, but it is limited, so if you play in this sandbox, you can’t prepare for any one approach. I had considered going through the cases here, but I think that has limited utility.  The fact is that there isn’t a strong consensus on how courts should treat MAP policies themselves. So the best tactic is to understand the core competition issues and make your risk assessments from that.

In any event, you will need an antitrust attorney to help you through this, so the best I can do here for you to is to help you spot the issues and understand if you are moving in the right direction.

If you are familiar with resale price maintenance or Colgate policies, you will notice a lot of overlap with MAP policy issues. But there are important differences.

A minimum advertised price policy is not strictly a limit on pricing. From a competitive standpoint, that helps, but not necessarily a lot. The reality is that a MAP policy can be—for practical reasons—a significant hurdle for online distributors to compete on price for the restricted product. That is, for online retailers, sometimes the MAP policy price is the effective minimum price.

Resale Price Maintenance

Before we go further, let’s review a little bit. A resale price maintenance agreement is a deal between a manufacturer and some sort of distributor (including a retailer that sells to the end user) that the distributor will not sell the product for less than a set price. Up until the US Supreme Court decided Leegin in 2007, these types of agreements were per se illegal under the federal antitrust laws.

Resale price maintenance agreements are no longer per se federal antitrust violations, but several states, including California and New York, may consider them per se antitrust violations under state law, so most national manufacturers avoid the risk and implement a unilateral Colgate policy instead.

Under federal law, courts usually analyze resale-price-maintenance agreements under the antitrust rule of reason.

Colgate Policies

Colgate policies are named after a 1919 Supreme Court decision that held that it is not a federal antitrust violation for a manufacturer to unilaterally announce in advance the prices at which it will allow its product to be resold, then refuse to deal with any distributors that violate that policy. You can read our article about Colgate policies here.

The bottom line with Colgate is that in most situations the federal antitrust laws do not forbid one company from unilaterally refusing to deal with another. There are, of course, exceptions, so don’t rely on this point without consulting an antitrust lawyer.

Back to MAP Policies and Antitrust

The MAP policies that create antitrust problems usually are paired with other risky behavior.

For example, if you are a manufacturer and you communicate with your competitors about MAP policies, then everyone implements them, you have a problem. But your problem is less about MAP and more about your horizontal agreement to implement a restraint. In other words, you would have an antitrust problem no matter what the restraint—MAP or something else.

Another risky behavior is using an agreement with retailers or other distributors to implement a MAP policy. That is, if you make your MAP policy look sort of like a resale-price-maintenance agreement, you risk per se antitrust liability under certain state antitrust laws.

Sure, if the matter gets to litigation, you will argue that MAP is different than vertical price fixing—and it is. But your adversary will argue that the practical effect of MAP is vertical price fixing, at least in certain circumstances.

From an antitrust counseling perspective, we would usually advise that clients considering a MAP policy avoid offering an easy lawsuit to file and a difficult one to resolve.

If you want to do a MAP policy, you should create it within the framework and protections of a Colgate policy, which is unilateral.

If you want future antitrust problems, you will find a MAP policy online, cut and paste your information into it and send it to all of your distributors. The reason that is risky is that when it comes to Colgate policies (including those with a MAP policy element), the details of implementation matter just as much as the policy itself. You can find a great policy, but screw it up by, for example, debating the details of it on email with a distributor such that you effectively create an agreement. That could push you into RPM agreement territory.

One common tip for MAP policies that antitrust attorneys offer is to pair the MAP policy with cooperative advertising dollars for the retailer. If the retailer declines to follow the MAP policies, the manufacturer will then withhold the advertising dollars.

From a practical perspective, this advice makes sense: It feels less draconian for a manufacturer to stop offering money for a policy breach than to completely cut off the distributor. And from an antitrust perspective, you might convince some courts that if all you are doing is declining to fund advertising that prices below a certain amount, you certainly aren’t violating the antitrust laws.

But I think that this advice is overrated. The practical business reasons for the advertising dollars approach make sense, but that depends upon many factors, including budget, advertising ROI, and a host of other market issues.

Looking at the question from a purely antitrust perspective, it is true that some courts may find the “advertising dollars” technique persuasive. And that does matter.

But if we look at core competition issues, it may not matter. If you effectively implement a MAP policy through the Colgate approach, the advertising-dollars technique may be unnecessary. Of course, if we are adding up risk, I suppose it doesn’t hurt.

The negative, however, is that once you introduce this additional complexity of advertising dollars, you have to implement it. And that is sort of complicated. Now you are potentially negotiating how, specifically, to use those advertising dollars. And if you are a manufacturer negotiating with a distributor, you sure enjoy the leverage of being able to pull the dollars. But, in any event, you go deeper into the negotiation and it is easy for your Colgate policy to turn into an effective agreement that incorporates the MAP issues, along with the other issues that are the real subject of the negotiation.

So the risk is not that using the advertising dollars in a vacuum will lead to a greater likelihood of liability, but that incorporating the advertising dollars into the overall package will make it more likely that the manufacturer will engage in risky behavior and end up with an effective RPM agreement.

Finally, as you think about your MAP policy, consider that at best it will be subject to the antitrust rule of reason, so if the anticompetitive aspects of the agreement exceed the procompetitive benefits, you may still have a problem. Every policy and market is different, so I can’t offer you a cookie cutter you can use to create your policy.

You need to find an antitrust attorney, and fast.

photo credit: dirkb86 dirks LEGO world map 2 side view via photopin (license)