In Conn., State Putting Clamp on Security Advertising

A national alarm company has agreed to make a $1,000 donation to charity for soliciting new customers in a Cheshire neighborhood immediately after three family members were killed in a home invasion.

ADT Security Services Inc. left its fliers in the neighborhood in the days following the killing of three members of the Petit family, a move that angered many neighbors who felt the solicitations were in bad taste so soon after the tragedy. The state Department of Consumer Protection, which received complaints about the fliers, agreed.

Consumer Protection Commissioner Jerry Farrell Jr. looked into the matter and ruled earlier this month that the advertisements were a violation of the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act. The department has jurisdiction over false advertising under the act, Farrell said.

"When I heard about ADT leafleting the neighborhood, and saw the flier in question, I was outraged," Farrell said in a statement released Friday. "While one cannot say that this advertisement was false, the timing and nature of it was totally inappropriate."

The fliers bore the title "A Sign of the Times" and were left at homes in the Sorghum Mill Road area, where Jennifer Hawke-Petit, 48, and her two daughters, Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11, were killed in a brutal home invasion on July 23.

State Rep. Alfred Adinolfi, R-Cheshire, who lives in the neighborhood, forwarded complaints he received to the Consumer Protection Department.

Farrell said ADT agreed to an "assurance of voluntary compliance" that included an order to cease and desist. In that order, ADT pledged not to solicit or advertise "in close proximity to an area in which a tragic event took place, in a manner which could be construed as capitalizing upon a tragic event," Farrell said.

Farrell said the order establishes a precedent in terms of regulating such aggressive marketing following a tragedy in Connecticut.

"While this is not the 'false' advertising that CUTPA typically regulates, I believe that it's important in this case to push the envelope, to get the message across to ADT and others who might engage in this kind of behavior that it simply is not acceptable," Farrell said.

ADT donated $1,000 to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Greater Connecticut Chapter as part of the agreement. Jennifer Hawke-Petit had multiple sclerosis, and she and her two daughters were active in raising awareness and funds to combat the debilitating disease.

Company spokeswoman Ann Lindstrom said Friday that the pamphlets were never meant to offend.

Lindstrom said it was the company's standard practice to distribute pamphlets in neighborhoods after an ADT representative meets with a homeowner on a sales call. Sales of alarm systems rose sharply in Connecticut immediately following the Cheshire homicides, business representatives said.

"Prompted by the tragic attack on the Petit family, the ADT Wallingford office received numerous requests for information from people interested in electronic security systems to help protect themselves and their families from a similar violent attack," Lindstrom said Friday.

"ADT was responsive to the inquiries received from the community by providing them with information and risk assessments," she said. "Members of the community expressed gratitude to ADT for our prompt response, while others were critical of us."

And while Farrell's intentions in disciplining ADT may have been good, not everyone was sure his precedent-setting decision would hold up in court if ADT ever decided to appeal. Commercial free speech is protected under the U.S. Constitution in much the same way as individual speech.

"I think it would be a surprise to most of the state's businesses that the government thinks it can regulate not only the accuracy of [their] advertising but its tastefulness as well," said David I. Albin, a Stamford lawyer who serves as chairman of the Connecticut Bar Association's business law division.