Note to advertisers: If you’re looking to not draw government scrutiny in your movie ad, making viewers believe that the Washington D.C. is under attack from terrorists with the words “THIS IS NOT A TEST” is probably not the best way to do it.

Comcast, Viacom and Disney are learning this lesson the hard way. On March 4, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) levied fines of $1.9 million total against the three companies for carrying a commercial for the March 2013 movie “Olympus Has Fallen.”

The FCC cited the media companies “willfully and repeatedly” violating federal law by carrying the commercial. The commission claimed that it received multiple complaints from viewers who were confused by the fictional use of the Emergency Alert System (E.A.S.) signal that is typically used to alert Americans of a real disaster.

According to the New York Times, one complaint from Southeast Missouri claimed that the signal “had our entire family running to the TV to find out what was going on.” The person issuing the complaint stated, “Around here in Southwest Missouri we are always on high alert for E.A.S.  tones due to tornadoes.” The person further said, “One of my children started to quickly get out of the bathtub thinking there was an emergency.”

The media companies’ argument is that they indeed carried the commercials, but they did not violate federal law intentionally. “Our processes were immediately strengthened when we received word of the error,” Viacom said in a statement, “and we no longer accept ads from advertisers containing tones that could be confused with the E.A.S. attention signal.”

The NYT reports that the FCC has had rules in place since 1994 against using the E.A.S. signal, but there has been almost no enforcement or regulations surrounding this rule. However, following a rise in complaints, the FCC issued an advisory warning to cable and broadcast stations warning against improper use.


For the latest on the FCC in corporate legal news, check out these articles:

FCC rules target broadcasters with multiple stakes in a single location

Netflix strikes deal with Comcast to improve speed and quality of its service

FCC planning new regulations following Verizon decision