The Honest Truth About False Advertising

Daniella Alscher
Daniella Alscher  |  July 15, 2019

It’s not hard to tell the truth.

We often choose to lie anyway. The things we lie about to one another can be hurtful, harmful, and even life-altering. When we’re caught, it’s embarrassing, and we wish we’d just told the truth instead.

Could you imagine if you got caught telling a lie about yourself to the entire world?

What is false advertising?

Phony statistics. Photoshopped bodies. Hidden ingredients. All types of advertising are susceptible to deception. These lies can ruin our confidence in ourselves, our physical state of well-being, and our trust in the industry.

While the advertising industry encourages risks, this isn’t one to take. False oral or written representations, sales of hazardous or defective products without disclosure of risks, and failure to meet promises that a warranty makes are just a few of the many ways that companies can, and have, deceived the public.

Common types of false advertising

We lie for a lot of reasons, but desperation is definitely up there. The same goes for companies who aren’t making enough money to stay afloat. Here are the types of false advertising to look out for as a consumer. Some of them are awfully slick.

Bait and switch

Bait and switch advertising occurs when a company advertises a product or service that they don’t intend to sell or provide consumers with. This is done in order to lure customers into their store or onto their website, only to pull the bait out from under them and attempt to sell another product or service in its place.

Advertisers don’t even have to completely omit the truth from their advertisements to get in trouble for this.

Bait and Switch

Source: Toronto Realty

Nobody’s getting free beer at this bar.

Lying by omission

Arguably one of the most common ways to lie in an advertisement, lying by omission involves simply removing relevant information from an advertisement to make sure that the best features of a product or service stand out with no distractions.

For example, if a company hypothetically designs an advertisement for a battery that says “Lasts Even Longer”, this would be considered lying by omission. Lasts even longer than what? A potato?

false advertising by omission

Source: Duracell

Procter & Gamble Company was sued in the United States by customers in 2012 for delivering misleading information. It turned out that not only did they omit what batteries they lasted longer than, but that the entire claim was an outright lie as the batteries, while more expensive, did not last longer than traditional alkaline batteries.

Quality or origin deception

It’s illegal for a company to make a false claim about the quality or origin of the product that they’re selling. It’s also illegal for a company to withhold information about defects that they’re aware of.

This includes claiming that a food is 100% organic when it’s not, claiming that something was manufactured in the USA when it was manufactured overseas, and omitting known defects from warning disclosures.

quality deception in advertising

Source: Econsultancy

In bold, Nesquik’s copy reads “45% less sugar than the leading chocolate syrup brand*”.

In fine print, it reads: “ ~ 11g vs. 20 g sugar/svg. This product contains 23 g sugar when mixed with 1 cup low fat milk”.

This ad is the revised version of the even more deceptive one that came before it.

Photography is an extremely popular way to go about this form of false advertising. Editing photos to make models look thinner, food to look juicier, and rooms to look brighter has been around since the dawn of time. Photoshop is powerful, but that doesn’t mean that power should be used for evil.

Using your Photoshop powers for good? Let others know what you think about its capabilities:

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Hidden fees

That fine print can be really tricky. Another popular way to falsely advertise a product or service in order to make it look more attractive is by not fully disclosing the actual price. Completely omitting a service charge, maintenance fee, or equipment fees is asking for a court case.

Often, advertisers attempt to get around this with fine print, which is still considered deceptive. The FTC regulations state that in order for an advertisement to be lawful, all terms and conditions must be clear and legible. Advertisements that say something is 5 payments of $19.99 won’t fly.

Puffery

Think about a pufferfish. Those little guys really know how to blow themselves out of proportion. Advertisers follow suit by making statements that are so unbelievably broad that they’re both impossible to prove and disprove, making them difficult to take to court.

Note that almost every movie is #1. Every fast food restaurant is the “fastest”. Any advertisement claiming that their product or service is “the best”.

Puffery is a filler statement in advertising to make an average product or service sound better than its competitors when the product or service really has no other way to stand out.

Puffery

Source: Inverse

Bigger than bigger? What does that even mean?

False advertising law

It’s not only a risk to choose to publicize a false advertisement – it’s illegal. Consumers have a right to know what they’re purchasing and how much they’re purchasing it for, whether it’s a product or a service.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a part of the government in the United States that regulates advertisements. The FTC operates by prevention over punishment. This means that if an advertiser is caught trying to publicize deceptive advertisements, the FTC will simply ask that they revise the advertisement.

False advertising doesn’t always go unpunished; false advertising claims can be made in civil court.

False advertising law says that if the plaintiff can prove their case if they can show that (a) the advertising was false or misleading; (b) the advertisers lied about something of importance; (c) the consumer saw the false advertisement; and (d) the consumer purchased the service or product because of the advertisement.

A competing company can also sue the advertiser if the false advertiser caused the plaintiff economic hardship.

If these cases are proven, the court can order a company to (a) stop the advertisement; (b) correct the misleading information; (c) publicize the legitimate information that was left out.

The company may also be ordered by the court to pay fines or damages to the plaintiff, sometimes upwards of millions of dollars.

TIP: If your company gets busted, you’re going to need to know how to recover from the PR crisis. Fast.

Related content: How To Recover From a PR Crisis →

Keep it transparent

Like we’ve said from the beginning: it’s not hard to tell the truth. When designing an advertisement, make sure you’re:

  • Being honest about the pricing
  • Being accurate when providing a visual and description of the product or service
  • Being careful when using the word “free”
  • Avoiding fine print

In other words, tell the truth.

You’ve got the science down; let’s learn a little bit about the art of ad design.

Daniella Alscher
Author

Daniella Alscher

Daniella Alscher is a Content Marketing Associate for G2. When she's not reading or writing, she's listening to murder podcasts or sitting on the couch. Or both.