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Business Advertising Deception
Lately, deceptive advertising has become a growing problem in the USA. With advertisers employing various deceptive means to jazz up the products and project them as something better than the competitive products, it has become a trouble for the consumers to make the right purchasing decisions. Often they are deluded by the false promises and claims of the advertisers and purchase a product or service they would not have otherwise paid for. The use of visual techniques, weasel words, puffery, and manipulating terms to play with the psychology of the consumers is completely unethical, and therefore, it is time that the government provides some strong guidelines for the advertisers to follow. Not only that, an exemplary punishment should be meted out to the advertisers for non-compliance with the guidelines. The consumers too need to read information carefully about a product.
The issue at hand is the problem of false and deceptive advertising through which businesses target the guileless consumers and trick them into purchasing products and ideas that they would have otherwise avoided.
Deceptive advertising refers to the practice of using false and misleading statements in advertising and misrepresenting the product being advertised, thereby tricking the consumers into buying products or service that do not fulfill the purpose as claimed in the advertisement. Advertisers use various tricks to attract the consumers for buying a product or service. They use puffery and weasel words to insist that their products are the best in the market. They use visual tricks to make a product look tantalizing on screen. For instance, in advertisement selling honey, it is a common sight to have honey dribbling on a food, and sometimes, in order to make the scene of honey flowing over a loaf of bread or steamy mashed potato visually attractive, advertisers use techniques like trickling motor oil over a freshly microwaved tampon placed behind the food (CEE, 2014). No one is going to verify whether the glowing gleam of honey is actually of honey or something else. This way advertisers try to titillate the viewers through visual attraction by using hairspray on fruits and vegetables to make them look fresh, or replacing the ice cream with mashed potato for a more solid appearance on screen, or using antacids to produce fizz in soda (CEE, 2014). When the tricks and maneuvers used by the advertisers make a gulf of difference between the actual product and what is shown or claimed in the advertisement, it becomes an example of false advertising, because that way the advertisers present a false picture of the product being sold and trick vulnerable consumers into purchasing something that does have little or no similarity with the item featured in the ad. Since deceptive advertising targets the vulnerable consumers and plays with their mind through misleading information, it is illegal and unethical, and should be prevented by enforcing stricter laws.
The number of false advertisements targeting the vulnerable population of consumers is on the rise. As the business world is getting more competitive, the business competitors try to outdo one another by presenting their products as something better than the competitive products. In order to feature their products better than the competitive merchandise, they take to the means of false advertising by promoting their products as something they are not. They take the help of puffery and weasel words to advertise their products. Puffery refers to the use of exaggerated statements that profusely use the superlative forms of adjectives, such as 'best', 'greatest', 'better' and 'finest' (Towey, 2012). A weasel word denotes the use of a claim that apparently may seem to be legitimate, but a close inspection will reveal the falsehood underlying it. Some typical weasel words include 'helps', 'acts', 'fights', 'refreshes', 'looks like', 'strengthened' and 'tastes like'. For instance, if an advertisement of a medication claims that the product can 'help control acne', it does not necessarily mean that the advertisement is claiming that the product can cure acne (Towey, 2012). Though the use puffery and weasel words exaggerate the quality and performance of a product or service, the law does not recognize them as unlawful, because exaggeration is expected in selling a product.
In the USA, it is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that regulates the unfair and deceptive practices of the advertisers (CEE, 2014). Under the federal law, an advertisement is considered false and deceptive if it involves the following:
1. A false representation of product or the omission of a feature of the product that is likely to generate a false belief among the consumers related to the product of the advertiser and the competitor's product (CEE, 2014). For example, if an advertisement of a loaf of bread claims that it has half the amount of calories per slice than that of the competitors and carefully hides the fact that each slice of the bread is also half as thick as that of the competitors, then it is an example of false advertising because by careful omission of one important detail about the product, the advertisers are trying to present a false image of the product to the consumers.
2. If the deception is material and influences the purchasing decision of the consumers who otherwise would have made their purchasing decision differently (CEE, 2014). For example, advertisers can often be seen to use falsifying statements like 'natural' and 'fresh' for products that have been preserved using additives. For example, Crystal Light Natural Lemonade, which is advertised as a natural product, indeed has no lemon in it and has artificial lemon color added into it (Rangan, 2014). There are also products such as Kashi Go Lean Crisp! Toasted Berry Crumble cereal, which though is advertised as 'naturally sweetened', has dried cane syrup listed as the third ingredient in terms of weight, and both cranberries and blueberries are artificially sweetened by using cane syrup (Weise, 2014). Many vulnerable consumers are drawn to these products because of the deceptive advertisement that sells these products as ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’.
3. If someone gets or is likely to be harmed or injured because of the deceptive advertising. The party harmed can be a consumer who believing in the claims of the product might have suffered damage by using it or can be a business organization that has suffered from lost sales to the advertiser and has got its reputation damaged because of the advertiser's deception (CEE, 2014). For example, an advertisement of a medication may claim that the product can cure cancer, and thereby mislead terminally ill consumers into buying it, but affect their health in the process.
Techniques Used in Deceptive Advertising
Some of the popular techniques used by the advertisers to deceive consumers include the following:
Advertisers often manipulate terms to sell their products. Until the term 'organic' gained a legal definition, advertisers used to frequently use it to sell their products. The term 'light' is also frequently used to mean low in calorie content, sodium, carbohydrates, sugars, and texture, but which not necessarily means that the product is actually 'light' in true sense of the term (Rangan, 2014). 'Fresh' and 'Natural' are two of the favorite terms used by the advertisers, and since the word 'natural' does not yet have a legal definition, it is a common practice among the advertisers to label their products as 'natural'. Though the nonbinding advisory statement of the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) states that a food product labelled as 'natural' means that it does not contain any artificial flavor, synthetic color or any synthetic substance, in reality, however, it is seen that most of the time foods labelled as 'natural' have a good many artificial ingredients in them and that they are not 100% natural (Rangan, 2014).
Various visual techniques are employed by the advertisers to make their products appear credible to the audience. For instance, many weight loss advertisements try to strengthen their credibility by showing white-coated doctors and scientists using phrases such as "studies confirm.." or "clinically tested". This strategy is very manipulative because hardly any consumer questions the advice of the doctors (Hobb et al, 2006). A research study conducted by R. Hobb et al. (2006) shows that young girls and women with weight problems find the image of white-coated doctors and scientists in an ad as a sign of credibility. For instance, one participant of the research study confessed that "If I had a weight problem, then I'd probably be more confident in that product because the specialist was in it" (Hobb et al, 2006).
Furthermore, attempts are made to make food products look attractive in photos. For example, in order to make milk look appetizing in an ad, advertisers use shampoo or glue and make it dribble over a cup of cereals. Hamburgers are colored with brown shoe polish to look tantalizing in photos, mashed potatoes are colored and then used as substitute for ice cream or meat, and spray deodorants are used to make grapes look fresh (CEE, 2014). In the advertisements of hotels and resorts, Photoshop is frequently used to add zing to the picture or eliminate an unwanted element that mars the image of the resort.
In deceptive advertising, advertisers often misuse the word 'free'. A typical example is the "buy one, get one free" offer in which the second item is actually not free by normal definition, because in order to obtain the so-called free item, the buyer needs to pay the full price of the first item (Hobb et al, 2006).
Effect of False Advertising on Businesses
The rise in false advertising has led to a rise in the number of false advertising class action lawsuits. Recently in 2014, Red Bull offered $13 million to a consumer who brought a lawsuit against the brand claiming that he had not witnessed any of the benefits promised in the "Red Bull gives you wings" advertising campaign even after drinking the energy drink for 10 years (GRBJ, 2014). What Red Bull promised in the advertisement is that by drinking the energy drink, a consumer would experience elevated concentration level, increased performance, and reaction speed, but none of these was true, because the increase in energy level that comes from the caffeine is only 8 milligrams in an 8 ounce can of Red Bull, whereas a 7 ounce cup of coffee, way cheaper than Red Bull, has double the amount of caffeine (GRBJ, 2014). Therefore, the claims made by Red Bull are entirely false, and since the product is expensive and less efficient, it makes no sense to buy it for a price at which one can avail a 12 pack of Coke.
Similarly like Red Bull, Kellogg, General Mills, Campbell Soup and many other companies too have suffered the consequences of false advertising. Kellogg recently offered a whopping $2.5 million for settling a class action lawsuit filed against it for deceptively advertising the boxes of Cocoa Krispies® as a product that improves immunity for children. A class action lawsuit was filed against Cambell Soup by four women who claimed that they were tricked into buying the Campbell tomato soup advertised as a product carrying "25% less sodium" when the amount of salt added into it is of the same found in regular Campbell soups (Towey, 2012). Several other lawsuits have been filed against different food companies, including General Mills for advertising their YoPlus® yogurt as a product that improves the digestive health, and the Wrigley Company that promoted its gums as products that have germ-killing benefits (Towey, 2012). All these examples of class action lawsuits show that the deceptive advertisement not only affects the interests of the consumers, it also boomerangs on the companies that sell products through the means of deceptive advertisements.
Deceptive advertising, which refers to the practice of misleading consumers into purchasing products or service through falsified representation, has been on the rise lately. It has become a common phenomenon to see products advertised as something they are not. If a product is advertised as 'natural' with no artificial ingredients in it, it is more than often found that the product contains a lot of artificial flavors and additives. Owing to the increase in deceptive advertising, the number of class action lawsuits filed against companies promoting their products and service through false advertising has been on the rise lately. Advertisers employ various means such as visual techniques, manipulative terms, and the misuse of ideas to promote their products. It is not that false advertising only affects the consumers by luring them into buying products or service they otherwise would have avoided, false advertising also affects the businesses by damaging their credibility and reputation when class action lawsuits are filed against them, and they in order to clear them names from the ordeal pay a hefty amount as settlement. Though Federal Trade Commission regulates the practices of deceptive advertising on a case to case basis, it is not enough to address the problem. Some concrete definitions and guidelines should be provided by the government so that the advertisers are unable to use misleading weasel words or puffery. Just as the word 'organic' has been defined, same way a proper definition of 'natural' should be provided to prevent the random usage of the term 'natural'. Consumers too need to read the information on the product carefully. All these steps put together would hopefully reduce the problem significantly.
1) Often advertisers and manufacturers of the products provide warnings on the label in small or dull-colored fonts in dull backgrounds so as to easily skip the notice of the customers. Therefore, consumers should always read the label carefully to understand the product features and warnings properly.
2) Government regulatory agencies like Federal Trade Commission (FTC) should create clear definitions about the most used words in advertising so that there remains no ambiguity. For example, a clear definition of “natural” should help consumers understand what they are buying or whether or not the product advertised as "natural" really meets the criteria of natural products.
3) FTC should also make it mandatory for the advertisers to justify their claims with proper documents and evidence if a consumer or competitor asks for it.
4) Industry stakeholders like media, radio, television and internet portals should collectively create high ethical and statutory standards for advertising. If any advertisement is found to be harmful for consumers or involves a false statement, then media should refuse to publish or air that advertisement to the consumers.
Rangan, U. (2014). Ban ‘Natural’ as a Marketing Label on Foods. The New York Times. Retrieved on 3rd February, 2015 from <http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/11/10/should-the-fda-regulate-the-use-of-natural-on-food-products-15/ban-natural-as-a-marketing-label-on-foods>
Weise, E. (2014). 66% of consumers wrongly think "natural" means something. USA Today. Retrieved on 3rd February, 2015 from <http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2014/06/17/natural-food-labels-no-meaning/10674755/>
Grand Rapids Business Journal (GRBJ). (2014). False advertising class action lawsuits on the rise. Retrieved on 3rd February, 2015 from <http://www.tortreform.com/news/false-advertising-class-action-lawsuits-rise>
Towey, R. D. (2012). False Advertising Claims On The Rise. Food Manufacturing. Retrieved on 3rd February, 2015 from <http://www.foodmanufacturing.com/articles/2012/06/false-advertising-claims-rise>
Hobbs, R.; Broder, S.; Pope, H. and Rowe, J. (2006). How adolescent girls interpret weight-loss advertising. Health Education Research, 21(5), 719-730. doi:10.1093/her/cyl077
Council for Economic Education (CEE). (2014). Deceptive Advertising: Crossing the Line. <http://www.econedlink.org/lessons/index.php?lid=663&type=student>
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