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Misleading Advertising

The notion of misleading advertising can encompass many things. Advertising can be misleading in its claims and/or in the images and can it can be either the result of just plain false claims, omitted information, or claims that give a wrong impression about the product. Here are some examples of how advertising can be misleading.

Misleading claims

Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d4/Glac%C3%A9au_vitaminwater.jpg

Advertising can be misleading in the claims it makes. A blatant example is the advertising campaign for Vitamin Water (a Coca-Cola product), which was very heavily market ed as a “healthy” drink. However, each bottle was found to contain up to 31 grams of sugar, and a class action lawsuit was filed, forcing Coca-Cola to change its labelling and settle for 2.7 million $ in 2015[1].

The claims made in advertising, don’t necessarily have to be false, but they can mislead the consumer into thinking some things about the products that are not necessarily true. Companies achieve these false impressions by using – among other stratagems – by employing cautiously studied phrases, which you have probably already heard.

Here are some examples:

  • “Scientifically formulated!”
    Although this phrase sounds very reassuring and implies a certain reliability of the product it tries to sell: it is usually found on cosmetic products, diet supplements, etc. However, if you stop and think about it, it doesn’t mean much. Very different from “scientifically proven”, which implies that the product underwent scientific tests to prove its effects, while “scientifically formulated” only implies that the product has been produced in a lab, mixing ingredients/chemicals, which does not necessarily imply anything about its quality.
  • “When they’re gone, they’re gone”
    This phrase – or idea the idea implied, such as “limited edition” campaigns or “while supplies last” offers – plays on the so-called fear of missing out (FOMO), which will immediately make a consumer feel like they need to purchase a given product because it is exclusive, because if they wait they may never get it or never get such a good deal. However, these claims are misleading because they imply that the product will only be available for a few lucky customers and that stocks will soon end, but that is often not true.
  • “Helps to…”
    This is another recurring phrase, often used for muscle-build or weight-loss products and usually followed by “if coupled with a balanced diet and exercise”. The trick is that it implies that the product contributes to achieve weight-loss or whatever other miraculous objective, but it doesn’t specify in what measure.
  • “Up to X% off!”
    This one is probably one of the most common misleading advertising phrases on this list! “Up to 70% off” automatically makes you think that most if not all products will have a 70% discount, but if we stop for a moment to think about the sentence, it is not what it implies. “Up to 70% off” can mean from 0% to 70% off, and it can be used as a “bait” to get customers to walk into a shop or enter a website, only to find that the articles actually discounted at 70% off are few and probably uninteresting.
  • “Designed to…”
    Another phrase that sounds impressive but doesn’t really mean anything specific is “designed to”. That a chair is “designed to” relieve you from all your back problems, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will do so. That a pill is “designed to” make your hair grow stronger and shinier, doesn’t really mean that it will deliver on its promise. Just like “helps to”, “designed to” is a neutral but appealing sentence that easily tricks customers into trusting a product.

All these misleading claims are carefully thought to induce customers into thinking something without necessarily stating a false claim, which would make companies incur in sanctions from authorities who protect customers from false advertising.

Misleading pictures

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McDonald%27s_Israel#/media/File:Big_America_McDonalds_Israel.jpg

Customers can also be misled into thinking a product is better (tastier, healthier, bigger) than the reality through misleading pictures in advertising. A classic example is food: have you ever seen a picture like the one above in a fast food menu or billboard and instantly started salivating when actually the reality of the burger that you will be served in the same fast food restaurant is way less exciting? Advertisers spend loads of time, money and attention into crafting perfect pictures of what they are advertising, often misleading consumers into thinking that the burger they order will look just as juicy as the one on the picture, the inflatable pool they bought for their children will be just as big as the one pictured on the box, the hotel room they booked will be just as bright and spacious as the picture on their website. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and in food photo shoots advertisers even make use of props that aren’t food, such as shaving foam instead of whipped cream or cardboard to make the burgers look taller.

[1] https://www.reuters.com/article/coca-cola-vitaminwater-settlement/coke-to-change-vitaminwater-labels-to-settle-u-s-consumer-lawsuit-idUSL1N1211HX20151001

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