According to a recent consumer expenditure survey, households spend $4 trillion per year. It’s estimated that $236 billion will be spent this year in the United States on print, radio, online, and broadcast advertising to get a piece of this market. The result is sensory bombardment. It is also estimated that each American is exposed to well over 5,000 advertising messages per day, and that children see over 50,000 TV commercials a year. In our view, as many as one-quarter of all these ads are deliberately deceptive. Increasingly, the family of businesses that advertise is not one you should be proud to be associated with.
Do you doubt our claim that a significant portion of advertising is dishonest? Do a little test for yourself. Look through your local newspaper as we did one recent morning. Here are a few of the ads we found:
• An ad for a weight reduction center that promises its clients will lose five, ten, or 20 pounds a week. True, some people just might shed some of those unwanted pounds, but how many will keep them off for more than three months? According to Joan Price, in her book The Honest Truth About Losing Weight and Keeping It Off, 90% of dieters regain their lost weight within one year. She explains, “Sorry, folks, there’s no miracle way to block, burn, rub, jiggle, vacuum, melt, or wrap fat off our bodies. There’s no magic pill, injection, cream, or potion. If there were, don’t you think it would make the front page of all the newspapers and medical journals instead of being buried in an ad?” Nowhere in the ad is there a mention of permanent weight loss, because, of course, whatever the method it won’t work over the long term. If the ad told the truth, no one would use the service.
• An ad that duped our friends, who bought their son a highly advertised remote control car for Christmas. It had just hit the market, and our friends joined the long line at the checkout stand picturing the delight on their child’s face Christmas morning. It was not clear to our friends from the ads that the car needed a special rechargeable battery unit, and when they returned to the store a week before the big day they were informed that the batteries were sold out and wouldn’t be available until after Christmas. They went back week after week until finally, two months after Christmas, the batteries arrived. To add insult to injury, the charger unit for the $50 car cost an extra $20.
• An ad that offers home security at a bargain price in big letters sounds like just the ticket to protect your family, until you read the fine print. In very tiny letters, the ad explains that the $99 price covers only the standard installation and that an additional 36-month monitoring agreement is also required. In addition, a telephone connection fee may also be required.
America’s Largest Airline?
In a 2006 Wall Street Journal article, Scott McCartney reported: “Earlier this summer, Delta began claiming that “it is proud to be America’s largest airline.” The Atlanta carrier said in a June 8 news release that it has “more departures to more cities in the United States than any other carrier.”" But, according to McCartney, the number of flights and the number of destinations have never been the accepted criteria for ranking airline size. It would be a bit like ranking retailers by the number of stores rather than sales, or scoring baseball games by the number of hits instead of runs. The standard measure of airline size has long been passenger traffic, measured in revenue-passenger miles. Delta is a distant third in passenger miles and revenue.
Whether you look in a newspaper, a magazine, or the electronic media, it is not difficult to find many less-than-honest ads. Even if you advertise in a scrupulously honest way, your ads keep bad company.
The public, which has long since become cynical about the general level of honesty in advertising, will not take what you say at face value. For example, suppose you own a restaurant, and instead of extolling the wonders of your menu in exaggerated prose you simply state that you serve “excellent food at a reasonable price.” Many people, cynical after a lifetime of being duped by puffed-up claims, are likely to conclude that your food couldn’t be too good if that’s all you can say about it. But some warn against combating the cynicism with trickery. For example, in a Time magazine article titled “It’s an Ad Ad Ad World” (July 23, 2002), Keith Reinhard, chairman of marketing services agency DDB Worldwide, stated, “I’m against any form of deception. In the end, it’s bad business.”
One type of dishonest advertising is a bit more subtle and involves magazines and newspapers that you might have respected before you discovered their policy. It works like this: The publication touts the products and services of its advertisers in its news stories. For example, some computer magazines have been known to favorably review the products of their heavy advertisers, and small newspapers often fawn over the products and services of businesses that can be counted on to buy space. Once you discover this sort of policy, everything the publication reviews, even businesses that are truly excellent, is thrown into question.
Devious advertising is rampant in our culture; from “enhanced underwriting” of public broadcast shows, featuring announcements that look identical to commercial television ads, to paid product placement (inserting brand-name goods into movies, video games, and TV). Stealth or covert marketing occurs when potential customers do not realize they are being marketed to. For example, when celebrities appear on talk shows praising prescription drugs without mentioning that a pharmaceutical company is paying them. No longer satisfied with product placement, companies now pay authors to include brand names in the text of their books. And it gets worse as the line between life and advertising blurs. Trendsetters are paid to drive cars to important parties. Attractive people are hired to frequent bars and talk up certain brands. Moms are paid to praise products at soccer games, and teens are hired to give their peers T-shirts, posters, and CD samplers hyping bands. A Tampa, Florida, high school classroom was recently transformed into a model Outback Restaurant, complete with wood flooring, their signature purple ceiling, and decor from Down Under. This trend is also seen in student-run bank branches within select high schools. Indeed, we have come a long way from the dairy industry giving free milk to children at recess. School districts across the country now sell exclusive ad space to the highest bidder on school buses, hallways, vending machines, and athletic uniforms. Channel One, which gives participating schools video equipment in exchange for piping ads into the classroom, is the tip of the iceberg. Corporations have begun writing the very lesson plans themselves.
Thirty years ago, a study done for the Harvard Business School made clear how the American public felt about traditional advertising: “43% of Americans think that most advertising insults the intelligence of the average consumer. And 53% of Americans disagree that most advertisements present a true picture of the product advertised.” The chief reasons for hostility to advertising are that it is intrusive and patronizing (73%), morally objectionable (50%), and false and misleading (36%). That the judgment of the general public about honesty in advertising has not improved is demonstrated by a 2004 Gallup study asking: Which professionals does the public trust the most, and the least. Advertising professionals were second to last, and used car salespeople came in last. If you want to know who is really behind an ad campaign that appears to be advocating better public policy or medical care, refer to Annenberg Public Policy Center’s website at: www.appcpenn.org.
Let’s take a minute to look at the advertising slogans of some of America’s most prominent corporations. Though the advertising business considers the following slogans “good” advertising and not dishonest hype, ask yourself, is this good company for your business to keep?
• State Farm. Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There.
• BMW. The Ultimate Driving Machine
• Chevy. Built Like a Rock
• Visa. It’s Everywhere You Want to Be.
• American Express. Don’t Leave Home Without It.
• Mentos. The Freshmaker
• Taco Bell. Think Outside the Bun
• Got Milk?
• Just do it (Nike).
We’ve all heard these slogans or ones like them for many years. They’re so familiar that we have to concentrate to even hear them and really pay attention to understand if they are hype or simply not true. And more of them bombard us every day. You can undoubtedly think of many more with no trouble at all.
People are apparently so sick of traditional advertising hype that occasionally even counter-advertising is successful. Bernie Hannaford, who runs a diner named “The Worst Food in Oregon,” was quoted in USA Today as saying, “I’m a lousy cook, and my father always told me to tell the truth, no matter what.” Signs outside invite diners to “Come in and sit with the flies!” and warn, “Food is terrible-service is worse.”
Read the Fine Print
Check out mouseprint.org to see examples of some of the most outrageous “fine print” caveats. The name of this website refers to the common marketing term used for print so small that only a mouse could read it. Our current favorite is the online broker who advertises “online trades for as low as $9.95.” But when you read the fine print you discover this offer applies only to “customers with a balance of $1 million or more.”
Source: Michael Phillips & Salli Rasberry, “Marketing Without Advertising: Easy Ways to Build a Business Your Customers Will Love and Recommend,” Nolo, 2008
Republished by Why Online Marketing