I sometimes have said that you can blame Ralph Nader for all the mistrust people have in big business today. Those seeds were sewn a long time ago when Mr. Nader was a major factor in protecting consumer rights (you can check it out here if you’re too young to remember!). But whether you recall his consumer activism days or not, there were and still are some very good reasons to have mistrust even today. Advertisers often use misleading ads to separate you from your hard-earned cash.
We’ve all heard and seen those retail ads on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines, or in our e-mail inboxes that make unbelievable claims and promises. Think phrases such as “it’s totally risk-free” or “thousands already saved on this amazing offer”. You know what I am talking about here. That too-good-to-be-true ad copy that frequently grabs your attention and makes claims that fundamentally and even deliberately mislead you!
Ok, those claims may not always be “technically” lies in the truest, traditional, legal sense of the word, but there are many different ways to lie. Professional retailers and advertisers know these tricks all too well and are really, really good at doing them. These companies pay their ad executives enormous sums of money to keep bringing in customers like you and me with their dangerous and tricky catchphrases. That’s why you have to learn to defend your willing and receptive self when it comes to those dangerous practices.
How Important is Ad Copy to Get You to Buy Stuff?
The objective of all ad copy is to communicate the benefits of a product or service to existing and prospective new customers and to get them and keep them buying, period.
While copywriting can be used to persuade people to make a purchase and increase profits in the short term, using misleading ad copy can end up hurting a business in the long term. When the claims made in ad copy such as “100%” or “the best ever” are not exactly true all of the time then those claims are false claims and are misleading or even illegal tactics. Companies eventually will suffer if they keep on doing that kind of thing!
Truth or Consequences!
No, I’m not referring here to the town located in New Mexico or the old radio and TV show you may have heard of (created in the 1940’s).
I’m talking about the advertising tactic in which a specific offer is not as advertised and still encourages a customer to take advantage of it. That is illegal to do. It’s all too easy for you and me to fall into the trap of believing misleading ads and the repercussions often go well beyond just being a dissatisfied customer. It can lead you into financial problems that are short term or even obligations that you get caught up in for a long-term cost as well.
There’s a pretty popular political podcast that I sometimes listen to called “Words Matter” (by Elise Jordan and Steve Schmidt) and that title is also a truth as it applies to the misleading ad copy and misleading ad claims we are faced with all of the time.
Lies That Liars Lie About That are Lies!
There are many different ways to lie, and professional advertisers know them all too well. They include:
Lies of Omission
This is the most common type of lie in advertising. It takes relevant information off the table so that only the best features of the product or services are highlighted. For example, if trying to sell you diet pills that help you lose 30 lbs. in 10 weeks, it never mentions that it must be combined with furious exercise and a low-calorie diet to work. The lie of omission is leaving the diet and exercise facts out of the ad.
Lies of Commission
An out and out lie, such as “buy this book and you will make $1 million in less than a year!”
Lies of Error
Sometimes a mistake is made. A historic case made a few years ago is the infamous Sketchers Shape Ups shoe campaign that ended up costing Sketchers $40 million dollars.
Consumers were told that this shoe could help you lose weight and stay in shape, but that information was proven wrong and even though it was an error without malice intended, it was still a deception.
Lies of Exaggeration
Very common in advertising today and used blatantly is saying something like using a certain cologne is going to have women running after you from miles around. It’s taking things to the extreme to make a point, but yet some people actually believe it.
Lies of Denial
This is very dangerous. Ads that refuse to acknowledge anything that is negative about a product or service like years ago when the tobacco industry refused to admit that its products were harmful to your health. Today there may actually be a reverse tendency such as when you see the drug ads on TV with the rushed mention of side effects that you miss most of them or the super tiny print on ads posted for a nanosecond on your TV screen about the negatives of an offer.
Lies of Minimization
This is the opposite of exaggerating the benefits of products and services by playing down the negative aspects. Saying something like “this product may cause slight discomfort” when the product is known to cause major pain and suffering is a lie of minimization.
Lies of Reinvention
If the facts don’t fit, change the facts. This can be done in many ways, from the use of sarcasm and tone to just rearranging or providing “alternative” (yes, I did just go there!) facts and quotes to benefit the product or service being sold.
Dangerous Terms That Make You Spend Your Hard-Earned Money
And now…the 5 most dangerous traps when you’re shopping.
I have often written here that “free” is one of my favorite words and who doesn’t love free? But, “free” is one of the most abused words in all of advertising (along with similar phrases, such as “no cost”, “no obligation”, and the infamous “no purchase necessary”). Using “free” is one of the easiest traps to fall into because it’s a word that grabs people’s attention, but the truth is simply that nothing worthwhile is really free.
If you expect something for nothing you’re at best going to be disappointed and at worst cheated. “Free” usually means you will have some obligation attached. You buy one, to get another free. You buy something to get free shipping. You buy a subscription to get your free gift. Just remember this old phrase along with your “freebie” and that is “you get what you pay for!”
A key component of appealing to consumers’ emotional triggers, of security and trust, is the word “guaranteed”. So it’s understandable that many businesses use the word “guarantee” liberally—as in “satisfaction guaranteed”, “money-back guarantee”, “results guaranteed”, and variations such as “or your money back”. The most important thing to be careful about is in knowing whether or not the business making the guarantee can actually back it up. Are they fiscally sound? Where and how can you reach them if in fact you need to do it? Have they a history of success or any history at all?
3. “Lowest price”
What consumer isn’t concerned about price? In fact, pricing is the easiest ways for businesses to differentiate themselves from the competition, but pricing claims need to be clarified and quantified to make them believable. In fact, pricing claims have lost much of their power and impact simply because the tactic is so overused.
Lowest price is now often altered with the words, “save x% off”! Fill in any number you’d like in that catchphrase because it means almost nothing in reality, yet draws people to buy in the millions.
Prices in our world are established by the business and as such, are literally made up. When the prices are reduced and on sale, that is just another number invented by the business so that if they want to say that an item they used to list as a $100 item is now selling it for just $10, it can claim it’s now at 90% off! That is true even if it never sold a single one at $100 or even if it were never intended to sell it at that price. It’s totally up to the consumer (that’s you, buddy) to know and understand what a bargain is and what it is you are actually saving when you make a purchase.
4. “Risk-free” or “No risk”
This is another example of a phrase that has lost its effectiveness because it is used so often. In today’s society, many people, unfortunately, expect to be taken advantage of, so when consumers see something that says it doesn’t have any risk associated they are more likely to buy. Often there is some form of “hassle” involved where no-risk is claimed such as a shipping and handling fee or a very short window of time to make your no risk return and refund claims. Even a refund can be confused with a credit so you never get your money back, just the “opportunity” to buy another item from the business!
5. “Up to”
Alone this phrase is fairly benign, but when it is coupled with an ad offer or claim, it can be dangerous. For example, “up to 75% off” means only some items are available at 75% off, but the majority may be offered at far lower discounts or even no discounts at all. People see “75% off” and act, but they could be disappointed when they arrive for the advertised sale and find just one unpopular item available at that rate.
Before you act on any of the above words or phrases, it’s essential to evaluate the risks vs. the rewards. When you see words such as “guarantee” or “up to”, do so with caution and make sure your advertisers can prove their claims by doing your due diligence.
Most businesses do try to be honest and even though words can be misleading, it’s not always intentional. You see the words “free” and “lowest prices”, but when you do you still must be cautious and not be overly influenced by and totally impulsive just because of them.
Do you believe what you read, hear and see when it comes to advertising? Do you trust and shop with confidence with little or no investigation or do you do the homework that being a smart consumer seems to demand? Have you ever been burned or hurt by deceptive advertising and if so, what did you do to recover and prevent that from happening again?