Watch that fine print

spectrum

Wow, TV + Internet +Voice, $29.99! That certainly grabs the attention.

Spectrum 2.jpg

“Each.” That means the total price is about 90 bucks. Hmm, not such a great deal after all. And “Standard rates apply after 1 year,” says the teeny-tiny print on the back.

This is not exclusive to Spectrum – pull just about any flyer out of your mailbox or newspaper, and you’ll be likely to see something similar. Sales, marketing, and advertising – three industries that drive our economy, and all dependent on

  • persuasion
  • puffery
  • deception, and
  • outright fraud.

It’s scary, and except for the last one, it’s almost 100% legal.

1. Persuasion – the key to your wallet

Let’s look at the key points from Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini:

  • Reciprocation: Consider the in-store wine tasting, or the free scone at the coffee shop. We think we’re coming out on top, but the expectation to give back is strong within us, and leads us to buy something.
  • Consistency: We like to see ourselves as consistent souls with unwavering beliefs. So if you ask me to publicly declare my devotion to animal rights, for example, I’m more likely to donate money to PETA later.
  • Authority: Four out of five dentists recommend using the reassuring gloss of authority to sell this toothpaste.
  • Social Validation: Rugged individualist fantasies aside, we are more likely to do something if we see that many other people like us have also done it.
  • Scarcity: Anyone who has grabbed a plain, overpriced t-shirt from another’s hands at a “one-day-only” sale understands how persuasive limited-time and limited-quantity offers are.
  • Liking: If you like someone, you are more likely to say “yes” to her request. If she is pretty, you’re even more likely. And if she compliments you, well, that works, too.

The book goes into great detail about how marketers invoke the “click, whirr” response in us, but this is the core of the book. Ironically, it can be read either as a consumer guide or a training manual for salespeople!

But you see these techniques in place everywhere. JC Penney tried ditching frequent sales for “everyday low pricing” and it didn’t work. People like sales. Never mind that a sweater that’s marked $39.95 today, and goes on sale tomorrow at $42.95 (slashed from $79.95!) is more expensive “on sale” that it was yesterday, people will buy it because a) they have short memories, b) they’re not savvy shoppers, and c) it was on sale!!!

Need to pop into the grocery store for a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread? They are likely in the farthest corner of the store, so you have to walk by everything else to get there. High-profit items are carefully placed at convenient height, and the location of goods is regularly rotated to keep shoppers off balance – the longer you’re in the store searching for things, the more you’ll buy. Most items in grocery flyers are not “on sale” – they’re just there to make you think they are. Colors, smells, relaxing music and clever signage (“Only $1.00” – even though it’s always just been a dollar) add to the myriad ways stores try to part you from your cash.

2. Puffery – Marketing’s license to lie.

In law, puffery is a promotional statement or claim that expresses subjective rather than objective views, which no “reasonable person” would take literally. (Wikipedia.)

Thanks to the machinations of countless generations of attorneys, advertisers are free to say pretty much what they want about their products. The claims made via puffery may be patently false, but they are “not really lies” because they can’t be disproved. “The World’s Best Hot Dog” is an unassailable statement because no “reasonable person” could be expected to believe it, and it can be neither proved nor disproved, being a completely subjective statement – and puffery creates no express warranty or guarantee for the consumer. Some examples of puffery include:

  • Meals fit for a king!
  • Our mattresses are softer than a cloud!
  • Better ingredients, better pizza!
  • The Best Coffee in Town!
  • Lose Weight Fast!

If something is demonstrably false – i.e. “nature’s perfect food” can be challenged by science – then it’s probably punishable by law. Opinions, however, are not statements of fact.

3. Deception

Hall of Shame Advertisement

My favorite deceptive ad of all time, which I have referenced before. This is the crown jewel of shameful advertising. If you strip away all the puffery, this ad says “Buy our rabbit ears – they’re prettier!” But every statement in the ad can be interpreted in more than one way, and taken together (by someone who’s not especially sophisticated) they imply some incredible technological breakthrough at a dirt-cheap price.

Advertising restrictions were not as stringent a generation ago:

The jingle in this retro ad is a bit different from the one I remember:

If you want shoes with lots of pep, get Keds, kids, Keds.
For bounce and zoom in every step, get Keds, kids, Keds.
Those shock-proof arches can’t be beat
They sure are great for growing feet
You’ll be a champion athlete!
Keds, kids, Keds.

Equally bad was this ad for Kellogg’s Apple Jacks from the 60s:

“A bowl a day keeps the bullies away!” How many kids begged their moms for a box of this cereal, only to find that they got slammed into the lockers just as hard the next day?

If you want deceptive advertising, just head for the nutritional supplement industry. I take these people to task at every opportunity, as I recently did with ProBioSlim. I made the manufacturer so mad that I actually got my first cease-and-desist letter, out of which came precisely nothing.

4. Outright Fraud

Frankly, I feel like most affiliate-marketer-sponsored nutritional or weight-loss products are criminally fraudulent; just type “snake oil” in the search bar of this blog for myriad examples. But in this section I mention a few cases that actually spawned legal action and forced advertisers to change course.

  • In 2014, Red Bull paid $13 million to settle a class-action suit because it claimed “Red Bull Gives You Wings.”
  • In 2010, Kellogg claimed Rice Krispies could boost your immune system. In 2011. Kellogg agreed to pay $2.5 million to affected consumers, as well as donating $2.5 million worth of Kellogg products to charity.

  • New Balance was accused of false advertising in 2011 over a sneaker range that it claimed could help wearers burn calories. Nope. In 2012, New Balance agreed to pay a settlement of $2.3 million.
  • Lumos Labs: In January 2016, the makers of popular brain-training app Luminosity were fined $2 million by the FTC for deceptive advertising, claiming that the app could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, among other things.

  • In the 1990s, the “Airborne” herbal supplement was everywhere. It claimed to hold off harmful bacteria and germs, preventing everyday ailments like the flu and common cold. The claims ended in a class-action lawsuit involving over $30 million in settlement payments.

Puffery is one thing, outright lies are another. While the FTC and the FDA are underfunded and overburdened, they do their best to protect the consumer from fraud and abuse wherever they can.

Ultimately, caveat emptor along with a healthy dose of skepticism, social awareness, and a willingness to do the necessary research is the consumer’s best defense against fraudulent advertising practices.

As usual, be careful out there.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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