I’ve written about the auto dealer “You’ve Won a Prize” scam before. Today I happened to be driving past Rockland Ford in Thomaston, Maine with one of their flyers in my hand, and since a $5.00 WalMart gift card is better than a sharp stick in the eye if I’m in the area anyway, I dropped in.
(Click image for a larger view)
The flyer states pretty plainly that I’ve won a “car, hotel and gas card.” But as usual, the large print giveth, and the small print taketh away:
“The number that you matched does not give you a choice, but an opportunity to win a prize.“
If you’re not sure, this means “the number you scratched off means nothing at all.” The only number that means anything is the one after “official registered #”, which in my case is 129,280. Odds of winning the WalMart gift card are 499,994:499,999, meaning that’s what you’ll get. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the $500.00 one. It isn’t.
The salesman I spoke to insisted that the advert wasn’t deceptive at all, and I should just read the fine print. Well, I’ve lived long enough to know that bait-and-switch is a scummy tactic, and is usually covered up with the most barely-legal douchebaggery the attorneys can dig up.
Yes, as long as the “final deal” is spelled out somewhere, they can claim that customers had access to all aspects of the promotion and it’s legal. But I ask you: how many people walk away from the encounter disappointed and with a sour taste in their mouth about the dealership? How likely are they to want to buy a car from a dealer that uses such tactics to get people in the door? People who run these enterprises ought to give that a thought.
Wow, TV + Internet +Voice, $29.99! That certainly grabs the attention.
“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
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.
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.
I’ve written about deceptive marketing practices before, notably here and here. Finding people who are willing to ascribe to ethical business practices is a challenge in this world, and in marketing and advertising the phenomenon is well-nigh absent.
Here’s an example of an egregious bait-and-switch ad I received in the mail last week (click images to enlarge)
Now, before we go any further, some will already be shouting “But it’s a car dealership! What do you expect?” Yes, well, more about that later, but let’s look at the flyer in question.
The front clearly states,
“If the number you scratched off matches to any of the prize numbers, you have definitely won! Proceed immediately to Tucker Chevrolet to confirm and collect your prize.”
You’ll see that the scratched-off number matches the $250.00 prize in my case. I’m not a fool – I had no real illusions that I had won anything of value, but I went down the rabbit hole to see how the game is played.
And, as it turns out – as in so many instances – the large print giveth, and the small print taketh away. Look on the back, and you’ll see this:
If the number printed next to your name in the address panel of this mailer matches exactly to the winning number on the prize board at the sales event, Setp. 27 – Oct. 2, 2017, then you win the prize that matches your number. The number you scratched off does not give you a choice, but an opportunity to win a prize. (Odds of winning grand prize of $25,000 cash 1:499,999. Odds of winning 60″ HDTV (value $499) 1:499,999. Odds of winning $25,000 cash 1:499,999. Odds of winning $1000 cash 1:499, 999. Odds of winning $250 Walmart card 1:499,999. Odds of winning five dollar want Walmart card 499,995:499,999.
In plain English, you’re walking out of there with a five-buck Walmart card, unless you’re the kind of person that regularly wins the lottery. I’d love to see a reddit AMA from someone who actually scored the grand prize in one of these “giveaways.”
The bold text in the disclaimer above seems to directly contradict the blaring statement on the front of the mailer, but it should be noticed that “you have definitely won” does not specify what you have won. The mind, however, fills in the gaps and brings you down to the dealership, which is the whole point.
The salesman who showed me the board, patronizingly explained to me that I was not a large prize winner, and handed me my $5.00 Walmart card “so you don’t walk away with nothing” indicated that he’d like a chance to earn my business whenever I wanted to trade in my Prius.
Odds of earning my business at a dealership that resorts to such deceptive advertising: 0:7,571,086,556 (number changes continually).
For all the good that car dealerships do – sponsoring Little League teams, funding scholarships for disadvantaged children, donating vehicles to first responders, paying their taxes and flying big flags, people generally have an unfavorable opinion of auto dealers, both used and new. And that reputation is deserved, even though some are better than others. There are just too many rotten apples in the barrel for the entire industry to clean up its own act.
Car sales is a business where the goal is to make the sale, get the commission, get the customer to agree to as many worthless add-ons as possible, buy the gold service contract, use dealer financing at the highest possible rate (if you manage to score 0%, you know they’re making money on unadvertised holdbacks or something else that you can’t see), and if the customer is really stupid, go for the lease option.
There are too many hungry salesmen and sales managers out there, some of whom would make Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross look like Miss Julie from Romper Room. Ethics isn’t even in their vocabulary. And based on the kind of advertising campaign we’re discussing, it doesn’t really seem to have a presence in corporate boardrooms either.
“But it’s just advertising, nobody really expects the truth!”
Well, yes. Yes, they do. I went into this little exercise with my eyes wide open, so coming away with a $5.00 Walmart gift card is actually more than I had expected. But I know there are many people who truly thought they had won something significant, and left feeling used and cheated – or, if they were really unlucky, with a new car.
TANSTAAFL: There’s no such thing as a free lunch. It’s good to remember, especially in the world of advertising. Be careful out there.
Consumer Reports runs a section called “Selling It,” which documents advertised goofs, glitches and gotchas. Years and years ago I came across a bit on a box of Cheerios™ that offered consumers a free T-Shirt. The fine print on the coupon indicated that shipping and handling was only $18.95. This was back in the days before the internet or digital photography, so I wasn’t able to capture or document it, but I was absolutely gobsmacked that General Mills would have the chutzpah to put something like this on their product, unless it was a failure in their quality control process.
Sadly, when it comes to separating workers from their dollars, some people have neither scruples nor morals. In fact, the following ad sits at the top of my “Advertising Hall of Shame”. It appeared in Parade Magazine, on August 12, 1990 (click for a larger version):
I have never seen a more deceptive, deviously-crafted advert in my entire life. It is designed to make the uneducated or the unaware think they are getting a satellite dish for $5.00 – even though it says multiple times that they’re not. In fact, what the ad says is:
Almost every sentence in this ad can be interpreted one of two ways. It’s so devious that it’s almost beautiful. I noticed with wry humor that they never answered their own question, but the answer is clear: “Because we want your money.”
I’m curious how many of these units RBM moved, because nine years later, on July 2, 1999, the same ad appeared in the Weekly World News (which goes to show which demographic they were targeting)
Word-for-word the same – only the price has doubled.