Advertising is the backbone of any consumer-oriented business. It helps drive sales and keep brands afloat. And with the rapid development of internet technology and the rise of online advertising, advertising has become more powerful than ever. But what happens if businesses go too far and stray into the realm of false advertising? What happens if advertising’s massive reach and the potential to influence get abused?
Whether we like it or not, false advertising has been around for as long as propaganda itself. Even with all the benefits of modern technology and consumer protection laws, many still fall victim to various false advertising practices. Sometimes, these false ads are harmless, while at others, they can be quite damaging.
Regardless of why one might stoop to false advertising, one thing is certain — this is a horrible, anti-consumer practice that should be rooted out. Unfortunately, the reality is that doing so is easier said than done. One might even argue that it is impossible. But what can you, an individual, do then?
The best thing consumers can do to stay safe from false advertising is to familiarize themselves with various legal (and non-legal) ways to protect themselves from it. Yes, you are not alone — there are legal regulations in place to protect you.
The above was one of the reasons we decided to write this article. We wish to help consumers learn everything they need to know about false advertising, laws that exist to protect them, and how to recognize these predatory practices and avoid falling for them. So let’s dive into the complicated world of false advertising and learn how to come out on top if you ever come across one of these misleading ads.
False or misleading advertising represents digital or traditional propaganda that uses fraudulent or deceptive information to make a consumer act differently than they would have otherwise. In other words, false advertising is propaganda that exists to compel a consumer to purchase based on incorrect or deceptive information.
There are many more scenarios that fall under the umbrella term of false advertising, though. For instance, one could also consider advertising misleading if it left out vital information about a product or service. All of the above applies to various advertising and promotional mediums like magazines, catalogs, physical and digital advertisements, websites, etc.
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False advertising is illegal in most countries worldwide. Most of these countries have their own false advertising laws and regulations. The regulatory body that handles the enforcement of consumer protection laws in the United States is the Bureau of Consumer Protection, while the Federal Trade Commission oversees them. Under the FTC’s watchful eye, various consumer protection laws have been passed over the years to ensure U.S. consumers’ safety.
However, these laws are quite challenging to enforce correctly. The most notable problem with enforcing false advertising laws is that they aren’t foolproof. Just like most legal regulations, these have loopholes that many advertisers use to misrepresent their products. Many advertisers walk the fine line by creating ads that are technically illegal but unenforceable.
So despite false advertising being illegal, there are many instances of it that pass under the radar. That is why consumers should arm themselves with other knowledge necessary to protect themselves from false advertising if the legislation designed to protect them falls short.
Yes, anyone can file a false advertising lawsuit if they wish. However, there are a few things to keep in mind before doing so:
Don’t let the above discourage you, though. There have been many successful false advertising lawsuits over the years, so winning one is far from impossible. Just make sure you can afford to lose your investment in the legal process since there’s no guarantee you’d be able to win. If you’re OK with all of the former, there’s no reason not to give it a shot! Just make sure you have a case on your hands and are not just clutching at straws. And remember — always consult with your attorney before proceeding with the lawsuit to avoid unnecessary financial losses.
Now let’s see how you can recognize false advertising to help you protect yourself better or evaluate whether you have sufficient legal grounds for filing a lawsuit.
The most reliable way for consumers to protect themselves from false advertising is to learn how to recognize it and ignore it. Here are just some of the things that fall under the definition of false advertising:
Misrepresenting one’s product usually entails it looking different or having different qualities than stated in the ad. Brands most often misrepresent things like the product’s color, size, and look. They may also misrepresent their product’s health benefits, give it false attributes (like environmentally friendly), or inconsistently compare it to their competitors.
This category includes any extra fees that aren’t stated in an advertisement (e.g., shipping costs) or even products with falsely inflated prices so that the sellers could advertise them as on sale.
Advertising one’s business by lying about its market importance or authority is a textbook example of false advertising. Brands usually achieve that by lying about their affiliation with high-profile groups or organizations to build false authority in consumers’ eyes.
You’ve all likely heard or seen this example a million times already. Every time you hear something like, “Nine out of ten doctors recommend this…” you have to wonder whether the claim’s true. This technique is one of the most common fallacies in advertising, so always look for proof before believing statements like these.
This point applies to food ads since most manufacturers use fillers like oats and brine to inflate their products’ weight. So just because the ad says a burger is 100% beef doesn’t make it true!
This false advertising example is easy to notice, and it entails brands lying about the current demand for their product to generate hype. The fear of missing out is a powerful weapon that many businesses use to make consumers buy products they don’t need just because they present it as if “it’s selling out quickly.”
Be mindful of false associations with the word “free.” All “buy one, get one for free” deals are technically false advertising since nothing is free; you still have to pay for one product.
Now that we’ve covered some common types of false advertising, let’s look at some concrete false advertising examples to make it easier to identify these misleading practices. Here are eight examples of major false advertising cases of the last few decades:
Let’s take a look at them in more detail!
In 2016, the FTC sued many’s favorite German car brand, Volkswagen, for false advertising. The famous car manufacturer was found guilty of cheating emission tests for years while advertising its diesel cars as environmentally friendly. According to the FTC, Volkswagen’s “Clean Diesel” campaign tricked over 550,000 consumers into believing that the cars they were purchasing were low-emission.
The German car company lost the lawsuit and was charged $61 million in fines for violating the U.S. Clean Air Act.
A widely popular herbal supplement, Airborne, became the center point of a huge false advertising controversy after being found guilty of misleading its consumers for over a decade. The brand advertised its product as being able to “ward off harmful bacteria and germs” but had no scientific evidence to back those claims up. Once the Center for Science in the Public Interest got involved, they took Airborne to court.
The class-action lawsuit against the company resulted in a $23 million fee and an extra $7 million in settlement later.
One of the most infamous false advertising scandals of recent years regarded Taco Bell’s seasoned beef after some consumers raised questions about the quality of its seasoning. Once the fast-food giant was taken to court, it was established that the “seasoning” in question wasn’t beef but oat filler. The court ruled that Taco Bell violated the USDA’s standards and found them guilty of deceiving their consumers.
Unlike most of the scandals on our list, Taco Bell took this PR disaster and turned it around by poking fun at itself in the media. Instead of losing their customers’ trust and loyalty, the brand managed to strengthen it. That even led to the lawsuit getting dropped in 2011 and Taco Bell leaving the entire scandal stronger than ever.
Here we have another false advertising lawsuit filed for unsubstantiated claims of a product’s quality, this time against Dannon. This famous yogurt company was sued for marketing their products as “clinically” and “scientifically” proven to strengthen people’s immune systems. Their marketing campaign claimed that their Activia Yogurt contained “special bacteria” that help regulate digestion, so they charged 30% more for it.
The brand was found guilty and charged with a $45 million fine and had to remove the words “clinically” and “scientifically” from their product labels.
Not even the energy drink giant, Red Bull, is free of false advertising scandals! It’s hard to believe there’s a single person who hasn’t heard of the company’s iconic slogan “Red Bull gives you wings.” What if we told you that they got sued for it? That’s right! In 2014, several customers filed a false advertising lawsuit against Red Bull since they didn’t grow wings even after more than a decade of consuming their drinks.
Red Bull agreed to a settlement in the form of a $13 million fee on top of paying $10 to all consumers who had bought their drinks since 2002.
Following the settlement, Red Bull doubled down on their slogan by stating the following in a press release:
“Red Bull settled the lawsuit to avoid the cost and distraction of litigation. However, Red Bull maintains that its marketing and labeling have always been truthful and accurate and denies any and all wrongdoing or liability.”Red Bull
Another culprit of false advertising was a popular brain-training app, Lumosity. In 2016, the FTC sued the company for using unfounded claims to advertise their product. What did Lumosity do that caused such an outrage? It stated it helped prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia in people who used the app regularly! As you might expect, these claims were false.
The FTC ended up fining Lumosity for $2 million for lacking scientific evidence for the claims used in their advertisements.
It seems that car brands are prone to false advertising scandals, or is it just us? In 2004, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Hyundai and KIA for overstating their vehicles’ horsepower by 10%. This “irregularity” was found by the Korean Ministry of Construction and Transportation, which led to a lawsuit in California on behalf of over 800,000 people who purchased Hyundai vehicles between 1996 and 2002.
The company paid $85 million in monetary damages and distributed $225 prepaid debit cards to the mislead consumers.
The last false advertising example we have for you is of a sports footwear brand, New Balance. This company fell victim to a false advertising scandal in 2011 over one of its recent sneaker ranges. The ads they used to market their products claimed that the sneakers helped wearers burn calories faster while offering various other health benefits. However, the court found no proof of these claims.
New Balance ended up paying settlement fees of $2.3 million in August 2012.
Before we wrap up, let’s do a quick recap of how consumers can best protect themselves from false advertising. Here is our advice:
If all else fails, you can always go to court if you have the means. Just remember our initial advice — always consult with your lawyer before filing a false advertising lawsuit! You don’t want to go through the expensive legal process and lose the case and your hard-earned money, do you?
We wish you the best of luck!