Lately, I’ve been listening to a certain radio ad bombing the New York subway news station that I enjoy listening to. The reason I like this station is simple: It’s smart, it’s interesting, and it carries John Sterling/Susan Waldman Yankee commentary during the games of the season.
However, this particular radio ad strikes me as so full of misleading marketing language that it gives me goosebumps every time it plays. Not only does it give my profession a bad name, but I may be tricking thousands of resourceful consumers into signing up and becoming victims of what I almost consider to be fraud. But, too cleverly manipulative for that, he probably can’t even be found guilty of deceit, since all the statements made are true. But it is definitely misleading unsuspecting listeners to interpret these “true” statements as a good reason to respond to the ad and commit to the advertised service, only to later discover the naivete of their gullible decision to do so.
Let me explain: The ad starts out as an overbearing ad that claims it can save American car owners thousands of dollars in auto repair bills. As long as you have less than 200,000 miles on your car (like most people), you’ll never have to pay a repair bill out of pocket again! The advertiser will pay for you. If you’re sick and tired of spending your hard-earned money on car repairs, call to see if you qualify! (This places the onus on you to prove that you are one of the eligible owners of a car with less than 200,000 miles who can take advantage of this scam to trick you into buying.)
You can even keep your own mechanic or auto repair service and have the advertiser pay the bills for you. This includes all of the most advanced auto tech repairs you could ever need! (Again, they say this to throw you off course, so think about what kinds of repairs your car may need now or in the future and whether you’ll qualify.) So far, everything they’ve said with the possible exception of “saving you thousands of dollars” has been true. That is until you read between the lines.
No, you won’t spend your hard-earned money on your car repair bill. Instead, you will spend your hard-earned money to pay them a fee to represent you and pay your car repair bill for you. And while they claim you can save a lot of money, you may actually be paying more if you make them a middleman. After all, they are in business to make money. They won’t do this for nothing. And how can they be paying for these expensive radio ads on such a powerful New York station? Just through the responses of hundreds of unsuspecting customers signing up en masse.
So what do you get from this? Maybe a lot of trouble if you sign a contract and don’t pay your fee, and who knows what else! They probably make it seem like they’re giving you a great service by guaranteeing they’ll pay for your car repair on your old clunker (with less than 200,000 miles), allowing you to keep driving and hopefully going to work (if you still have a job) while they wait for you to cover the (possibly late) bill with interest.
I’m guessing at all the finer details, but you can see the risks I’m pointing out. I remember hearing about a similar fraudulent attempt by another car payment company in the past few years that was distributed through the mail. I later received a series of telemarketing calls about it. Now, I’m hearing this ad from a different company on the radio. Could it be the same organization operating under a different name? And ironically, as soon as I recognized it, I suddenly don’t listen to it anymore, which may also be part of their formula: run it for a short time to rack up new customers and then disappear into thin air, so to speak. These are the kind of questions I ask, as I’m naturally suspicious of marketing claims that raise these kinds of red flags.
The concept is much like the service a credit card offers: You pay with plastic, then pay the credit card company with interest for their generosity in allowing you to pay over time. But we all know the enormous risk that implies, as a nation and as a world, insoluble economic problems wherever you look at it! If you’re one of the unlucky people who’s lost the privilege of using some or all of your credit cards, this car repair payment service ad may sound quite appealing, especially if old Bertha is making horrible noises and putting on jeopardize your journey. But I urge you to tread carefully and carry a big stick.
So what exactly are the laws regarding false advertising? According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection, there are three attributes that determine whether an ad is false or unfair:
1. If it offends public order;
2. If it is immoral, unethical, oppressive or unscrupulous; Prayed,
3. if it substantially harms consumers.
This last point is considered the most important when weighing whether the advertisement is false or disloyal, since the damage to the customer is usually based on the loss of money as a result of a purchase that would never have been made if the advertisement had not been misleading in the first place. False statements are determined by whether they are false on their face; or if they are implicitly false. In my opinion, the above radio ad may be making a blatantly false claim that it can save you huge sums of money if you use their service. However, with a clever twist of interpretation, that statement could be held true if they attribute their savings to payments made directly to auto repair providers.
If you’re not paying your mechanic directly for your car repairs, you are essentially saving that money. However, you will need to use that “saved” money to pay the auto repair payment company that will pay your mechanic for you, regardless of how misleadingly they are advertising their service. Does this seem ethical to you? Also, I think the ad says “can save you” instead of “will save you”, implying that there may be other conditions involved that you need to meet to ensure your claim can perform as stated.
Based on the complaints the FTC receives, some consistent themes emerge, most often about undisclosed costs and conditions. Responsible radio advertisers avoid legal trouble by simply adding a statement like “Restrictions may apply”, while some overzealous advertisers spend a good percentage of the radio ad’s time explaining in detail a long rant of disclosures delivered at speed, making it virtually impossible to understand what is being said. Depending on the space available, the FTC advises advertisers using visual media to disclose details “clearly and conspicuously.” If space is limited, perhaps the 3-word disclaimer mentioned above might suffice, but the small type and deliberately ambiguous terminology are frowned upon.
What the FTC allows or regulates appears to be a somewhat gray area with decisions depending on whether the ad is national or regional in scope; if you represent an industry regulated by another branch of government (such as airlines, banks, insurance companies, public transportation companies, and companies that sell securities and commodities); or if it can be resolved by some other more local agency like the Better Business Bureau. As stated above, the most important thing for the FTC seems to be issues related to harm to the consumer, whether to “health, safety, or wallet.”
Penalties for non-compliance can be severe and range from a simple “cease and desist” order which, if not properly obeyed, amounts to as much as $16,000 per day for further violations; to fines reaching millions of dollars where applicable, sometimes requiring refunds to consumers affected by the offending ad; to post new ads and contact customers to correct previously misleading information.
If an advertisement has harmed you in any way as a result of deceptive practices, you have the right to file a complaint with the FTC and contact an attorney. If the offending ad is broad enough, your case may be considered suitable for a class action lawsuit, involving many plaintiffs other than yourself. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how noble your attorneys’ representation may seem in such cases, it is generally the attorneys who stand to gain the most in class action lawsuits.
What if you think a competitor’s ad is misleading? You have a few options, some or all of which you can follow:
1. You can contact an attorney to explore whether you should sue for unfair competition by making misleading claims in advertisements.
2. You may file a complaint with the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which investigates and resolves such disputes both nationally and regionally.
3. If the ad is local, you can contact your local Better Business Bureau to file a complaint.
4. You may contact the print or broadcast outlet where the advertisement was published to report your suspicion of the misleading nature of the advertisement.
5. You can contact your state Attorney General’s Office or your city, county, or state Office of Consumer Affairs to report the problem.
6. Finally, you may contact the Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Response Center, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580; or call: toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP.
As a piece of advice from a marketing expert, if you are an advertiser using vagueness, or worse, duplicity, to camouflage the full truth of your message, keep this in mind:
“The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” -Benjamin Franklin
Translation: An unsatisfied customer will share their unpleasant experience not only with their friends and family, but will also spread bad words about you on blogs, forums, and chat rooms, giving your business a negative reputation it can never live on . today’s Google-dominated universe. If your publicity mischief was unintentional, it will be far less expensive to try to win back the loyalty of a dissatisfied customer with a valid complaint than it will be to weather the devastating winter of their discontent.