Learn to Recognize Deceptive Advertising

What Is Deceptive Advertising, and How Can You Spot It?

Deception
Deception. Getty Images

Deceptive advertising is officially defined by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) as "a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer" and "practices that have been found misleading or deceptive in specific cases include false oral or written representations, misleading price claims, sales of hazardous or systematically defective products or services without adequate disclosures, failure to disclose information regarding pyramid sales, use of bait and switch techniques, failure to perform promised services, and failure to meet warranty obligations.

However, it's important to note that deceptive advertising does not represent the entire industry, and makes up a very small percentage of the ads you will encounter every day. But there are always people out there looking to dupe consumers and make money in any way that they can. Here are some examples of deceptive and unethical advertising practices and scams that you need to look out for.
 

Hidden Fees

In this example, the advertising is not fully disclosing the true cost of the item. You may see an ad for a computer or tablet that says "Only $99!" and you can't wait to go into the store and buy it, or order it online. However, suddenly you are hit with a whole bunch of charges that you were not expecting. In some cases, shipping fees will be extortionate, often costing more than the product itself. Or, you may have to pay handling fees that are excessive. 

Often, hidden fees can be spotted by the asterisk (*) that accompanies the incredible deal.

Guaranteed, there will be a big difference between "Only $99!" and "Only $99!*" That asterisk basically says "hey, this is not the final price, you will have to jump through major hoops or fork over a lot more cash." So, if you see an asterisk, read the small print carefully. Whether it's a small item, a car, or even a home, hidden fees are a deceptive way of luring you in.

By the time you realize there's more to pay, it can be too late. 

 

Bait and Switch

You can read more about this practice here, but in short, bait and switch is just how it's described. The advertisement entices you with a product, but makes a significant switch when you go to purchase it.

For instance, suddenly the laptop you wanted is not in stock, but there is a different one that is lower spec and costs twice as much. The chances are, that original laptop was never in stock, or at least, not for the price advertised.

Another example would be advertising a car at the base price, but with all of the top-of-the-line features included in the ad. When you get to the dealership, you have to pay much more to get the car actually shown in the ad. Bait and Switch advertising is illegal and should be reported whenever you encounter it. Sometimes, an offer can feel like bait and switch but it's not. If you want that laptop and it is sold out, but you are offered a similar laptop with a very similar spec, at an almost identical price, that's perfectly fine. You just missed out on the original deal. In that case, ask for a rain check. 
 

Misleading Claims

Misleading claims use tricky language to make the consumer believe they are getting one thing, when they are in fact getting less (or paying more).

A British TV show called The Real Hustle had a great example of this in action. The presenters, who know the ins and outs of so many con games, set up stalls to sell seemingly awesome products at cheap prices.

At no time do the hustlers break the law by making claims that are untrue, but the verbiage leads people to believe they are buying something way better than they're actually getting. One of the cruelest was advertising a DIY model plane for a price that seemed like a steal. Things like "easy to assemble" and "it really flies" were on the box. But inside...it was just a blank sheet of paper, with a set of instructions on how to make a paper plane. Did they break the law? No. Did they deceive? Yes. 

 

Ambiguous or "Best Case Scenario" Photography

Another way of cheating people is to take photographs of the product being sold, but in a way that makes them seem way better than they are.

Shady hotels have often used this technique to make the rooms look bigger, by setting up the camera in the corner of the room and using a fisheye lens.

The photograph could also be taken in a way to hide some of the products flaws, or to make it seem even bigger than it is in real life. For instance, buying a set of kitchen pans that look huge, but when you receive them, they are in fact a children's toy. 

Food photography can suffer from the "best case scenario" photography. If you have ever ordered a burger from a fast food place, you will know this well. The burger on the menu is perfect. It's thick, juicy, 4 inches high, and looks incredible. But the burger you receive, while it may have the same ingredients, is a sad interpretation of that image. The bun is flat, the burger is a mess, ketchup and mustard are pouring out of the sides.

This is something we accept as consumers, because we know the burger in the photograph was assembled by expert designers and food artists, over the course of many hours, whereas the poor kitchen hand has to throw your burger together in a few seconds to meet your time demands. But, don't take that to mean you can never complain about this kind of photography. If you buy something that is clearly of poorer quality than the item shown in the picture, you can emand a refund.