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Misleading ads: What are they and how to avoid them?

We all know that advertisements are rarely completely honest. Your teeth will never be perfect no matter what the toothpaste ad says, your laundry will never come out of the washing machine as white as you’d want it to, and your dog or cat won’t suddenly turn into the happiest pet alive just because they ate a certain food.

And yet, we buy that toothpaste or detergent all the same, simply because we know that ads are supposed to sell products. That’s what they do, which is why we’ve learned not to trust them blindly, and why we overlook the fact that marketers and/or business owners often like to “puff up” what they’re selling, i.e. make it look a bit better than it is in reality.

However, there’s a huge difference between slightly sprucing up the image of your product and misleading your consumers entirely.

According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), “When consumers see or hear an advertisement, whether it’s on the Internet, radio or television, or anywhere else, federal law says that ad must be truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence”.

Needless to say, the failure to deliver exactly that can have damaging consequences for your business. Aside from being a PR nightmare and a reason for you to lose potential customers, misleading ads can also be the cause of lawsuits, a number of legal problems, and sometimes even bankruptcy.

The FTC is not the only one fighting false ads, though—in 2016, Google removed 1.7 billion ads that were, in one form or another, misleading or illegal, while in 2018, the company killed 3.2 billion bad ads. Plus, a number of publishing platforms and ad networks have joined the fight by keeping an eye out on misleading advertisements.

So, how do you avoid getting into trouble? Better yet, how do you create ads that won’t deceive your customers? We’ll get to that in a moment, but let’s cover the basics first.

What Exactly Does False Advertising Mean?

As the name suggests, misleading or false ads are all advertisements that provide users (consumers) with deceptive or inaccurate information in order to get them to spring into action and purchase a product. This information can present itself in the form of scare tactics, fake company information, fictitious sweepstakes, hidden fees, and so on, all meant to convert users as fast as possible.

Believe it or not, some of the biggest brands in the world have been involved in false advertising scandals during the last decade—there are those still dealing with the consequences, such as enormous fines and bad publicity.

One of such companies is Dannon, producer of Activia Yogurt, who had to pay $45 million for a lawsuit back in 2010 (under the terms of a class action settlement), all because they claimed their yogurt was "clinically” and “scientifically proven” to boost the immune system and help with digestion. After a consumer lodged in a complaint, the whole process was put into motion, and Dannon was not only forced to pay the fine, but also remove “clinically” and “scientifically” from its labels.

Another example of misleading advertising gone wrong can be traced back to 2011 and the famous company New Balance. The problem arose after New Balance released a line of sneakers in 2010 which were advertised as shoes that burned calories. After three women lodged in a complaint regarding the shoes in 2011, New Balance ended up paying a $2.3 million fine for it. Needless to say, there were no health benefits whatsoever to wearing these sneakers.

One more example of false advertising is Groupon, although a bit more subtle than Dannon and New Balance. Namely, what Groupon did was use keywords for certain world attractions to acquire clicks for its tourism ads, but what it did NOT do was offer deals for any of them. The company was sued for classic bait-and-switch advertising in 2011, and it’s been accused of misleading its customers on more than one occasion since then.

Although recognizing what’s misleading and what’s not can be a bit of a challenge sometimes, it’s important to take all the necessary steps to avoid it in your campaigns. Here’s are some best practices how this can be done.