Misleading Advertising, Brands, Consumer Interest and Perception

Advertising is one of the most important tools of persuasion through information dissemination. Central to any communication is message or core argument and how it is presented. These are technically called message strategy and tactics. Truthfulness of message is essential to advertising. Misleading claims cause consumers to take wrong decisions which benefit the seller. Such practices are unfair to consumers and society in general.  

The temptation to make a sale often pulls communicators to puff up, exaggerate and make misleading/ false claims. Such kind of communication amounts to deception and wrongful persuasion. Some of the common forms of deceptions include the following: hidden fees (for instance discounted price of an airline ticket may not include charges which are commonly considered to be a part of a ticket), making a false claim about the quality or grade (claim that a brand of rice is basmati but actually it is not), wrongful claim about product or service approval/ testimonial by an authority (e.g. government approved tour operator), false performance claim (e.g. making a promise of fair skin unsupported  by evidence), making free offer (buy one another free) through price manipulation, misleading warranty and guarantee and bait and switch selling (luring customers by advertising product at low-bait- price but not made available). Some of the cases involving false or misleading claims are the following:

Reebok: It is interesting to find how that many of big companies get involved in misleading representation in furthering of their business interest. One such controversial case has been Reebok’s ‘EasyTone’ shoes. The brand was promoted by use of top class models exhibiting their well toned up backs. At the core of the promotion was the claim that EasyTone could resulted in 28% more strength and tone in muscles of the back and 11 % strength and tone in harstring muscles and 11% more strength and tone is calf muscles in comparison with regular walking shoes. This claim made by Reebok was found to be deceptive by FTC and the company was asked to cough off $25 million. David Vladeck, Director FTC’s bureau of consumer protection observed that ‘advertisers cannot make claims about their products…without having some basis for it’. Substantiation of claims has to be made before they are made to public.

Revlon: Back in nineties Revlon was prohibited into making unsubstantiated claims made by their brand Ultima II ProCollaen anti-cellulite body complex. The claims made by the brand were about reduction of skin’s bumpy texture, dispersal of toxins and excess water and increase sub skin tissue strength.

Enviga In the case of ‘Enviga’ a carbonated green tea product launched by Coke and Nestle partnership was promoted on the promise that it would lead to weight loss. The product made un- supported claims that by drinking Enviga would lead to burning of more calories that contained in the drink and hence lead to weight loss. The communication specified that drinking three cans of Enviga per day would create calorie burn up to 100. This however could not be established. Hence company was asked to pay compensation for the false claim.

KFC: Another prominent brand found to be involved in making misleading claims was KFC. The controversy surrounded the issue of nutritional value of and compatibility of its products with weight loss program. KFC was charged for making misleading claims eating KFC fried chicken was better for health compared to Burger King’s Whooper. Technically chicken breasts have lower levels of total and saturated fat than Whooper but these had three times more tans fat, cholesterol, more than double the amount of sodium and more calories. On the issue of KFC’s compatibility with low carb weight loss program, the claim was found to false because such programs advised against fried foods.

Nivea: Another case involving false claims and prohibition involved Nivea Skin Cream. The company was prevented to make a claim that the regular use of Nivea My Silhouette leads to significant reduction of user’s body size.  The company promoted its product as “Bio-slim Complex,” a combination of ingredients could reduce up to three centimeters from ‘targeted body parts, such as thighs, hips, waist and stomach’. The claims were found to be false. It was not supported by reliable evidence. 

Dannon Activa: The Danon Activa Yogurt was promoted on the claimed benefit that its daily serving would expedite the digestion process. The ‘probiotic’ yogurt range was priced higher than usual range but the contents of the product were the same accordingly the company faced action in 2009. The company was directed to stop making claims that one daily serving of Activia relieves irregularity its other product DanActive is helpful in avoiding colds.

The case is no different in India during 2010-12; about 630 cases were registered for investigation and 69 for prosecutions for misleading medicine ads. Misleading ads in the medicine field are covered under the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisement) Act, 1954.  ASCI (Advertising Standard Council of India) are industry watchdog which takes care of misleading ads. Some of the following ads were brought to its consideration for making misleading claims:

Emami Sona Chandi Chyawanprash- ‘gold removes toxins to boost immunity power’- unsubstantiated claim.

Havell- made a misleading claim-‘24 Hours hot water in just half unit of electricity’.

Kellogg K Special- the claims that ‘people who eat low fat breakfast like Kellogg’s Special K, tend to be slimmer than those who don’t’ were challenged for their deception.  The ad for K Special was banned for misleading calorie count in UK.

Complan: the claim children who drink Complan grow in height two times faster came under scrutiny for possible deception.

 A total of 19 brands (including Saffola, Engine Mustard Oil, Nutricharge men (Daily nutrition supplement capsules), Britannia Nutrichoice Biscuits, Kellogg’s Extra Muesli, Bournvita Little Champs, Today Premium Tea, Pediasure, Real Active Fibre, Nutrilite, Kissan Cream Spread, Rajdhani Besan, Britannia Vita Marie and Boost) were taken up by the food regulator for prosecution and were served show cause notices for making false claims. These brands were booked under Food Safety and Standards Act (FSSA) which prevents making of false claims in oral, writing and visual presentation regarding the nutritional value or efficacy of a product without scientific substantiation.

 Perception is subjective phenomenon. People draw meaning though a complex process involving both hemispheres. It is this process which provides a wide window of opportunity to admen to mislead by twisting what drives perception and what is pushed into background.

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