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.

Sleepy Needs, Unsought goods and ‘Wish I had it’

On Sunday February 17, 2013 the first page of Sunday Times was a shocker. The front page of the newspaper contained the following headlines:

  • ‘Short circuits spark 75% city fires’
  • ‘Farmer loses Rs 15L in fire’
  • ‘Woman dies in LPG blast’
  • ‘Family loss both children in blaze’
  • ‘Car catches fire in Lucknow’
  • ‘Fire erupts on 3rd floor of Indiranagar school’
  • ‘TV sparks blaze in Andheri tower’

 The entire page was flooded with news related to fire and devastation it causes. The reporting could shock anybody out his or her slumber. And in the middle of the page, a message in red ink sounded a warning: YOU MAY BE LUCKY …But ARE YOU SAFE? Disturbing visuals like a distressed women crying, fire billowing out of a building and fire fighters dousing the fire aggravated discomfort by stirring anguish and pain over loss of human lives and property.

The newspaper ‘disturbed’ readers literally. It ‘interfered with normal arrangement’ (absence of agitation, trouble, balance, poise, equilibrium) of the way people look at fire and fire fighting equipments. The message aimed to throwing people out of their mental balance (cognitions in harmony). It disturbed the belief that we are ‘safe’. Safety is taken for granted. It created a friction in cognition & feeling. It compelled people to pay attention to the fact as to how safe they are? It questioned: is it their luck which has saved them from the fury of fire so far or they are actually safe?https://i2.wp.com/sphotos-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/c32.0.843.403/p843x403/154195_10151396984121259_1451825671_n.png

This was an advertisement in the garb of actual news which used ‘shock and awe’ strategy to capture attention and sought to engage prospects into an issue which is taken for granted (low involvement). A balanced state or lack of friction makes the system closed and withdrawn (out of buying space). Throwing a potential customer out of his poise is essential to pushing him or her into decision frame or solution seeking behavior. The upsetting of mind created by the first page was followed by a big advertisement of a new product named ‘Fireguard’, a new fire extinguisher (by Eureka Forbes) with the headline: ‘It takes one call to get it. Or a life time to regret it.’ The ad signed off with a statement ‘Get it. Or regret it’.

Fire extinguisher is a low priority product because it is not perceived to be significant. This is due to the fact that people do not entertain an uncomfortable idea of fire to them to their property and take their safety for granted. Its ownership is not important psychologically or socially (higher order needs) and hence are not desired. However they assume importance when exceptions happen. When it rains we look for umbrella, when electricity goes off we look for candles/torch, when our car breaks down we wish we had bought breakdown service and when burglary happens we repent on not having taken an insurance policy. These are cases of sleepy needs and hence products that satisfy them are sought after.

Marketing is difficult to a sleepy consumer. Unlike an active customer (who is in a state of automatic arousal) a sleepy consumer is a withdrawn and closed system. People tend to be open and look out for anything that is of interest to them like interest in diamonds or sports or electronics. Marketing is easy in these situations. So what do you do to get a consumer who is in sleepy state with respect to a product that you intend to market?https://i1.wp.com/www.offeradda.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Eurekaforbes-FREE-Demo-of-Eureka-Fireguard-Extinguisher.jpg

Technically the Fireguard launch ad aims to shift people from their sleepy state to lively/ alert state. The message alerts its prospects by linking the product to an issue of importance (high involvement issue- devastating fire). This it raises the level of significance or importance that a customer attaches to a phenomenon. This shift is first essential step in starting an engagement with target customer. The brand is likely to succeed if brand manages to achieve importance transference. For instance Rexona deodorant once ran a campaign which showed how body odor could lead to socially embarrassing situation (rejection). Here the brand used social rejections (important issue) to gain importance in consumer’s life.

Brands win when they become important to their target consumers. But this is difficult for brands in those categories to which consumers are sleepy.

Justice, Learning, Marketing and Culture of Civility

One of the top most deliverables for the State is to ensure provision of justice. The concept of injustice is based violation. It happens somebody’s rights are violated or an unjust/ wrong act happens. Many expressions are related to injustice including breach of law, wrongdoing, misconduct, and unrighteousness. The rape in Delhi has lent a loud noise on the issue of injustice to which women in our country are subjected to everyday because of violations of different kinds. Getting the people to behave in the rightful way is a great challenge. This involves preempting the potential transgressions from happening. Ultimately it is about bringing a behavioral change.
In the marketing world, companies succeed by bringing about a behavioral change of their customers. They make people to learn to act in a particular manner. Companies and brands condition their customers to behave in a certain way that their objectives are realized. Take for example when groceries run out we rush to a specific store or we take a detour to locate a brand of our preference. We learn which brand offers the best value and when brands can be switched. Beneath the apparent randomness of our behavior lay a system of learning/thinking that equips us not to commit any kind of behavioral violation or ease hurt would be invited.
If we are oriented not to commit violations in consumption then why are laws violated rampantly? Market is a big learning place/space. Marketers bank upon various learning theories to bring about desired learning in their prospects. These are: classical conditioning, instrumental conditioning, rote learning, vicarious and cognitive learning. One of the important determinants of learning is reinforcement; it increases the likelihood of occurrence of a response. It strengthens the behavior.
Reinforcement is anything that follows a behavior and it may come as a pleasant or unpleasant happening. Consider how brands reinforce their purchase by offering a reward (positive reinforcement) or prevention of something undesirable (negative reinforcement): praise (Gucci), happiness (McDonald’s), confidence (Cinthol), accident saved (Ceat), and prevented body odor (Rexona), avoided theft (Harrison). Another type of reinforcement is punishment (unpleasant consequence after response) which ensures learning that a given behavior is not repeated. We learn not to buy petrol from a filling station (short delivery) or not to go to a shop (poor service).


Where do we learn to avoid law violating conduct or adopt lawful conduct? Unlike marketplace where stimulus-response- reinforcement work in tandem to bring strong learning about what to approach and what to avoid, there exists no workshop for civil conduct. As people begin to spend more time out of home, public spaces can be turned into open schools of learning. The first learning about the acceptance of violation begins with the road usage which later is generalized as an overall attitude toward legal system. If violations on the roads, especially the minor one, are made non-negotiable (reinforce with punishment) it will go a long way in building a culture of righteous conduct.

Information overload, great escape and consumer perception

Like chaos and confusion on city streets and society in general, the information environment bears an almost similar reality. There is too much to accommodate and too conflicting to reconcile. Consider the following:

An customer on an average is bombarded with over 2000 messages every day; all our senses are perpetually intruded upon by marketing messages-it is virtually impossible to open eyes or ears to brand free environment; even friends carry endorsements on their bodies- they have become mobile ads; you touch a thing and a brand screams; the news papers have become bulkier over the time and it is difficult to isolate the news from the sponsored messages; and on television it is unending barrage of advertising which is interspersed with programs.  In such a situation how do people cope?

When the information exceeds the limit we can cope with, our perceptual system is automatically pressed into action. So before we get paralyzed by information overload and collapse, the mind gets into filtration mode.  The information a limited portion of the total is allowed to in the mind. Consider some facts: over 200 million Americans have joined ‘don’t call list’, 86% skip ads on television and 44% direct mailers are never opened. Getting customer’s attention is tough especially when the perceptual sensors are raised to escape from the information assault. Most of marketing communication is ‘filtered and thrown away’ by prospects.

When prospects do not give attention easily, the marketer’s job is to devise strategies to capture it. Consider the following:

  • When Onida brand was launched in India, the television market was already crowded with over 20 brands. The obvious challenge for the company was how to get the customers to pay attention to another brand of television.
  • When Maggi brand forayed into tomato ketchup market, the dominant brand was Kissan. In people perception nothing a sauce is a sauce. Therefore it is futile to pay attention to ketchup advertising.

Two newspapers ads caught my attention on Aug 12. Consider their headlines:

The first posed a question: ‘What’s your size?’ and second asserted ‘Best accessorized by a bowler hat, with a gentleman underneath’.

Now make a guess what products are these ads trying to promote?

  • The first one is of ‘Euro’ inners. The ad displayed a masculine eight pack, young man standing against the background which shows the brand name in capital letters. His right arm is inside the letter ‘U’ linking the man and the brand. The model looks straight into the eyes of the reader and draws attention in its entirety to his brief. His questioning expression is bold, challenging and direct.
  • The second ad is of ‘Woods’ which displays a stylish pair of ladies sandals, a pocket watch and a picture of two English gentlemen. The headline goes ‘Best accessorized by a bowler had, with a gentleman underneath’.  One wonders what gentle men have to do with sandals.

There are broadly three ways to capture attention: ambiguity (when communication does not make sense and challenges us into sense making), interest (things we like and prefer e.g. humor, music, sports) and relevance (things which are pertinent to us in a given situation).  Now consider the strategies used by the above brands:

Onida’s ‘Neighbor’s envy owner’s pride’ campaign with devil did not make sense and hence challenged people into resolving the apparent question ‘what the hell this devil is doing in this ad?’

Maggi’s campaign used Pankaj Kapoor and Javed Jaffery duo in comic situations and caught attention by ‘it’s different’ message. The ads used two actors arguing with each other in very comic situations.

The Euro and Woods ads also employ ambiguity and headline leaves it on the reader to ‘elaborate’ them in their own way and construct meaning: ‘What’s your size?’ and ‘Best accessorized by a bowler hat, with a gentleman underneath’.

Weber, JND/ Differential threshold level and ‘Honey, they’ve shrunk the kid’s chocolate bar’

The statement ‘Honey, they’ve shrunk the kid’s chocolate bar’ was the headline of a news item that appeared in TOI on Nov 20, 2011. This news item reported that many brands in so called fast moving consumer goods/ impulse category have reduced unit quantity/weight subtly without catching consumer attention. Consider the following cases:
Product Price (Rs) Weight then (gms) Weight now
Lays chips 20- 68- 61
Good Day 10- 100- 84.5
Dairy Milk 20- 40- 38
Britannia bread 12- 100 -80
Hadiram sancks 10- 52- 48
Lux soap 10- 75- 65

Maggi- 10-52-48

Brands operate in a dynamic environment. Currently most of the marketers have been facing pressures of inflation on demand/ revenue and supply/ cost side. On the demand side consumer purchasing power has been adversely affected because of inflation. And on the supply side the input costs have been moving north. The upward movements in input costs make a case for a price adjustment in order to maintain profitability. However if price is maintained in the wake of rising input costs the profitability comes under pressure. However if income is also on the rise, it may not be difficult to pass on burden to consumers by adjusting price upwards.
Tinkering with the price that consumers get used to is not an easy decision. In some cases customers tend to be sensitive to price and even a small price change can upset value equation. Price is often under consumer and media gaze. An insignificant price change can potentially upset the position of a brand on the value spectrum in consumer’s mind. For instance price points for low ticket items could be Rs 2, Rs 5, Rs10, Rs 15 and Rs 20. A minor price increase can create perception of price hike far more than what it actually has been. Price changes sought to offset input costs may also be resisted by trade partners because of currency denomination issues.
It is therefore makes more sense to pass on cost increases by those means that customers are likely to be less sensitive about. The product quantity or grammage in this context makes a right case for neutralizing cost escalation. Although consumers do develop notions about sizes or quantity as a result to repeat previous exposures in the form of reference sizes but these are likely to be vaguer than prices. Unless sizes are radically changed they are unlikely to be noticed by people. People are less likely to be sensitive to product quantity rather than price because price is a more involving issue (price is marked, discussed, displayed, compared and paid for).
The lack of concrete grammage/ quantity benchmarks along with less consumer involvement provides marketers with an option to offset cost escalation by quantity reduction. But the crucial issue here is to decide an appropriate quantity of shrinkage that it goes undetected by consumers. The idea is to not to execute a change which would upset/disrupt the ‘consumer routine’ and bring him or her back into ‘problem solving’ frame. So what is the maximum quantity reduction which is likely to go unnoticed?
Let us take a look at the grams by which the brands mentioned in the table have been shrunk: Lays chips (7 gms), Good Day (15.5 gms), Dairy Milk (12 gms), Britannia bread (25 gms), Haldiram snacks (4 gms) and Lux soap (10 gms). Can the quantity reduction decisions be taken randomly? The answer to this question is negative. Here one of the behavior concepts that comes to the rescue of brand managers is ‘differential threshold level’ or ‘justice noticeable difference’. It is the minimum difference between two stimuli (quantity before change and after change) which is noticeable by a prospect. Therefore safe strategy is to reduce grammage or product quantity by an amount which is below JND or differential threshold level. This ensures that consumer gets less quantity at a given price and this also goes unnoticed or unperceived. The quantity so saved can be utilized to compensate for increase input cost. Look at the quantity by which brands in question have shrunk. These are too insignificant (probably below JND) to be noticed by an average buyer.
How do we arrive at specific quantity of reduction? This would largely depend upon the initial level. Weber’s law states that stronger the initial stimulus, the greater the additional intensity needed for the second stimulus to be perceived as different. It is essential for marketers to determine the differential threshold level and then carry out negative changes (like quality or quantity reduction) by an amount that is likely to unperceived (below JND) and for positive changes (quality improvement) the improvement must be above differential threshold in order to be noticed by people.