The year was 1909. The US Army bought the first military aircraft from the Wright Brothers, Sigmund Freud lectured in NYC, and the Manhattan Bridge opened. Meanwhile, in Louisville, KY, the American Advertising Federation convened at the Galt House and — led by Samuel C. Dobbs — took a stand against false advertising. You can see the historical marker today at the corner of 1st and Main in Downtown Louisville.
Their action that day led to the Better Business Bureau (BBB). By 1918 Louisville’s BBB was chartered. It was the 3rd in the nation.
The reason for this was both ethical and pragmatic. There was a trend of advertisers using false and misleading advertising, and the public was fed up. A backlash ensued, so the stand against false advertising was an act of self-preservation that also infused the industry with ethical guidelines.
In 1914, the government jumped on the bandwagon with the Federal Trade Commission Act (FTCA). It specifically barred the use of deceptive or false advertising. Over the years, the FTC has issued a number of guidelines, rules, and regulations designed to promote truth in advertising and prevent deceptive or unfair marketing practices. These include rules requiring advertisers to substantiate their claims, disclose material information, and avoid false or misleading advertising statements.
How it’s going today.
According to ToddLaw.com, the three biggest false advertising scandals in the last decade involved L’Oreal, Volkswagen, and Airborne. L’Oreal used the term “clinically proven” without actually doing studies. Airborne claimed it “warded of germs” without studies, and Volkswagen had an entire campaign about how they had “clean diesel,” but they faked their emissions standards. These suits ended up costing each company millions of dollars.
But what about the ads that walk a creepy fine line between law and reality? You’ve noticed that the food you get in a fast-food restaurant doesn’t necessarily look like it did in the ad, right?
Food photography is commonplace in the industry, and you can’t blame them for wanting to produce pretty food, but isn’t this misleading?
Then there’s misleading packaging like this Toblerone multipack that looks huge, but when you open it, 40% is filled with air and cardboard.
One of my favorite types of misleading advertising is the ones that use weasel words. You’ll likely see them on food packages, and they’ll say things like “all-natural,” “natural chocolate flavor,” or “real fruit flavor.” What does real fruit flavor or natural chocolate flavor even mean? What is a real flavor or a natural flavor? I’ll tell you, it’s an industry standard for all-natural bullshit.
It never ends.
There are countless examples of misleading advertising. Too many to list them all. It’s concerning to us because if people distrust the industry, then we have an uphill battle to wage. For now, all we can do is point out dishonesty when we see it. Watch our social feeds, and we’ll start calling out the egregious stuff we see. It’s only fitting, being a Louisville advertising agency.