Deceptive Advertising: Definition, Types, and Examples

Deceptive Advertising: Definition, Types, and Examples

What Is Deceptive Advertising?

Deceptive or false advertising is the marketing of information or visual content about a product that is misleading and unrealistic. Businesses use deceptive advertising to promote goods under claims that are not accurate to the product’s actual appearance or function.

Deceptive or false advertising can lead consumers to purchase products that are actually counterfeit, defective, or even dangerous.

Juul E-Cigarettes, for example, are being marketed as a safe alternative to cigarettes despite containing more nicotine on average. Another example is Volkswagen promoting “clean diesel” vehicles despite cheating on emissions tests for years, for which they were charged by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for deceptive marketing.

Deceptive advertising and false advertising is present in a myriad of industries. Consumers must be wary of claims that look or sound too good to be true.

It is important to stay up-to-date with health alerts, safety alerts, product notifications, and recalls related to products that you use on a regular basis in order to minimize the risk of injury.

Laws on Deceptive Advertising

Deceptive advertising is illegal and punishable. The FTC accepts reports from consumers on the issue, and will take action: the agency will file orders in federal district court, freeze perpetrators’ assets, and attempt to gain compensation for victims.

The FTC enforces truth-in-advertising laws and applies their standards across all mediums, no matter where an advertisement appears:

  • Breach of Warranty: When advertising a product and claiming that the product possesses certain qualities (an expressed or implied warranty), the seller is obligated to provide assurance that is warranted. If that assurance is broken, it can be deemed as a breach of warranty.
  • Breach of Contract: When certain products are purchased or used, they may carry a contract for services rendered and an agreement on part of the user - an example would be a "user agreement" that you sign before using a new app. If either party is to break this agreement, it could be considered a breach of contract. These contracts are generally established to protect and enforce the user's personal information, privacy and security.

Types of Deceptive Advertising and How To Spot Them

Knowing the different types of deceptive advertising and how to identify them is the best way to avoid bad products.

Unsubstantiated Claims

When a business claims that a product performs a certain way that it actually does not, accomplishes certain things it cannot, or brings an untrue benefit to consumers, they can be accused of promoting unsubstantiated claims about the product.

Comparison Inconsistencies

Comparison inconsistencies refer to situations when a business says their product is comparable to brand-name products without sufficient evidence. Example: a business claims technology in a consumer electronic is comparable to widely recognized products, yet technical evidence points to it being of lower quality.

Bait-and-Switch Tactics

A business marketing a product they do not truly intend to deliver in terms of quality/function is considered bait-and-switch. In a bait-and-switch, the business delivers a product that is of much lower quality than advertised to consumers.

Green or Eco-Friendly Terms

Businesses advertise their products as environmentally friendly or green despite knowing that goods are not produced under eco-friendly guidelines.

Made in the U.S.A.

Americans are more likely to purchase products made in their country. Manufacturers will falsely claim their product is made in the United States. The FTC has formed new rules regarding this false advertising practice.

How to Spot Deceptive or False Advertising

False advertising tactics are intentionally crafted to fool consumers into buying bad products. Knowing the different types of deceptive advertising is just one part in being able to identify bad products.

Below are more ways to help recognize false advertising and bad products:

  • The price seems too good to be true for the type of product.
  • If photos and descriptions do not match up with the product you’ve received, it is likely deceptively marketed.
  • Fake online reviews of deceptively marketed products are overwhelmingly positive but do not provide realistic context. Even the most reputable products have some poor reviews from real customers. Most deceptively marketed products will “receive” glowing reviews from fake accounts.
  • If the business does not respond to inquiries or questions about their product, they are likely hiding something.
  • Check if the business is officially registered or recognized with governmental agencies such as the Better Business Bureau.

Examples of Deceptive Advertising

Examples of deceptive advertising and false advertising are everywhere, even at popular fast food chains Americans visit everyday. But oftentimes, deceptive advertising can be dangerous to the environment and harmful to consumers’ health.

Examples of Deceptive Advertising in Household Products

Recently, several brands of daily and dietary supplements, which have been marketed to consumers as healthy additions to their diet, have been contaminated with lead, cadmium, and BPA.

Explosively dangerous, various brands of popular instant pot and pressure cooker kitchen appliances have been catching fire and exploding in homes.

Another recent example is Smithfield Foods, a pork producer and food processing company, being accused of falsely marketing their pork products as environmentally friendly. In February 2021, an environmental advocacy group filed a 47-page letter with the FTC detailing the Smithfield Foods’ history of environmental violations and reliance on unsustainable practices. The FTC has not taken action.

A number of hair straighteners & hair dyes have been linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

There are many potentially harmful and even deadly baby products on the market, all of which were deceptively advertised as safe for children. Some baby sleepers products have been linked to infant suffocation and death. A number of baby foods were found to contain heavy metals that put children at serious risk. Even infant formulas have been linked to NEC risk, a potentially life-threatening infant injury.

Despite being advertised as safe and effective, many Amazon Basics Electronics products have been linked to fires and fire-related injuries.

The widely popular talc powder product line, which was for decades advertised as safe, has been found to put users at serious risk of cancer.

Examples of Deceptive Advertising in Pharmaceutical Products

The following pharmaceutical products all claimed to be safe for users but actually put users at risk of serious injury:

Popular over-the-counter heartburn medications, such as Zantac were once advertised as safe to consumers but have been linked to an increased risk of developing a number of cancers.

The popular weight-loss medication Belviq has been linked to serious injury, despite safety claims by the manufacturer.

Patients suffering from gout who are prescribed Uloric are at an unwarned risk of cardiovascular injury and other serious health injuries.

Elmiron is a medication prescribed to treat pain related to interstitial cystitis. However, the manufacturer failed to warn of potential life-threatens health risks such as serious vision injury.

Millions of Americans suffer from arthritis and could potentially be prescribed Xeljanz as a treatment option. Most users thought the drug to be safe, as advertised, but found out only later that Xeljanz has been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer.

Examples of Deceptive Advertising in Medical Devices

The following pharmaceutical products all claimed to be safe for users but actually put users at risk of serious injury:

There are a number of devices on the Philips CPAP machine line that have been linked to serious injury, despite the machines being advertised as safe medical devices.

Millions of Americans suffer from diabetes and may be at risk of being prescribed dangerous medications and devices used for treatment. One such device is the Medtronic Minimed insulin pump - a device that has also been advertised as safe but has been linked to numerous adverse health risks, including fatal injuries.

Surgical staplers and staples are commonly used surgical devices. Despite their widespread use and initial assessment as a safe form of medical treatment, these devices have been linked to complications that can be life-threatening if gone untreated.

It is very important that a medical device user familiarizes themself with the known risks of all devices that they are currently using or have used in the past. Like dangerous drugs and other defective products, defective medical devices can remain on market for quite some time even after injuries are reported. So, it is important that you do not just discontinue using devices after the device is recalled. Talk to your doctor to discuss your device's safety regularly.

When To Acquire Legal Help

When it comes to false advertising and defective products, it’s important to know the right time or situation to consider legal advice. If you are injured by a product that is sold under false or deceptive advertising, it’s a good idea to contact a product liability attorney to get a better idea of the legal recourse available to you.

Breach of Warranty.” Legal Information Institute, Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/breach_of_warranty.

Doering, Christopher. “Smithfield Foods Hit with FTC Complaint Tied to Sustainability Claims.” Food Dive, 4 Feb. 2021, https://www.fooddive.com/news/smithfield-foods-hit-with-ftc-complaint-tied-to-sustainability-claims/594562/.

FTC Charges Volkswagen Deceived Consumers with Its ‘Clean Diesel’ Campaign.” Federal Trade Commission, 30 Sept. 2019, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2016/03/ftc-charges-volkswagen-deceived-consumers-its-clean-diesel.

Made in USA.” Federal Trade Commission, https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/advertising-and-marketing/made-in-usa.

Smithfield’s Deceptive Sustainability Claims Slammed in FTC Complaint.Food & Water Watch, 20 Aug. 2021, https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/2021/02/04/smithfields-deceptive-sustainability-claims-slammed-in-ftc-complaint/.

Truth in Advertising.” Federal Trade Commission, 7 May 2020, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising. 

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