The Different Types of Deceptive Advertising

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Although deceptive advertising only makes up a small percentage of the ads you encounter every day, there are always people out there looking to dupe consumers and make money however they can. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), deceptive advertising has three common components:

First, there must be a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer. Practices that have been found misleading or deceptive in specific cases include false oral or written representations, misleading price claims, sales of hazardous or systematically defective products or services without adequate disclosures, failure to disclose information regarding pyramid sales, use of bait and switch techniques, failure to perform promised services, and failure to meet warranty obligations. 
Second, we examine the practice from the perspective of a consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances. If the representation or practice affects or is directed primarily to a particular group, the Commission examines reasonableness from the perspective of that group. 
Third, the representation, omission, or practice must be a "material" one. The basic question is whether the act or practice is likely to affect the consumer's conduct or decision with regard to a product or service. If so, the practice is material, and consumer injury is likely, because consumers are likely to have chosen differently but for the deception. In many instances, materiality, and hence injury, can be presumed from the nature of the practice. In other instances, evidence of materiality may be necessary. 

Here are some examples of deceptive and unethical advertising practices and scams that you need to look out for.

Hidden Fees

In this example, the advertising is not fully disclosing the true cost of the item. For instance, you may see an ad for a computer or tablet that says "Only $99!" When you go to make a purchase, suddenly you are hit with a whole bunch of charges that you were not expecting. In some cases, shipping fees will be extortionate, often costing more than the product itself or you may have to pay handling fees that are excessive. 

Often, hidden fees can be spotted by the asterisk (*) that accompanies the incredible deal. You can bet there will be a big difference between "Only $99!" and "Only $99!*" That asterisk basically says, "Hey, this is not the final price. You will have to jump through major hoops or fork over a lot more cash." 

So, if you see an asterisk, read the small print carefully. Whether it's a small item, a car, or even a home, hidden fees are a deceptive way of luring you in. By the time you realize there's more to pay, it can be too late. 

Bait and Switch

In short, bait and switch is when the advertisement entices you with a product, but makes a significant switch when you go to purchase it. For instance, suddenly the laptop you wanted is not in stock, but there is a different one that is lower spec and costs twice as much. Chances are that the original laptop was never in stock, or at least, not for the price advertised.

Another example would be advertising a car at the base price, but with all of the top-of-the-line features included in the ad. When you get to the dealership, you have to pay much more to get the car actually shown in the ad. 

Bait and Switch advertising is illegal and should be reported whenever you encounter it. Sometimes, an offer can seem like bait and switch, but it's not. If you go to purchase a laptop that is sold out and end up being offered an equivalent device with similar specs at an almost identical price, that's perfectly fine. It’s possible you just missed out on the original deal. In that case, you can also ask for a rain check. 

Misleading Claims

Misleading claims use tricky language to make the consumer believe they are getting one thing, when they are, in fact, getting less or paying more. A British TV show called “The Real Hustle” has great examples of this in action.  

The presenters, who know the ins and outs of so many con games, set up stalls to sell seemingly awesome products at cheap prices. At no time do the hustlers break the law by making claims that are untrue, but the verbiage leads people to believe they are buying something way better than they're actually getting. 

One of the cruelest episodes involved the presenters advertising a DIY model plane for a price that seemed like a steal. Phrases like "easy to assemble" and "it really flies" were stamped on the box. Inside, however, was just a blank sheet of paper with a set of instructions on how to make a paper plane. Did the hosts break the law? No. Did they deceive? Yes. 

Ambiguous or "Best Case Scenario" Photography

Another way of cheating people is to take photographs of a product being sold and then present them in a way that makes them seem way better than they are. Shady hotels have often used this technique to make the rooms look bigger, by setting up the camera in the corner of the room and using a fisheye lens.

A photograph can also be taken in a way to hide some of the product's flaws or to make it seem even bigger than it is in real life. Food photography can suffer from the "best-case scenario" photography. If you have ever ordered a burger from a fast food place, you will know this well. 

The burger on the menu is perfect. It's thick, juicy, four inches high, and looks incredible. But the burger you receive, while it may have the same ingredients, is a sad interpretation of that image. The bun is flat, the burger is a mess, ketchup and mustard are pouring out of the sides.

This is something we accept as consumers because we know the burger in the photo was assembled by expert designers and food artists, over the course of many hours. Whereas your actual burger may have been thrown together in a few seconds to meet your time demands. 

But, don't take that to mean you can never complain about this kind of photography. If you buy something that is clearly of poorer quality than the item shown in the picture, you can certainly demand a refund.