How Ads Bend the Truth to Get Your Attention

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Lying, it's one of the things we're taught never to do (unless we're saving someone's feelings). After a few weeks in an ad agency, people are being rewarded for it. 

OK, it's not lying in the traditional sense of the word. But there are many different ways to lie, and professional advertisers know them all too well.

Type of Lies

  • Omission: This is perhaps the most common type of lie in advertising. Simply put, it's taking relevant information off the table so that only the best features of the product or service are highlighted. So for example, if you have a diet pill that will help you lose 50lbs in 10 weeks, but it must be combined with furious exercise and a low-calorie diet to work, the lie of omission would be leaving the diet and exercise facts on the cutting room floor. 
  • Commission: An out and out lie, such as "buy this CD, and you will make $1 million in under a year" is very rare in advertising. They are easy to spot, and also hard to defend. 
  • Error: A case in point here is the infamous Sketchers Shape-Ups campaigns that launched the shoe. The ad agency was led to believe that this shoe could help you lose weight and stay in shape, and so they ran with it. That was an error. There was no malice meant, but it was still a deception. 
  • Exaggeration: Also very common in advertising, although exaggeration is used so blatantly that very few people believe what the advertiser is saying. Obviously, spraying on some deodorant is not going to have women running after you from miles around. It's taking things to the extreme to make a point. Thus, harmless fun. 
  • Denial: This is dangerous. Refusing to believe anything negative about the product or service being advertised, and leaving it out of every communication. For the longest time, the tobacco industry refused to admit that its products were harmful. Even doctors were hawking them. 
  • Minimization: In other words, the opposite of exaggerating the benefit; you play down the negative aspects. So, "this product may cause slight discomfort" when the product is known to cause major pain and suffering, that's a lie of minimization.
  • Reinvention: If the story doesn't fit, change the story. This can be done in many ways, from the use of sarcasm and tone to rearranging facts and quotes to benefit the product or service being told. 

Examples of Common Lies Used in Advertising

You will see bad ads from worse agencies, and they will outright lie or aim to mislead in the most tricky ways possible. Some places walk a fine line between legal and illegal, using every loophole in the law to avoid prosecution.

These are the ads that feature copywriting atrocities like:

  • "Compare at $100!" - That does not mean the product is worth $100; it means that you should compare the product you're about to buy with one that costs $100. That's often like comparing a Cubic Zirconia ring with a diamond ring. Yes, they're almost the same, but come on. Similarly, that $59 generic tablet is not one that can be honestly compared to an iPad, but these lies often exist
  • "Call in the next 10 minutes…" - And what happens? You get free shipping? You get your order doubled at no extra charge? You get a free pony? It doesn't matter, the time is irrelevant. You get those deals no matter what. It is simply a way to get people racing to the phone. But they don't say "if you don't call in the next ten minutes you won't get it." It's blatant deception to make you think your quick response gets you something other, lazier people won't get.
  • "Pay NOTHING For Covered Services." Oooh, more tricky language. That phrase means nothing. Nothing at all. But it sounds like it means everything. It's like saying "pay nothing to breathe the air in your backyard." Well, duh. If a service is covered, it's paid for. See.

So, those are the kinds of "lies" that advertisers will tell. They are not breaking any laws; they are just messing with language. But out and out lies, they are disproven quickly and will result in some very bad karma for the brand. Imagine if brands said things like:

  • "Guaranteed to make you 25 IQ points higher."
  • "Our bacon cheeseburgers are 100% fat and calorie-free."
  • "We'll be there in 29 seconds or less, every time."

That just leaves advertisers wide open for lawsuits and dismayed customers. Anything that blatantly false will be discovered, and through word of mouth the brand will be ripped apart.

Advertising does bend the truth, but usually, it's so exaggerated that no one ever believes it to be anything other than entertainment to raise attention. From talking crocodiles to cars driving on the ceiling, it's simply ​razzle-dazzle to get you to pay attention.