Truth in Advertising in the Post-Truth Era

John Nagy

I recently read an article about the health effects of too much sugar in your diet. Admittedly, I can stand to lose a “few” pounds. The article dove into how the sugar industry paid scientists to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit. It stated we were “marketed” into believing fat-free was good for us with nary a word about sugar’s role in bad health. What stopped me was the use of the word “marketed” as if it is a euphemism for lying. This hit me in the gut. Has my profession reverted to its stereotyped “snake-oil salesman” image?

Let’s face it: truth has taken a big hit recently.

Even in the face of “alternative facts”, I’m here to tell you that truth in advertising still exits. The first thing we need to do is separate political advertising, which is protected by free speech First Amendment rights (yeah, they can lie), from mainstream advertising, which is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission. I’ll continue with mainstream advertising.

If you make a claim in your advertising, you must be able to back it up. For example, the FTC told the makers of Listerine they cannot state its product “can prevent and cure colds and sore throats.” It cost them $10 million in 1976 dollars to clarify the story to consumers. Furthermore, your competitors are watching your advertising, and they will pounce upon you legally if what you say isn’t true and hurts their business. And don’t forget social media: the wrath of the consumer will hail down upon you quickly if you are not on the up and up.

A nuance to advertising is what the FTC describes as “puffery”. Puffery is an exaggerated claim or statement that can’t be universally proven, one that no “reasonable person” would take literally. You can say “Best burgers in town.” You can’t say “65% of people prefer our burgers.” Visually, I live in this area of hyperbole. As British advertising guru Paul Arden once said, “… you know a horse can jump a ditch, therefore you accept it can jump the Grand Canyon.” You may use this to dramatize your idea, not to tell a lie.

Be careful with puffery. Terms like “best-in-class”, “global leader”, “highest quality”, etc., though they may be true, are basically thought of as useless filler to a knowledgeable consumer. It’s better to be specific if you can.

Sometimes using the truth counterintuitively can be a powerful way to get your message out. In the “Mad Men” era of advertising, during the 1950s, automobile ads flaunted their cars as being the next big thing. Volkswagen zigged when they zagged, creating simple ads with headlines like “Think small.” and “Lemon.” They drew a lot of attention — it was pretty risky to denigrate your own product by calling it a lemon. But that is exactly what piqued people’s interest. It was a way to lead readers to find out about the rigorous inspections at the plant that rejected the featured car for an insignificant flaw. When asked what gimmick his agency used in creating their several successful advertising campaigns, including Volkswagen’s, Bill Bernbach (the “B” in advertising agency DDB) said, “I’ve got a great gimmick. Let’s tell the truth.”

Bill, I second that.

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