When we see advertisements that deliver lofty promises and wonderful visuals, we assume that is what we’re getting. Sometimes advertisements don’t live up to our expectations though which can negatively impact how customers perceive brands in the future.

People now judge brands and businesses based on their experiences meaning that if a brand doesn’t deliver in this format, a consumer will abandon the brand to seek a company that can provide them with the experience they require.

With a society built around advertising that favours mobile-first technology and seamless marketing, there can be, at times, a gap between what a brand promises through an advertisement and what they are actually able to deliver. There are plenty of advertisements that don’t live up to expectations and you have to ensure that your brand isn’t one of the companies promising something on a customer journey that is undeliverable.

When Advertisements Don’t Live Up to Expectations: Lying Volkswagen

Famous for their sturdy and attractive cars, Volkswagen found themselves in hot water in 2016 after the Federal Trade Commission filed a lawsuit against the company. While Volkswagen claimed to be able to operate on clean diesel engines, it appeared that they had been cheating emissions tests for over seven years.

While this may possibly be an innocent mistake, it turns out that Volkswagen had a much dastardly role in the narrative. Volkswagen had actually engineered software that alerted the vehicle to when it was being tested. This meant that the car intentionally reduced harmful emissions from the exhaust system, temporarily to ensure it passed the test.

When Advertisements Don't Live Up To Expectations

In summary of justice, this false advertising came at a considerable cost to the company’s trustworthiness. Not only was their brand reputation tarnished but they also faced a potential fine of $90 billion American dollars for breaking multiple environmental laws. A perfect example of when advertisements don’t live up to expectations.

vw advertisements don't live up to expectations
Volkswagen designed software to cheat emissions testing causing much uproar. (Image Credit: Julia Hochesang)

Get Skinny, or Not, with New Balance: False Advertising

New Balance is one of the premium shoe brands available for purchase to the modern person. With beautiful shoes and improving technology, their cult following has continued to grow over the years. However, they had a scandal due to false advertising back in 2011.

In 2011, New Balance introduced shoes that had an array of features and big claims. This line apparently used a balance board technology. This technology was meant to encourage muscle activation in the various muscles in the legs which would lead to you burning calories from just wearing them.

After some testing, it was revealed that these claims were unfounded and, in fact, these shoes could possibly cause injury. Not only were New Balance suffering from terrible pres but a class-action lawsuit was brought against them, resulting in everyone who had purchased the shoe being entitled to a $100 dollar refund.

After paying out $2.3 million, New Balance learned the hard way when customers find out that the advertisements they were given did not meet up to expectations.

new balance bad advertising
New Balance came under fire for making false claims about the technology in their shoes (Image Credit: Elisei Abiculesei)

Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice: Splenda isn’t Sugar

As humans who are largely sedentary, we try to find things that actively improve our health. While most of us adore sugar, it can have some major health consequences, so using a supplement with less damage is always preferred. Enter Splenda.

Splenda was a popular sugar substitute that came to prominence in the early noughties. Their marketing campaign focused on the similarities between sugar and Splenda with their tag line reading, “Made from sugar, so it tastes like sugar” which seems like a fair and honest assumption.

However, the Sugar Association actually uncovered that Splenda wasn’t derived from natural sugar. Rather, it was a chemical compound that went through many stages of processing before becoming the household product it is known to be.

This scandal caused the Sugar Association to file suit against Splenda, taking them to court and settling for a confidential settlement. This same result occurred when Splenda was taken to court by their supplementary sugar rivals, Equal. Another perfect example of when advertisements don’t live up to expectations.

splenda not sugar

A Bowl of Rice Crispies Doesn’t Keep the Doctor Away 

Eating cereal in the morning is a common breakfast practice and the competing market to end up in customers’ bowls is neverending. Trying to appeal to the health-conscious as well as children, Kellog’s announced that Rice Krispies had immune-boosting properties in 2010.

They came to this conclusion through their scientific research showing that their cereal was filled with vitamins and minerals. This was soon found to be false advertising and the FTC ordered Kellogs to pay a $2.5 million fine and a large sum of their products to charity to make amends for their claims.

bad advertisements rice krispies
Rice Krispies made false claims about how healthy they are for the human body, bringing a hefty fine for Kellogs through a lawsuit. (Image Credit: Wendy Rake)

How Can I Make Good and Realistic Advertisements?

Advertisements are a crucial part of society and we are absorbed by many companies displaying their services and products daily. It is important to note though that this comes with a great responsibility as WARC have found over 32% of people believe ads influence how they see themselves.

With that in mind, run campaigns that are based on data. Increase your customer spend and build brand loyalty by creating advertisements that appeal to their desires without lying to them. Honesty is integral and being able to actively and openly communicate with them builds trust in your offering.

Use advertising to educate your customers. Relay your experience through concise, clear cut copy that is tailored to their growth with you. Marketing campaigns based on these foundations result in success.

Common Ways Ads Mislead Consumers

In the ever-present world of advertising, promises of perfection and effortless solutions dance before our eyes. But beneath the polished veneer often lies a web of deception, designed to lure us into parting with our hard-earned cash. Let’s unmask some of the most common ways ads can mislead consumers:

1. The Hype Machine: Exaggerated Claims and Outright Lies:

Ever seen a product promising “miracle weight loss” or “ageless skin”? These outlandish claims, often bordering on the fantastical, are blatant attempts to exploit our insecurities and desires. Be wary of hyperbole and promises that sound too good to be true. Remember, if it seems like magic, it probably is.

2. The Fine Print Tango: Contradictions in Small Type:

Have you ever spotted a product boasting “increased energy!” in bold letters, only to find the fine print whispering about potential side effects like insomnia and anxiety? This is a classic bait-and-switch tactic, where the main message contradicts the crucial details hidden in the small text. Always scrutinize the fine print, especially for disclaimers and warnings, before making a decision.

3. The Perfect World Illusion: Only Showing Ideal Usage Scenarios:

Imagine a commercial showcasing a sparkling white smile after using a new toothpaste. But what they don’t show is the years of braces, professional whitening treatments, and meticulous oral hygiene that went into achieving that result. This selective portrayal of ideal scenarios, often neglecting real-world limitations and individual differences, can create unrealistic expectations and lead to disappointment.

4. The Omission Waltz: Failing to Mention Limitations, Risks, or Side Effects:

A new drug promising pain relief might gloss over the potential for addiction or dangerous interactions with other medications. This selective omission of crucial information can have serious consequences for consumers who rely on ads to make informed choices. Always demand transparency and be wary of ads that leave out important details.

5. The Emotional Manipulation Tango: Preying on Insecurities and Desires:

Ads often tap into our deepest fears and vulnerabilities, selling us not just products, but solutions to perceived problems. From insecurities about weight and appearance to anxieties about social status and success, these manipulative tactics can cloud our judgment and lead to impulsive decisions based on emotions rather than reason.

Beyond these common tactics, remember to be vigilant for:

  • Misleading visuals and testimonials: Staged photos, manipulated data, and fabricated endorsements can create a false sense of legitimacy.
  • Hidden fees and subscription traps: Be aware of additional costs and charges lurking beneath the surface.
  • Urgency and scarcity tactics: “Limited-time offer” or “Last chance!” messages can pressure you into making hasty decisions.

 The Psychology Behind Misleading Ads

The world of advertising, with its vibrant visuals and persuasive voices, can feel like a wonderland of possibilities. But beneath the glitter and charm lies a hidden realm – the realm of psychological manipulation. Let’s delve into the darker side of advertising and explore how it preys on our inherent biases and vulnerabilities to make us buy:

1. Tapping into Wishful Thinking: Exploiting Cognitive Biases:

  • Confirmation bias: Ads leverage our tendency to seek information that confirms our existing beliefs. They show scenarios that resonate with our desires, reinforcing the idea that their product is the key to fulfilling our wishes.
  • Availability bias: Recent or easily recalled experiences have a greater impact on our judgments. Ads leverage this by showcasing vivid success stories or negative consequences of inaction, making their product seem like the most readily available solution.
  • Loss aversion: Humans fear losses more than they value gains. Ads exploit this by highlighting what you could lose – opportunities, happiness, social standing – if you don’t choose their product.

2. Bypassing Logic: Selling with Emotion, not Facts:

  • Emotional appeal: Ads often evoke strong emotions, like excitement, hope, or even fear, to bypass our rational thinking and create an impulsive desire to buy.
  • Nostalgia and sentimentality: Ads can trigger warm memories of childhood or special moments, associating their product with those positive feelings and making it seem indispensable.
  • Social proof and belonging: Humans crave acceptance and belonging. Ads exploit this by showing their product being used by popular figures or groups, implying that it’s the key to fitting in and being part of something desirable.

3. Weaponizing Insecurities: Preying on Fears and Vulnerabilities:

  • Body image and self-esteem: Ads constantly bombard us with unrealistic beauty standards and portray happiness as directly linked to achieving those standards. This fuels insecurity and makes consumers susceptible to products promising the “perfect” body or image.
  • Fear of missing out (FOMO): Ads manipulate our desire to stay ahead of the curve and avoid being left behind. They create a sense of urgency and scarcity, pressuring us to buy before it’s too late.
  • Social anxiety and belonging: Ads prey on fears of exclusion and loneliness, suggesting their product is the missing piece to social acceptance and belonging.

Understanding these psychological tactics empowers us to become more discerning consumers. By recognizing the biases they exploit and the emotions they manipulate, we can make conscious choices based on logic and reason rather than fall victim to advertising’s seductive deception.

Unveiling the Impact of Misleading Ads on Consumers

The glossy world of advertising paints a picture of perfection, promising solutions to our every desire. But behind the curtain of alluring visuals and persuasive words often lies a web of deception, leaving consumers not just disappointed, but with tangible and far-reaching consequences. Let’s delve into the true impact of misleading ads:

1. Financial Frustration: A Drain on Wallets and Dreams:

Imagine investing in a “miracle weight loss” product only to find the scale stubbornly refusing to budge. Misleading ads lure consumers with inflated promises and then deliver empty results, draining not just financial resources but also hope and motivation. This erosion of trust leaves consumers feeling cheated and wary of future purchases, hindering economic activity and impacting businesses built on ethical practices.

2. Emotional Echoes: Fear, Frustration, and Broken Trust:

The harm of misleading ads goes beyond financial loss. Some ads prey on deep-seated insecurities and anxieties, promising solutions to social anxieties, health concerns, or even existential fears. When these promises fall flat, the emotional consequences can be profound, leading to stress, frustration, and a diminished sense of well-being. The repeated exposure to manipulative tactics can also erode trust in the entire marketing and advertising landscape, casting a shadow on legitimate businesses and making it harder for consumers to navigate the information overload.

3. Ethical Erosion: A Crack in the Foundation of Trust:

Misleading ads don’t just hurt individual consumers; they chip away at the very foundation of trust in the market. When brands prioritize deception over transparency, they contribute to a climate of skepticism and cynicism, impacting not just their own reputations but the entire industry. This breakdown in trust can have far-reaching consequences, hindering economic growth and making it harder for businesses to build authentic relationships with their customers.

The ripple effects of misleading ads extend far beyond the initial point of purchase, impacting both our wallets and our well-being. As consumers, we have the power to challenge deceptive practices and demand transparency. By recognizing the tactics used to manipulate us, questioning claims, and seeking out reliable information, we can stand up against the sting of deception and build a more responsible and ethical marketplace.

Regulations and Consequences of False Advertising

While creativity and persuasion lie at the heart of advertising, stepping into the murky territory of deception crosses a legal and ethical line. Understanding the regulatory frameworks and potential consequences is crucial for both consumers and businesses.

1. Curbing Deception: An Overview of Relevant Laws:

In most countries, laws like the Lanham Act in the US and the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations in the UK prohibit false advertising. These laws cover a wide spectrum of deceptive practices, including:

  • Misleading Claims: False or exaggerated claims about product benefits, performance, or ingredients.
  • Omission of Material Facts: Hiding important information or negative aspects of a product.
  • Deceptive Pricing and Fine Print: Hidden fees, deceptive discounts, or misleading price comparisons.
  • Bait-and-Switch Tactics: Luring customers with attractive offers but ultimately selling them different products.
  • Misleading Testimonials and Visuals: Using fabricated or exaggerated testimonials or manipulating images to misrepresent a product.

2. Watchdogs on Patrol: Key Organizations and Initiatives:

Several organizations play a crucial role in enforcing regulations and protecting consumers from false advertising:

  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC): In the US, the FTC proactively investigates deceptive advertising practices and takes legal action against violators.
  • Better Business Bureau (BBB): This non-profit organization provides resources on ethical advertising practices and facilitates consumer complaints against businesses.
  • Regulatory Agencies: Depending on the industry and product, specific regulatory agencies can also play a role in overseeing advertising practices.

3. Empowered Consumers: Reporting Suspected Deception:

Don’t let misleading ads go unnoticed! Consumers have the power to report them to relevant authorities:

  • FTC Complaint Assistant: File a complaint online or by phone with the FTC in the US.
  • BBB Scam Tracker: Report scams and misleading advertising practices to the BBB.
  • Industry Regulators: Depending on the product or service, contact the relevant regulatory agency.

4. The Price of Deception: Brand Reputation Damage:

The consequences of false advertising extend far beyond legal penalties. Businesses that engage in deceptive practices risk facing irreparable damage to their brand reputation:

  • Loss of Customer Trust and Loyalty: When customers feel misled, they lose trust in the brand, often choosing competitors for future purchases.
  • Negative Publicity and Viral Outrage: In today’s hyper-connected world, news of deceptive practices can spread quickly through social media and news outlets, damaging the brand’s image and public perception.
  • Stricter Scrutiny and Regulatory Action: Once a brand falls under the radar for deceptive practices, they may face increased scrutiny from regulators and stricter compliance requirements, further increasing the cost of doing business.

5. Building a Foundation of Trust: Transparency and Ethical Practices:

In a competitive marketplace, ethical advertising and transparency are not just legal obligations but strategic assets. Businesses that prioritize authenticity and consumer trust reap numerous benefits:

  • Strengthened Brand Reputation: Transparency fosters trust and loyalty, creating a strong foundation for long-term customer relationships.
  • Positive Customer Sentiment: Happy and satisfied customers become brand advocates, driving organic growth and positive word-of-mouth marketing.
  • Competitive Advantage: Ethical practices differentiate businesses from those engaging in deceptive tactics, attracting customers who value trust and integrity.


Q: What are some common examples of false advertising?

A: False advertising can come in many forms, but some common examples include:

  • Exaggerated claims about product benefits, like a weight loss pill promising unrealistic results.
  • Omitting important information, like potential side effects or hidden fees.
  • Using misleading visuals or testimonials, like staged photos or fake reviews.
  • Bait-and-switch tactics, where you’re lured in with one offer but sold something else.

Q: How can I tell if an ad is misleading?

A: Be wary of claims that sound too good to be true, and always do your research before purchasing anything. Look for independent reviews, compare prices, and read the fine print carefully. If something feels off, it probably is.

Q: What can I do if I see a misleading ad?

A: You can report it to the relevant authorities, such as the FTC in the US or the BBB. You can also share your experience on social media or consumer review websites to warn others.

Q: Can businesses really get away with false advertising?

A: No. Misleading advertising is illegal, and businesses caught engaging in it can face fines, lawsuits, and reputational damage. However, it’s important to be vigilant and proactive as a consumer.

Q: What are the benefits of ethical advertising for businesses?

A: Businesses that prioritize transparency and honesty build trust with consumers, leading to stronger brand loyalty, increased sales, and a competitive advantage. Consumers appreciate authenticity and are more likely to choose companies that they feel they can trust.

Advertisements Summary

Customers have become more attuned to products and services with the development of technology, and it is important as a marketer to continuously deliver appealing and exciting advertisements without falsely promising them to customers.

Focusing on customer experiences and delivering realistic information for customers to make investment decisions is the best way to encourage them to remain loyal to your brand while remaining loyal to the truth.

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