False Advertising Questions and Answers

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How does deception in advertising affect people behaviorally?

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Walter Fischer eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Duplicitious or false advertising has been around as long as advertising has been around.  Federal laws, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, prohibit the use of false or misleading information inadvertisments.  Nevertheless, false advertising continues to be used by many businesses today.

Quite frankly, false advertising affects peoples' behavior the same way that honest advertising does: both are intended to influence the consumer's decision-making process in favor of the advertised product.  And most advertising is at least a little misleading in emphasizing a product's qualitative superiority over that of the competition.  Anybody who has shopped for a new car has experienced the phenomenon whereby the salesman claims to have worked for a competing manufacturer, but now is working for the one that makes the best cars.  The salesman has "seen the light," and now only sales products of which he is personally proud.

False advertising incorporates a number of tactics, including claiming that the product performs not just better than the competition, but better than it actually does.  It is all intended to influence the consumer's behavior.  Vance Packard's 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders was an eye-opening examination of how advertisers use "subliminal" techniques in their advertisements intended to infiltrate the subconscious of consumers and influence their purchasing decisions without them realizing they were subjected to such tactics.  By hiding words or symbols inside the advertisement, the public was being manipulated in a certain company's favor.

An effective advertiser understands human psychology, and how to appeal to the desires that exist in most men and women -- desires ranging from how to look cool in certain clothes to what detergent will best bring out the colors in that apparel.  Tobacco advertisers were so successful in convincing  people to smoke cigarettes that the federal government finally banned cigarette advertisements on television and radio with the 1970 Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act.

All advertising seeks to influence the decisions consumers make.  Whether the advertisement is false may mislead some people, but it all works the same way, and to the same goal.  

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M.P. Ossa, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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According to the Federal Trade Commission's statement on ad deception of 1984, the agency has a responsibility to declare unlawful any kind of practice that in an unfair and deceptive way aims to manipulate the public's perception of a good or a service. Under Sections 5 and 12 of the statement, the Commission is specific in the description of "deceptive acts or practices" precisely because of the behavioral effects that these practices causeon potential consumers.

The salient behavioral effect is decision-making. Through false advertisement, a potential consumer who is susceptible to misinformation will undoubtedly act upon the false claims of an advertisement, and may potentially increase or decrease his or her consuming practices. For example, if a company promotes a tonic to reduce body-fat percentage, a consumer who needs to reduce body fact (and believes what the advertisement claims) will make the erroneous choice of buying and using the product. This is because the advertisement falsely promoted a solution which, in turn, will induce the consumer to place trust (and a lot of money, at times) in a product that does not really work.

If the FTC does not keep a watchful eye on advertising practices, the entire population would be placing their money and trust on products and services that are misrepresented and deceitful. Hence, it is imperative to always keep the door of reasonable doubt open prior to engaging in the subtle interactivity of advertising.

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