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Recognizing Marketing Deception (Fraud?) Before Becoming a Victim
I recently heard a certain radio ad blasting a metro NYC news station that I enjoy listening to. The reason I like this station is simple: It’s smart, it’s interesting and it airs the John Sterling/Susan Waldman Yankee commentary throughout the seasons.
However, this particular radio commercial strikes me as so full of misleading marketing language that I cringe every time it plays. Not only does it give my profession a bad name, but it potentially tricks thousands of gullible consumers into signing up and becoming victims of what I almost consider a scam. But, too cleverly manipulative for that, it probably can’t even be found guilty of deception because every claim made is true. But it certainly misleads unsuspecting listeners into interpreting these “true” statements as a good reason to respond to the ad and commit to the advertised service, only to later discover the naivety of their naive decision to do so.
Let me explain: The ad begins as an ad in an authoritative tone that claims it can save American car owners thousands of dollars in auto repair bills. As long as you have less than 200,000 miles on your car (as most people do), you’ll never have to pay for an auto repair bill out of pocket again! The advertiser will pay it for you. If you are sick and tired of spending your hard earned money on auto repairs, call to see if you qualify! (This requires you to prove that you are one of the eligible less than 200,000-mile car owners who can take advantage of this advertising scam to trick you into buying.)
You can even keep your own mechanic or your own auto repair service and have the advertiser pay the bills for you. This includes all the most advanced auto tech repairs you will ever need! (Again, they say this to throw you off course to think about what repairs your car might need now or in the future and whether you’ll qualify.) So far, everything they’ve said with the possible exception of “save you”. thousands of dollars” was true. That is until you read between the lines.
No, you won’t be spending your hard-earned money on the auto repair bill. Instead, you will spend your hard earned money to pay them a fee to represent you and pay your auto repair bill for you. And while they claim you can save a lot of money, you actually pay more by making them the middlemen. After all, they are in business to make money. They won’t do it for nothing. And how can they pay for these expensive radio ads on such a powerful New York station? Only through responses from hundreds of unsuspecting customers who sign up en masse.
So what do you get out of it? Maybe a lot of trouble if you sign a contract, and fail to pay their fee, and who knows what else! They probably pretend they are providing you with great service by guaranteeing they will pay for your car repair on your old owner (with less than 200,000 miles) which allows you to keep driving and hopefully go to work (if you still have a job) while they wait for you to cover the bill (perhaps late) with interest!
I am speculating on all the finer details but you can see the risks I am pointing out. I remember hearing about a similar fraudulent attempt made by another car payment company in the last couple of years that was distributed through the mail. I later received a series of telemarketing calls about it. Now, I hear this ad for a different company on the radio. Could it be the same organization just operating under a different name? And ironically, as quickly as I recognized it, suddenly I don’t hear it anymore, which may also be part of their formula: run it for a short time to accumulate new customers and then disappear into thin air, so to speak. These are the kinds of questions I ask because I’m naturally suspicious of marketing claims that raise these kinds of red flags.
The concept is very similar to the service offered by a credit card: you pay with plastic and then you pay the credit card company with interest for their generosity in letting you pay over time. But we all know the enormous risk involved, as a nation and a world, with intractable economic problems everywhere you look! If you’re one of the unfortunate people who’s lost the privilege of using some or all of your many credit cards, this ad for a car repair payment service may sound pretty appealing, especially if old Bertha is making terrible noises and endangering your commute. But I urge you to tread carefully and carry a big stick.
So what exactly are the deceptive advertising laws, anyway? According to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) Office of Consumer Protection, there are three attributes that determine whether an advertisement is false or unfair:
1. If it offends public policy;
2. If it is immoral, unethical, oppressive or unscrupulous; or,
3. if it seriously injures consumers.
This last point is considered the most important in weighing whether the advertisement is false or unfair, with customer injury normally based on loss of money as a result of a purchase that would never have been made if the advertisement had not been misleading in the first place. False statements are determined by whether they are false at face value; or whether they are implicitly false. In my opinion, the radio ad above may be making a patently false claim saying that it can save you huge amounts of money if you use their service. However, with a clever twist of interpretation, that statement could be considered true if they attribute your savings as payments made directly to the auto repair vendors.
If you don’t pay your mechanic directly for your auto repairs, you basically save that money. However, you will have to use that “saved” money to pay the auto repair payment company that will pay your mechanic for you, regardless of how deceptively they advertise their service. Does this seem ethical to you? Also, I believe the ad says “can save you” as opposed to “will save you” which implies that there may be other conditions you need to meet to make sure their claim can perform as stated.
Based on complaints that the FTC receives, there are some consistent themes that emerge, most often about unknown costs and terms. Responsible radio advertisers avoid legal trouble by simply adding a statement like “Restrictions may apply,” while some overzealous advertisers devote a good percentage of the radio ad time to detailing lengthy disclosures delivered at warp speed, doing it practically. impossible to understand what is being said. Depending on available space, the FTC advises advertisers using visual media to disclose details “clearly and conspicuously.” If space is limited, perhaps the 3-word disclaimer mentioned earlier may suffice, but small type and deliberately ambiguous terminology are frowned upon.
What the FTC allows or regulates seems to be a bit of a gray area with decisions depending on whether the ad is national or regional in scope; whether it represents an industry regulated by another branch of government (such as airlines, banks, insurance companies, common carriers, and companies that sell securities and commodities); or whether it can be resolved by some other more local agency such as the Better Business Bureau. As stated previously, the most vital importance for the FTC appears to be matters involving consumer harm, whether to “health, safety or wallet.”
Penalties for non-compliance can be stiff ranging from a simple “cease and desist” order which if not obeyed properly escalates to a sum of 16,000 USD per day for additional violations; to fines reaching the millions of dollars when appropriate, sometimes requiring refunds to consumers affected by the offending ad; to running new ads and contacting buyers to correct the previously misleading information.
If an ad has hurt you in any way as a result of deceptive practices, you have the right to complain to the FTC and also contact an attorney. If the offending claim is extensive enough, your case may be considered suitable for a class action that involves many plaintiffs in addition to yourself. Be aware, however, that regardless of how noble your attorneys’ representation may seem in such cases, it is usually the attorneys who benefit most in class action lawsuits.
What if you think your competitor’s ad is deceptive? You have a number of options, some or all of which you can pursue:
1. You can contact an attorney to investigate whether you should sue for unfair competition by making deceptive claims in advertisements.
2. You may file a complaint with the National Advertising Division (NAD) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which investigates and resolves such disputes on a national and regional basis.
3. If the ad is local, you can contact your local Better Business Bureau to file a complaint.
4. You may contact the print or broadcast medium where the ad ran to report your suspicion of the deceptive nature of the ad.
5. You can contact your state Attorney General’s Office or your city, county or state Consumer Affairs Office to report the problem.
6. Finally, you can contact the Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Response Center, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580; or call: toll-free 1-877-FTC-HELP.
As a marketing expert’s advice, if you are an advertiser using techniques of inaccuracy, or worse, duplicity, to camouflage the full truth of your message, remember this:
“The bitterness of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” – Benjamin Franklin
Translation: An unhappy customer will not only share their unpleasant experience with their friends and family, but will also spread the bad word about you on blogs, forums and chat rooms, giving your company a negative reputation that you will never be able to live up to. today’s universe dominated by Google. If your advertising misstep was unintentional, it will be far less expensive to try to win back the loyalty of one disgruntled customer with a valid complaint than to try to weather the devastating winter of his dissatisfaction.
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