The Semantics of False Advertising

I came across an interesting article recently, dedicated entirely to the weird falsities we Americans take for granted in the advertising we consume all the time. It really struck a chord with me, because it’s something I think about all the time. In a world where cutthroat advertisers will claim almost anything to push their product or brand one hand further than the next guy in line, the language of falsity has become an extreme sport.’s article, titled 5 Popular Types of Misleading Advertising underscores just a few of these obvious sales gimmicks. I sometimes wonder if most of us are so jaded that we don’t even notice the tricks when we hear them. Certainly, that is the writers’ hope.

Can you imagine, just for a moment, what complete honesty in advertising would sound like? Really? I don’t know if I can. “XYZ soap kills under 1% of germs after scrubbing for 15 minutes” sounds so much less appealing than “ABC soap destroys germs on contact!” I daresay there would be almost no point to advertising if this was the standard.

Maybe this is why I’m a little more enamored with advertisements that promote brand identity without all the subtext. Seeing a pleasant logo, some cool visuals, and maybe a funny “joke” commercial is less conflicting than hearing yet another lie delivered by a suave or beautiful spokesperson.

The question is, though, does that make me buy? I guess I’m a hard sell, but I admit that vaguely remembering claims that ‘Clean brand’ detergent does the best job does more for me when I’m standing in a supermarket isle than a repetitive jingle or something. I don’t remember the claim exactly, or the slippery wording it was couched in, but I do recall seeing it on TV… and that’s better than the next box down that I don’t know anything about.

On the other hand, I don’t think anyone as jaded about being lied as I am is ever going to remember half-baked or even “virtually” baked tall tales about a given product or service. What I am going to remember is maybe the name, a jingle, and circumstances of consuming the advertisement in question. I may even do some mental juggling to try and compare it to the ads I’ve heard or seen from a competitor. Chances are, with all the jockeying around in my head, the top brands of any given industry are all going to wind up even. They all lie, after all, so what do I know? Does anyone really know if the bunny battery is going to last longer than the really shiny metallic looking one?

So if none of the claims really matter in the end, and it all comes down to exposure and posturing, why lie at all? If one shampoo “fights” dandruff, and another “eliminates almost all” flakes, which is better? Why not have a really beautiful woman suds around for a bit with some nice music in all the ads? It would probably do just as much for me, if not more.

The worst are the weight loss and nutrition ads. It seems like every cereal in the world lowers cholesterol (if you also start to diet and exercise), every supplement “supports” healthy lifestyles (as long as you live healthily) and causes you to lose weight (if you also diet and exercise). The fine print gets really ridiculous. If you do the stuff you have to do to meet the disclaimer criteria, you wouldn’t need the product in the first place!

Americans are savvy and suspicious. We find falsities in advertising readily apparent. As a marketeer, you want to write with bold, truthful statements and have a strong command of what your product does do, and what sets it apart, rather than what you think people want to hear that it does. In the end, the claims that ring true will be those that break through the jaded exterior and reach the guy standing in the supermarket isle or reading your postcard at his kitchen table.

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