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Getting away with misleading and deceptive advertising


26 June 2013 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Have you purchased anything that did not correspond to what had been advertised or promised? Many of us, at some time or another have been persuaded to purchase something, only to discover that we were misled by false or deceptive statements. Advertising has the potential to persuade people into making ‘informed’ purchases. By the same concept, customers have the right to know what they are buying, and that all necessary information on the label or brochure is truthful.
False, misleading or deceptive advertising, in the most blatant of contexts, is illegal in most countries. However, advertisers of products and services still find methods that appear legal or technically illegal but remain unenforceable.            

The attractive leaflet of a recently opened restaurant in Colombo describes an array of Persian cuisine from soups, a variety of rice preparations, kebabs, stews, vegetable dishes, salads and pastries. Claiming to be the first Persian restaurant in Sri Lanka, specializing in ‘kebabs’, the leaflet goes on to state that they have decided to offer a daily buffet since they recognize that their guests “need to have a free choice of all their mouth watering dishes”.

The contents in the brochure are artfully written to convey that all of what is mentioned therein is on the buffet, and Sri Lankans read the smallest of Buffets to consist of over 20 items at the very least- offering a choice of soups, salads, main dishes and desserts. Alas, at this restaurant the meaning of a buffet takes on a new interpretation!

 What is served up is a bowl of soup (no choice – more like a ‘soup-of-the-day’), followed by a few strips of thinly cut flat bread with two dips, to nibble at. Both the soup and bread/dips are served to the table. One is then invited to help oneself to the buffet which included just six offerings: a bowl of salad (lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and onions), two types of rice preparations, a chicken dish and two vegetable curries. The kebabs are served at the table – three cubed pieces of chicken and three equally tiny pieces of beef with a single sausage shaped/size minced beef kebab, per guest. The ‘coup de grace’ is however reserved towards the end, when you are told ‘for dessert we have a choice between carrot cake and tea with dates’. What the server fails to mention is that dessert is not considered to be a part of the buffet, instead the unsuspecting guest only discovers this when the bill is presented and dessert is charged for additionally. By the way the service charge is 15% unlike the usual 10% and with the only server on duty, working on 2nd gear, whilst single-handedly attending to the needs of around 14 guests at the time I was dining, it was a virtual rip off!

Complimentary = Complementary
In October 2009, an International 5-star brand hotel located besides the Washington Dulles Airport, advertised “Complimentary High-speed Internet access on the hotel lobby level”- which is how they described the service on their website. Geoffrey Pullem who wanted to take advantage of the hotel’s offer, found out that at this hotel, everything is complimentary! That’s because to them “Complimentary” actually means “for a price”. Geoffrey goes on to explain how.  

“I went and asked at the registration desk. And here is what HHHH Hotels thought “complimentary high-speed Internet access” meant: if you are a guest, and you register for Internet access in your room, and agree to have the $9.99 charged thereto, then after that you can also use your laptop in the lobby for no extra charge. So if you pay $9.99 for the relevant 24 hours it’s free. Now I ask you, isn’t this a deceptively creative interpretation of the word complimentary? Let’s say another hotel taking a cue from this idiotic line of thinking, said there were complimentary mangoes on the lobby level, and when you went to get some they explained that they actually meant that if you went up to your room and paid for an order of room-service mangoes to be brought up and signed for, you could then bring one down and eat it in the lobby area. Would you not be mildly surprised? I would fume.

I came across a similar story… where a local car wash in the UK had a huge neon sign that said “Free Vacuum” visible to all who drive by. Well a gentleman went in, walked up to the desk and asked for his free vacuum. The staffer running the car wash explained that the sign meant free access to their car wash vacuums for customers who purchased a wash. Well oddly this gent read the offer differently, took his claim to the claims court and … in the end the car wash decided it was cheaper to buy him off by offering a free vacuum than to change the neon sign…

TripAdvisor’s Thrust on Trust
In 2012, following complaints to the UK advertising watchdog that the TripAdvisor website includes false claims such as “Read real reviews from real travellers”, “TripAdvisor offers trusted advice from real travellers”, “Reviews you can trust” and “More than 50 million honest travel reviews and opinions from travellers around the world”, the Advertising Standards Authority ordered TripAdvisor to remove a number of marketing claims from its UK website.  The ASA ruled that consumers might be fooled by fraudulent posts since reviews on TripAdvisor could be posted “without any form of verification” and its claims of trustworthiness were misleading. The key note of discontent was the use of the word ‘Trust’. “Don’t major on trustworthiness if fake reviews can appear”, said Guy Parker, ASA chief executive. The ASA findings stated: “We noted that reviewers were asked to agree to a declaration that their review was their genuine opinion of the hotel and that they had no personal or business affiliation with the hotel, or been offered an incentive to write a review for it.“(But) We also noted that reviewers were not asked to similarly confirm that they had no competitive interest in the place they were reviewing, or were posting a review on behalf of a competitor or other interested party and we did not consider that agreeing to a declaration in itself would necessarily prevent non-genuine reviews from being posted on the site.

“Notwithstanding that, we understood that reviews could be placed on the site without any form of verification, and that whilst TripAdvisor took steps to monitor and deal with suspicious activity, it was possible that non-genuine content would appear on the site undetected.” It concluded that certain TripAdvisor advertising slogans and claims were misleading because they implied that consumers could be assured that all review content on the TripAdvisor site was genuine, when that was not in fact the case. It told TripAdvisor “not to claim or imply that the entire website were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted”. It warned that the issue of fake reviews was particularly a problem if a business only had a small number of reviews, and that offering owners a right to reply did not address the problem. “This should be regarded as a benchmark ruling which applies to all web sites which make claims about the reliability of their user-created content,” the ASA’s spokesman Matthew Wilson said.

Huffing and Puffing?
To huff is ‘to make noise empty threats, to bluster or to inhale the fumes of a volatile chemical or substance as a means of becoming intoxicated’. So, what then is Puffing? It is an opinion or judgment that is not made as a representation of fact. Puffing is generally an expression or exaggeration made by a salesperson or found in an advertisement that concerns the quality of goods offered for sale. It presents opinions rather than facts and is usually not considered a legally binding promise. Such statements as “this car is in good shape” and “your wife will love this watch” constitute puffing. It is not uncommon for travel advertising to describe the hotel, resort, cruise ship or personal watercraft as the  “ greatest “, “ special “, “ first class “, “ beautiful “, “luxurious “, “ exquisite “, “ the best in the world “ or “ safe“.  Whether these superlatives are mere puffing and not actionable or actionable misrepresentations will depend on just how deplorable the promised travel services are. This advertisement is a beauty- ‘Paying tribute to Royalty’ as its headliner; it describes itself (hotel name) for weddings as a ‘paean to grandeur and royalty and should you wish to immortalize your nuptials, or merely celebrate your union there couldn’t be a more awe-inspiring venue”. Simplified, what it means is that “it is a song of praise to splendor and impressiveness, suitable for a king or queen. Should you wish to have your wedding remembered forever there couldn’t be a more impressive wonderful venue. In New York, such superlatives may be deemed sufficiently misleading and deceptive to be actionable under State consumer protection statutes such as New York’s General Business Law §§ 349 and 350.

Seduced by menu descriptions?
Mouth-watering descriptions like “tender, juicy chicken breast” or “ripe heirloom tomatoes” are increasingly common on restaurant menus. Be extra aware of sensory terms like “velvety” mousse and nostalgic ones like “legendary” spaghetti and meatballs. Research shows that words that promote taste and texture or appeal to diners’ emotions can increase sales by 23 percent, and can even influence the way you think the food tastes. Words like these prep your taste buds to expect your chicken to taste juicy. Your culinary sense of expectations is heightened and when the food served is nowhere close to the menu copywriter’s work of art- your expectation plunge. Don’t get me wrong … I’m the first one to be carried away by mouth-watering descriptions of food.

I know there is important information to be conveyed. Restaurant customers need to be aware of all the ingredients in a dish, especially in these days of food allergies (nuts, seafood,), violent dislikes (offal, coriander, garlic) and the like. However, part of my problem with menu descriptions involves dodgy adjectives. I’ve seen ‘’fresh’’ as a descriptor for ‘’crab meat’’. I’m glad the menu-writer mentioned it was fresh. Otherwise I would have thought it was left over from the end of last August.

Similarly, I’m bamboozled by ‘’pan-fried’’ and ‘’oven-roasted’’. I can’t think of any other way to fry something, other than in a pan. I’m glad the menu explained that they roasted things in an oven. Otherwise I might have thought they roasted things in a bath. ‘Home made’ is another descriptor on the restaurant menu that disorients me. Was it actually made in someone’s home or did the chef make it at home or is it a ploy by the restaurant due to food safety laws?

Visuals as propaganda forms
Every day, as members of society, we are subjected, unknowingly, to propaganda messages through television shows, movies, advertising, photos, news, music and literature. The development of mass communication has allowed propaganda to become a large part of today’s culture. The word propaganda comes from the Latin term, meaning: “to propagate” or “to sew”. Propaganda is a form of communication that attempts to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist. In other words, propaganda means to promote or disseminate particular ideas (Aaron). Assertion is a technique commonly used in modern propaganda. An assertion is an energized or emphasized statement presented as a fact (although it may not necessarily true).

 Assertions, although usually simple to spot, are often dangerous forms of propaganda because they often include falsehoods or lies. There are different forms and methods of propaganda, however, the most powerful and universal method of spreading ideas is said to be visual propaganda. The contemporary artist Sheppard Fairey said that “You have to accept that visuals are a form of propaganda”. A pretty girl extolling the virtues of a brand of face cream, claiming that it ‘erases four years of wrinkles in four weeks’ or the female makeup artist saying ‘Axxxxxxxx Rxx told me to use that brand of shampoo’ are examples of statements that are given where it is expected that the statement given will merely be accepted as fact, without question.

(Shafeek Wahab has an extensive background in Hospitality Management spanning over 30 years. He has held key managerial responsibilities in internationally renowned hotel chains, both locally and abroad, including his last held position as Head of Branding for a leading Hotel Group in Sri Lanka. He can be contacted on

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