In my daily life, family, friends, and coworkers
seldom lie to me, nor I to them. I'm no saint--it's just that it's too much work
to do a lot of lying--maintaining a tangled web and
all that. Deception, when I encounter it, is almost always from the world of business.
When does aggressive marketing cross the line and become fraud? When
are selling words a clever turn of phrase, and when are they a lie?
Legally, I can't say. Apparently, almost anything goes because I see
lots of lying going on and very little being done about it.
I may not know the legal definition of fraud, but like most people, I know it when I see it. I
have a test that can be applied to a wide range of situations. I
simply ask myself, "Is someone trying to deceive me here in an effort
to get my money? To trick me, to
Happily, most advertising in this country passes my test. Is BMW the
Ultimate Driving Machine? Maybe, and maybe not, but they're certainly not
trying to deceive me with this slogan. Is Coke The Real Thing, or
Budweiser The King of Beers? Sure, whatever. Similarly, I can watch
a Buick commercial without concluding that Tiger Woods actually drives one.
But not everyone is so clean. Some companies try to fool me to line
Both car washes I patronize hand
me a menu of their services as I drive in. There are four or five boldly
listed options, ranging in price from $20 to $80 occupying 90% of the laminated
page. Down at the bottom, in diminutive type the size of the admonition to
retract your antenna, is the $11 car wash that I and almost everyone else wants. Intent to Deceive.
It's no secret that the tall, colorful, perfection-in-a-bun images of
sandwiches in Burger King ads bear no resemblance to the flat, gray units
that they serve up at the drive-through window. This goes for most fast
food places: Don't lie about the food you're selling.
Quack Medicines. I can't listen to
radio for ten minutes without hearing an ad for an "all-natural" product
"unconditionally guaranteed" to cure impotence, grow hair, enlarge
boobs, make you lose weight in your sleep, or improve
concentration. Sure they're guaranteed--I bet not one dissatisfied
customer in 10 goes to the trouble of returning $20 worth of worthless
pills. Otherwise respectable radio stations should be ashamed of themselves for
running this trash.
Isn't it deceptive to price a $10 thing at
Sure it is. We've just gotten used to it. I don't think I've ever
purchased gas that wasn't something-point-nine cents a gallon.
(And usually something-nine-point-nine.)
Jeweler The Shane Company is always
running ads on local talk radio. Mr. Shane reads his own commercials in a
limp-wristed monotone, and often works in a phrase such as, "We have the largest
collection of rubies in the state." To me, that implies the State
of California--where I live, and where these ads are being aired. That's
what I assumed for the first few years of hearing his commercials. But eventually
I learned that The Shane Company does business in several states, and is not
headquartered in California. I believe that this language is calculated to
mislead me into believing that the company is local. Presumably people
have warm, fuzzy feelings for local companies.
A bag of potato chips claims on the nutrition
label to have 140 calories and 18 grams of fat. Hmm, not as
bad as I thought, I think as I toss the bag onto my tray at the cafeteria. But read
on: Contents: 2 servings. I won't name the company, because many
junk food makers play this game, and besides, I love their New York Cheddar and
Herbs flavor in the bright yellow bag. No reasonable person would call this a two serving bag--for one thing, it's the smallest size
the company sells. The chip fryer is trying to deceive me into
thinking the chips have half as much fat and salt as they really
do. It helps him sell more potato chips. It makes me fatter and less
healthy. Intent to Deceive.
Or consider Sony Pictures' phantom movie
reviewer, "David Manning" of the Ridgefield (Conn.) Press. Talk about Intent to Deceive. The PR flacks at the company really
had to scramble when this story broke. I don't know about you, but I was very reassured when Sony said
that they would get to the bottom of this outrageous conspiracy and make sure that it never
Consumer products from tissues to tuna routinely shrink
their offerings just a bit, and leave the price where it is. If you shrink
a can of coffee by an imperceptible 5% and don't change the price, that's deceptive. How often does a
product grow 5%?
The Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes and the
weasel-speak they print on their envelopes may be the best example I know of
Intent to Deceive. Every year I am told by this outfit in no uncertain
terms that I AM THE WINNER of the $10,000,000 PRIZE. All this deception
sell magazine subscriptions? I wouldn't trust the people that run this company
farther than I could throw a piano.
I get a call once or twice a year from a smooth
talker with the Sheriff's/Police/Fire Department who
after first seeing how I'm doing tonight tells me about an upcoming benefit/party/picnic for handicapped/sick/underprivileged kids.
He knows that "I want
to help out." Attempt to Deceive: He's not from the
Fire Department. And the lion's share of the money is not going to
any kids, except maybe his own.
How about Sam Adams, the clever brewer who in ad after ad
throughout the 90s
implied that they hand-crafted beer a barrel at a
time in a picturesque New England barn--when in reality they were contracting out
giant third-party brewers to make the stuff
by the boatload. Sam Adams would
fax in a recipe, and an otherwise idle Pabst factory would take it from there. The ad and its implications were fundamentally dishonest: Intent to
Deceive. I'm glad The King of Beers exposed this fraud.
The "donate your car to us" companies, barring
honest few. No for-profit company should be allowed to run these ads.
Did you know that search engines routinely sell
keywords? Search for "digital camera" on your favorite search
site and see what happens. I don't have a big problem with this practice
as long as they clearly separate marketing hits from legitimate matches.
Surprise--there's plenty of deception on the World
Wide Web. Like www.FreeCreditReport.com, a site that is happy to send you a
free credit report, as long as you don't mind paying 30 bucks for it. If
free doesn't mean "without cost," I say that's Intent to Deceive.
Or consider the order page for MusicMatch's $15 MP3 jukebox that assumes I'll
want a $40 lifetime upgrade, thereby turning a $15 order into an
inadvertent $55 charge. And boy, don't bother looking for phone numbers on
Buying a New Car: In my experience, Intent to Deceive is
Job One at most car dealers. The entire negotiation proceeds from this basis. And once the deal is
signed, be prepared to fight off additional marginal offers for undercoating, overcoating, extended service policies and so on.
I once bought a $100 pair of sunglasses at a mall
kiosk and the kid behind the counter told me that if I cleaned my new shades with
anything other than his $5 silicone-impregnated wonder up sell cloth, I could scratch the
lenses. If I'd been thinking, I would have returned the glasses on the spot and told him I
didn't want any sunglasses so fragile that they could be scratched by a simple
cleaning. Intent to Deceive.
Does your auction web site capture the look and
feel of eBay? But it's not eBay? Guilty.
Some products are Intent to Deceive and little
else. The magazine Consumers Digest is a misdirection play on the respected journal
Reports. When an advertiser quotes glowing praise from Consumers Digest,
they are attempting to deceive--trading on the good name and integrity of
How about the slimy direct mailers who
the look of official government correspondence for their junk mail?
They've cornered the market on Government Brown envelopes. Many
direct mail pieces have Intent to Deceive at their very heart.