The Intent to Deceive

 

   

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 fool me?"

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 their pockets.

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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.

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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.

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Quack Medicines.  I can't listen to the 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.

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Isn't it deceptive to price a $10 thing at $9.99?  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.)

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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.

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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.

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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 happened again. 

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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%?

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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 just to sell magazine subscriptions? I wouldn't trust the people that run this company farther than I could throw a piano.

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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. 

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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.

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The "donate your car to us" companies, barring an honest few.  No for-profit company should be allowed to run these ads. 

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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.

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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 their site.

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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.

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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.

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Does your auction web site capture the look and feel of eBay?  But it's not eBay?  Guilty.

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Some products are Intent to Deceive and little else.  The magazine Consumers Digest is a misdirection play on the respected journal Consumer Reports.  When an advertiser quotes glowing praise from Consumers Digest, they are attempting to deceive--trading on the good name and integrity of Consumer Reports.

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How about the slimy direct mailers who copy 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.

 

 

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All Content 1998-2002 Charles R. Anderson    This page was last modified on 11/13/2003