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What is Deceptive Advertising?

By G. Wiesen
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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Deceptive advertising, sometimes referred to as false advertising, is the practice of making claims or statements in commercial advertising that is untrue, greatly exaggerated, or unsupportable by the advertised product or service. While false advertising can indicate that something was done accidentally, deceptive advertising is typically reserved for advertising that is purposely false or incorrect. This can include print advertising, television and radio commercials, offers made through the Internet, and just about every other type of advertising available.

Though not always illegal, deceptive advertising can often push the boundaries of moral or ethical behavior. Advertising is the practice, equal parts art form and sales pitch, of putting word out on a new or existing product in an attempt to make that product attractive and desirable to consumers. The ethical responsibility of advertising is often considered by customers and consumers to be honesty, and when people feel that an advertisement has mislead them or outright lied, the response can be strongly negative.

During the massive popularization of print and television advertising in the 20th century, there was little regulation and legislation regarding what could be claimed in an advertisement. Deceptive advertising could be used to make claims about a product that were untrue or unfounded. These kinds of advertisements could be seen in products such as tobacco, with cigarette companies making claims that smoking could help people with asthma. Today, advertisers and manufacturers are required to remain honest in advertising, and though the truth may still sometimes be stretched, it is at least more accurate.

One particularly popular, and aggravating, form of fairly deceptive advertising is the procedure known as bait-and-switch. This practice typically takes the form of running an advertisement for a product at a greatly reduced price, but only stocking a very small supply, perhaps only one, of that product. When customers come in looking for the advertised product, the bait, they are told that it already sold out and are then offered a different and more expensive similar product, the switch. This behavior has been especially common as a practice during major holiday and weekend sales when consumers would search for the best deals ahead of time and go to a store specifically for a single advertised item.

In an effort to combat the practice, and re-establish good faith with customers, many stores now include a note on advertisements for certain products at a certain price that indicates the minimum number the store will have. While this number may still be low, at the very least it ensures that customers will have a fair chance and be aware of shortages and availability. With the advent of the Internet, and greater freedom of information among consumers, manufacturers and advertisers have had to limit deceptive advertising to avoid angry responses from online communities.

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