"All advertising is exaggerated. Nobody believes it." This statement, made in a courtroom by a company's attorney in defense of its advertising, led to the formation, in 1912, of the Better Business Bureau.
Those were the days of snake-oil salesmen selling products that could cure anything. If you assumed the attorney was representing one of those companies, you'd be mistaken: His client was Coca-Cola. (It was cleared of the charges.)
The entire business community suffers if consumers don't trust advertising. Businesses that make offers or promises they can't keep, and maybe have no intention of keeping, steal sales that could have been made by reputable companies.
The National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus reviews national advertising for truthfulness and accuracy, including hearing challenges about a company's advertising from its competitors. NAD is the business community's self-regulatory alternative to more costly and burdensome government regulations. The advent of the Internet and other forms of media that didn't exist a century ago makes regulating advertising even more of a challenge today.
In the 100th year of the BBB, we're going to increase our attention to compliance by local companies with the BBB Code of Advertising, an accepted industry standard. Through periodic columns and other communications, we'll educate consumers and businesses about what constitutes honest advertising.
One of the most questionable claims an advertiser can make is "lowest prices guaranteed." The flip side -- for businesses such as those that buy gold or other products -- is "highest prices paid." Despite what may be an advertiser's best efforts to determine competitive prices, it's highly unlikely that he can know at all times what everyone else is charging or paying.
Ads that say a company's policy is to match or better a competitor's prices are less problematic provided that the terms of the offer are specific, in good faith and realistic. They should clearly and fully disclose any material conditions that apply and specify what evidence the consumer needs to present to take advantage of the offer. Such evidence should not place an unreasonable burden on the consumer.
The asterisk is another advertising mechanism that is often abused. It should be used to impart additional information about a word or term in the ad that is not in itself inherently deceptive. An asterisk, or comparable reference symbol, should not be used to contradict or substantially change the meaning of any advertised statement. To put it another way, "the small print should not taketh away what the big print giveth."
Some might say that consumers are savvy enough to see through these kinds of claims. If we concede that point, we're accepting what the attorney said 100 years ago -- that consumers don't believe advertising anyway.
Randy Hutchinson is the President and CEO of the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from The Commercial Appeal.