MAD DOG: The Truth About Truth in Advertising

The truth in advertising laws in this country aren't as advertised. These laws which were passed by Congress to stop companies from bragging, exaggerating, and making claims which just aren't true. This is necessary since advertisers, if left to their own devices, pretty much act like high school boys bragging on Monday morning. The difference is, with advertising someone actually gets screwed. Unfortunately it's us.United Airlines recently ran a full page newspaper ad with the headline "In an airplane, five extra inches of legroom feels like a lot." There's an arrow drawn diagonally from one corner of the page to the other clearly marked: 5". Maybe it's my ruler, but every time I measure the line it's 23 inches. No wonder that five extra inches of legroom feels like a lot, it's grown by a full 423 percent! You could fit all the books on the bestseller list, half the luggage you brought for that weekend trip, or Mickey Rooney stretched out taking a nap in that much extra legroom.Okay, maybe this was an honest mistake which happened when the original artwork was enlarged for the ad. As a postcard it would have been completely truthful. Or maybe someone just forgot to put the little warning labels on the page. You know, like "CAUTION: Arrows may appear larger than they actually are", "Results may vary", or "The dog ate our ruler." United shouldn't be embarrassed to put warning labels in their ads. Everyone does it. That good looking meal in the corned beef hash ad is clearly marked "serving suggestion" so we don't think it should be in the dog food bowl like it looks. Ads for toys always caution that batteries aren't included and some assembly is required, the latter being one of the understatements of the advertising world (and that last phrase being the "Oxymoron of the New Millennium"!).Some products are required by law to put warnings in their ads. Cigarette manufacturers have had to do it for years. They've gotten so used to putting little boxes with warnings in their ads that now they're voluntarily adding their own. Well, that and the fact that they're a little jumpy about lawsuits.A recent ad for Winston promotes them by saying: "No additives. True taste." In one corner of the ad is the mandated warning that tells us "Cigarette smoke contains Carbon Monoxide." That's nice to know, though it makes me wonder why cars don't have the same warning label about their exhaust. But more telling is the matching box on the other side of the ad that says "No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette." (The bold face capital letters are theirs. Would I add something like that?)Now I, for one, didn't think for a second that no additives meant a safer cigarette. What a silly thought! All along I figured it meant that if I smoked Winstons while dialing the phone I'd never get a busy signal. So how come they don't have a caveat about that?There are actually a few advertisers that are adhering to the truth in advertising policy. Take the new Brendan Fraser movie, "Dudley Do-right." They could easily have called it a comedy, but they're not. They could have claimed it was a movie that was crying to be made, but they don't. Instead, they say it's about "a new kind of hero." And considering some of the heroes out there today, it's hard to argue with that.It probably helps to remember that the truth in advertising laws were passed by politicians, which is a case of closing the barn door after the whore got out. Politicians are, after all, the last ones on the face of the earth who believe in truth in advertising. If they did, we'd be seeing campaign ads like, "Elect Bush, he might not have done as much cocaine as you did", "Gore, it rhymes with bore", or "Elizabeth Dole -- put a real bush in the White House".To help guide you through the maze of advertising puffery, I've put together a little glossary. Clip it out and keep it handy whenever you're looking at an ad, TV commercial, billboard, or product package. New and Improved! = We just realized it stunk.Results may vary = We swear it happened once to a woman in Nebraska.Now with 40 percent more (blank) = Sales were down 40 percent so we had to do something.Not all colors available in all sizes = You want it to fit, too?Contents may settle during shipping = You don't mind broken cookies, do you?Car is being driven by a professional = Don't ask us to pay your reckless driving ticket.Supplies may be limited = Sure hope you're the first person here.Free! = We couldn't get anyone to buy this crap.See store for details = Salesmen are ready to pounce.Of course this glossary is being furnished "as is" with no accuracy either expressed or implied. Void where prohibited by law. No purchase necessary. Reader is responsible for all applicable taxes, landing fees, and import duties. Equal opportunity employer. Member FDIC. Not affiliated with any school of journalism anywhere.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close