Beware manipulative holiday advertising


Once upon a time, holiday TV ads were filled with items like the Pocket Fisherman, Mister Microphone, and the Vegamatic – “It slices, it dices, it makes great julienne fries! But wait, there’s more! Act now and you also get a second one absolutely free (just pay shipping and handling).”

Remember all of those? Sometimes you got what you paid for, other times, not so much. It wasn’t that the ads were false, but the products just weren’t what they were made out to be. From Ronco to K-Tell, and all the others, mail order marketers were trying to get us to buy gimmick gadgets, special vinyl record sets and much more, all by making it seem in ads as if we just couldn’t live without them.

I’ve worked in the media, in some manner or another, for the majority of my adult life and the one thing I could never comprehend was deceptive advertising. It always seemed like a company’s quickest route to bankruptcy.

“Truth in Advertising” laws enforced by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can prevent most false or misleading ads from reaching the customer’s ear, but it’s not always so black and white. Advertisers can sometimes skirt around actually being “false,” and bypass the rule of law while still not living up to all of their promises.

It’s true we can’t know for certain whether a retailer or manufacturer is being completely honest and that’s why it’s not enough to depend on the FTC to sort it out for us in advance. We, as consumers, need to be more careful in our buying habits and take some of the responsibility upon ourselves to make the most informed purchase possible.

Whenever anyone challenges me on the concept of consumer responsibility, I am reminded of the McDonald’s coffee issue a couple of decades back. The situation was not directly related to advertising, but this was a complicated and media-driven issue that got out of hand.

My comparison falls in that, regardless of the facts, the media continually misdirected any responsibility from the consumer and laid it all at the feet of the retailer. While it is true that the coffee in the original incident was at a temperature in excess of company regulations, the customer could have been more careful at the same time.

The same analogy goes for advertising. No matter the industry or product, we should all practice the concept of “caveat emptor,” Latin for “let the buyer beware.”

Over the last decade or so, Americans have become a nation of blamers, adopting a cultural practice of laying the responsibility on others rather than acknowledging our own bad choices. Buying a bad product based solely on an ad without doing any of your own research is just foolhardy.

Advertisers are very good at building trust – not credibility – in an ad. It’s important that you know the difference. There’s nothing deceptive about showing the image of a happy couple driving along in a new car or a child playing pleasantly with a new toy.

Manipulative ads are directed at your emotions, not your reason or logic. Tugging at heartstrings is especially effective at the holidays. So what can you do to be sure you get what you pay for? Mostly, just do a little homework, particularly if you buy online.

Whenever possible, if you’re tempted by a TV or Internet ad, do some research on the product and the company. Find out what others are saying about it and look at its cost, time on the market and other factors to determine whether it seems a sound purchase; the more expensive the item, the greater the need and time for research.

Virtually every product on the market has a competitor or some similar alternative. Be prepared to look for all of the alternatives and check into the specifications, function, accessories or whatever else might add value to the item before you buy.

With electronics, appliances or other more long-lasting gifts check out warranties and transfer requirements on any kind of service contract. If you buy it in your own name, the warranty and service may not be transferrable. Happy shopping and be smart out there!
Deer in Headlines

By Gery L. Deer

Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. Deer In Headlines is distributed by GLD Enterprises Communications, Ltd. More at

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