Truth is the property of being in accord with fact or reality. In everyday language, truth is typically ascribed to things that aim to represent reality or otherwise correspond to it, such as beliefs, propositions, and declarative sentences.
Truth is usually held to be the opposite of falsehood. The concept of truth is discussed and debated in various contexts, including philosophy, art, theology, and science.
While philosophers can debate truthiness, the practical reality is that most statements made during the sales and marketing activities of a business can easily be placed into two distinct buckets: “true” and “false”. While some people may be inclined to argue that sales and marketing claims can sometimes fit into a “gray area”, it is still the case that this gray area is quite narrow, if we allow for “puffery” which are generalized or exaggerated statements which no reasonably intelligent person would regard as a claim of fact.
Puffery can be seen as an attempt at leveraging persuasive techniques at influencing the potential customer into buying a product by either creating a positive emotional response toward making a purchase or a negative emotional response at the prospect of not making the purchase.
Where puffery differs from falsity is in the lack of a specific claim. Puffery is fair and ethical, even if it is exaggeration. Falsehood, on the other hand, seeks to influence a potential customer into buying by convincing a customer into believing something that is untrue.
Consider the following possible advertising claims:
- “Chevrolet: Safer, because we care about you and those you care about.”
- “Chevrolet: Better safety.”
- “Chevrolet: Like a rock.”
- “Chevrolet: The safest motor vehicles on earth”
The first and second statements are not worded as absolutes and most reasonable people would understand these statements as vague feel-good messaging. People with even a basic familiarity with motor vehicle regulations know that all Chevrolet would need to do for these claims (“safer” and “better safety”) to be true is to perform better-than-average in NHTSA safety ratings.
The 3rd statement, “Like a rock” was an actual slogan for Chevy Trucks and used metaphor to give an impression of ruggedness.
The 4th statement, however, provides an absolute claim that, if false, is deceptive and unethical. At bare minimum, most of Chevrolet’s motor vehicles would have to be rated #1 in all NHTSA safety ratings. To eliminate the risk of a false advertising claim, all of Chevrolet’s cars would need to be rated #1.
The damage done by false advertising is too often overlooked by most
According to Truth in Advertising:
Each year, American consumers lose billions of dollars as a result of deceptive marketing and false ads. These run the gamut from blatant lies and fraudulent scams to subtle ploys intended to confuse and mislead. Not only do these tactics impact us as consumers, but a mind-boggling amount of money is misdirected in our economy as a result of deceptive marketing. All too often, companies with quality goods and services lose out to businesses premised on false marketing campaigns.
In short, false advertising harms consumers and is damaging to a fair marketplace. It is also illegal.
The Federal Trade Commission Act is the primary statute of the [Federal Trade] Commission. Under this Act … the Commission is empowered, among other things, to (a) prevent unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce; (b) seek monetary redress and other relief for conduct injurious to consumers; (c) prescribe rules defining with specificity acts or practices that are unfair or deceptive, and establishing requirements designed to prevent such acts or practices; (d) gather and compile information and conduct investigations relating to the organization, business, practices, and management of entities engaged in commerce… ,
Under the Federal Trade Commission Act:
- Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive.
- Advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims; and
- Advertisements cannot be unfair.
In addition to false advertising being a violation of Federal law, all 50 states have legislation aimed at protecting consumers in their state from deceptive practices. 19 states have adopted the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act while the remaining states have their own, similar laws. The consumer protection laws in 49 states explicitly forbid false advertising.
Competitors whose businesses have been harmed by the impact of false advertising can pursue damages against false advertisers
To establish that an advertisement is false, a plaintiff must prove five things: (1) a false statement of fact has been made about the advertiser’s own or another person’s goods, services, or commercial activity; (2) the statement either deceives or has the potential to deceive a substantial portion of its targeted audience; (3) the deception is also likely to affect the purchasing decisions of its audience; (4) the advertising involves goods or services in interstate commerce; and (5) the deception has either resulted in or is likely to result in injury to the plaintiff. The most heavily weighed factor is the advertisement’s potential to injure a customer. The injury is usually attributed to money the consumer lost through a purchase that would not have been made had the advertisement not been misleading. False statements can be defined in two ways: those that are false on their face and those that are implicitly false.