We live in a hypersaturated consumer products market where businesses have to fight to get our attention. It's no wonder that to do so, companies have resorted to making marketing claims that border on the ridiculous. We've all come across the variety of weight-loss pills that claim to help you lose X pounds in Y days, or supplements that claim to enhance certain male parts by Z inches, and wondered: Why are companies allowed to get away with such outrageous claims? Shouldn't they be submitted to truth tests?
In fact, the Federal Trade Commission (or FTC) is the agency responsible for administering a truth test of sorts for consumer products. Under its Bureau of Consumer Protection wing, the agency "protects consumers from unfair or deceptive advertising and marketing practices that raise health and safety concerns, as well as those that cause economic injury [and] brings law enforcement actions in federal district court to stop fraudulent advertising practices."
It's a fine line that the FTC has to walk in determining whether or not a marketing claim has crossed the line into fraud. Go too far, and we have a situation like that in the European Union, where companies making bottled water were banned from making the claim that water can prevent dehydration. Be too lax, and we become like China, where you can never be sure of the authenticity of a food product.
Even with the FTC regulating marketing claims, companies still routinely release products on the market with the most outrageuous of claims, hoping that we'll fall for it. "These campaigns identify buzz words that encourage us to try the product. Words that imply improvement in performance, endurance, or overall health do influence consumers' purchasing habits," George Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told U.S. News.
The list of products with literally incredible marketing claims is interminable. Here Minyanville presents 10 of the most outrageous claims.
1. Hand Sanitizers Can Prevent MRSA
Together with surgical masks, the popularity of hand sanitizers received a tremendous boost during the global swine flu outbreak. Since then, these antiseptic gels and foams have become a ubiquitous go-to source to disinfect hands. But it turns out that many of these hand sanitizers are not quite as effective in germ-killing as they claim to be. It’s not exactly news – In 2006, the New York Times reported that these products contain much less than the 60% minimum alcohol concentration needed to eliminate germs and viruses. That does not stop hand sanitizer makers from claiming that their products can prevent infection from Salmonella, E. coli, and the H1N1 virus.
However, claims that hand sanitizers can also prevent infection from methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus are another matter. The FDA decided that four companies’ claims about their products, including Tec Laboratories’ Staphaseptic First Aid Antiseptic/Pain Relieving Gel and CleanWell Company’s All-Natural Foaming Hand Sanitizer, had gone too far. The regulatory agency sent the companies a warning letter telling them to withdraw their claims. “These products give consumers a false sense of protection,” said an FDA spokesperson, according to Time. What should consumers do instead? Turns out there’s no prevention method better than good old soap and water.
2. Taco Bell's Seasoned Beef Is Exactly Like Real Beef
We all know what we are going to get when we step into a fast-food restaurant. Call it managing expectations – cheap, fast, and not particularly healthy are the signposts of fast food. Yum Brands’ (YUM) Taco Bell has lowered the bar, though, because now we’re not even supposed to presume that what we see is what we get. The fast-food chain asserts that its Mexican-inspired menu is made with “ground beef” or “seasoned ground beef,” but a law firm in Alabama filed a class action suit against the chain saying that “the "taco meat filling" used by Taco Bell contains only about 35% beef, with binders, extenders, preservatives, additives, and other agents making up the other 65%,” the New York Daily News reports. Based on the Department of Agriculture’s guidelines, ground beef should not have water, phosphates, binders, or extenders. As the Daily News notes, “ 'seasoned beef' in a Beefy Crunch Burrito contains water, sodium phosphates, soy lecithin, modified cornstarch, and anti-caking and anti-dusting agents, among others ingredients.”
The chain understandably balked at the accusations, and even bought out ironic full-page newspaper ads that read, “Thank You For Suing Us." "We think our reputation has been sullied, and we wanted to put out a headline that certainly drew attention and enables us to tell the story about our beef which is…88% USDA inspected, and not the 35% that’s being claimed,” Taco Bell President Greg Creed told ABC News. The lawsuit has since been dropped, so fans of the chain can breathe a sigh of relief. Here’s some advice from Minyanville’s Drea Knufken, though: Skip the breakfast menu nonetheless.
3. Apple’s iPhone 4 ‘Retina’ Display Has More Pixels Than the Human Eye Can Perceive
As it has been with every generation of Apple’s (AAPL) revolutionary iPhone, the iPhone 4 was a great leap forward from previous generations of the best-selling handset, with upgrades like a more detailed and sophisticated design, the improved camera, and Facetime. However, Steve Jobs might have gone a step too far when he said that the iPhone 4’s improved display, with a pixel density of 326 pixels per inch, exceeded the limit of the human retina, which he noted was 300 pixels per inch looking from a foot away.
Raymond Soneira, president of monitor diagnostics firm DisplayMate, swiftly sent out a statement to major media outlets that Apple’s “retina” display claim was pure marketing puffery because for displays to be truly indistinguishable to the human eye, they would have a density of around 477 pixels per inch. “It is reasonably close to being a perfect display, but Steve pushed it a little too far,” Soneira said, according to Wired.
Many experts were quick to leap to Jobs’ defense. Phil Plait from Discover said that only people with perfect eyesight will find the iPhone 4’s display to be pixilated from a foot away. For everyone else, “the picture will look just fine.” So was Jobs correct or not? Judging by the seemingly unstoppable juggernaut sales of the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S, it seems nobody really cares.
4. Wrigley's Eclipse Chewing Gum Kills Bad-Breath Germs
Perhaps it’s in response to our collective germophobia, but it seems like every product out there is boasting of its germ-elimination capabilities. And while some hand sanitizers claim to prevent MRSA infection, Wrigley’s boasted that its brand of Eclipse gum had the abililty to kill bad breath-causing bacteria. Wrigley’s, a subsidiary of Mars, had put out ads claiming that a new ingredient in its Eclipse gum, magnolia bark extract, could kill the germs that cause bad breath while other gums in the market could only mask the smell of bad breath.
Wrigley’s was slapped with a lawsuit in 2010 that argued that its ads were misleading, and the company quickly settled the suit, acquiescing to a $6 million to $7 million payout to a fund that reimburses people who bought its chewing gum. In fact, anyone who ever bought the company’s gum – of any brand, not just Eclipse – after June 1, 2008, was eligible to claim a $10 refund. Sign of guilt? Not quite, according to Wrigley’s, which released a statement saying that it settled the lawsuit only to “prevent continuing distraction from its business” and “denied any wrongdoing,” Businessweek reports.
5. Airborne Supplement Fights Off Colds
While the money Wrigley’s paid out to settle its fraudulent advertising lawsuit was impressive, it’s nothing compared to the eye-popping $23 million that supplement company Airborne Health had to pay to settle its own misleading health claim suit. The product under scrutiny was, of course, Airborne, the pill supplement that its makers said was an “herbal health formula that boosts your immune system to help your body combat germs,” including the common cold. The product was launched in 1999 and quickly took off thanks to a shrewd marketing campaign and an endorsement by TV queen Oprah Winfrey.
It was the Center for Science in the Public Interest that led the class action suit against Airborne in 2008. "There's no credible evidence that what's in Airborne can prevent colds or protect you from a germy environment. Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that's been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed," David Schardt, the group's senior nutritionist, said in a statement, according to CNN.
An ABC News investigation from 2006 got the ball rolling on the lawsuit when it reported that the clinical study Airborne cited as proof of its cold-fighting abilities was actually conducted not by scientists or doctors, but by two laymen. It was after the report that Airborne changed the language on the product’s packaging, removing all mentions of “cold” and saying instead that it boosts the immune system.
6. Reebok's EasyTone Shoes Give You Better Buns Than Other Sneakers
In 2009, Reebok, a subsidiary of Adidas (ADDYY.PK), launched its EasyTone line of shoes -- made for buyers who wanted to step things up in regard to sculpting calves and buns of steel, but didn't feel like darkening the door of their local gym. According to a New York Times article, Reebok claimed that people wearing EasyTone shoes would sculpt their legs 11% more effectively than those caught flat-footed in boring, regular sneakers.Posterior shaping would improve by 28%.
According to Reebok and other toning footwear makers like Skechers (SKX), toning shoes work by being slightly unbalanced, forcing the wearer's muscles to work harder in order to avoid falling during the walk from the couch to the fridge. Over 5 million people eagerly shelled out over $100 a pair in the hope that walking slightly uncomfortably all-day would transform them into Eva Mendes, discounting that the role of EasyTone shoes in shaping Ms. Mendes' features might not be as important as her personal trainer and dietitian.
The FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection was a little more skeptical, and its investigation of the University of Delaware study from which Reebok derived its claim revealed that the study involved a grand total of five subjects, a number hardly indicative of a rigorous commitment to the scientific method. Reebok's advertising ceased claiming that the EasyTone line will provide a workout since the FTC put its foot down and announced Reebok was liable for up to $25 million in customer refunds for making false claims.
Reebok, cribbing a tactic used by many a spouse, agreed with the FTC's ruling while insisting it had done nothing wrong. "While we didn't agree, we discontinued our objective claims in 2010 that were based on that testing," Daniel Sarro of Reebok wrote in an email. But the company continues to sell the EasyTone line (sans claims of toning), proving some multimillion-dollar corporations will always land on their feet.
7. Zabar's Lobster Salad Is Made From Lobster
A quick scan of the ingredients label revealed that the "lobster" was in fact freshwater crawfish, and soon Zabar's president and co-owner, Saul Zabar, found himself thrown alive into a boiling pot of controversy. Once the Maine Lobster Council, our nation's most official-sounding authority on all things lobster, was alerted to the situation in New York, it demanded an explanation from Mr. Zabar as to why he was besmirching the good lobster name with crawfish meat. Mr. Zabar cited a Wikipedia article (a well-worn path trodden by many college freshmen), that placed crawfish in the "lobster family," but his arguments fell on deaf ears, according to a New York Times article. Zabar's bowed to pressure from the lobster lobby and renamed its lobster salad "seafood salad" -- itself a misnomer since "freshwater crawfish" wouldn't come from the sea. The National Fisheries Institute has yet to weigh in.
8. Acai Berry Helps You Lose Weight, Big Media Says
While the media played an important role in exposing Zabar's lack of lobster in the lobster salad, readers should think twice the next time they see a major, respectable news outlet shilling a questionable product. Earlier this year, the FTC filed suit against 10 companies that created and operated fake news sites, complete with logos of major media outlets like ABC (DIS), CNN (TWX), Fox News (NWS), and USA Today (GCI), that touted the effectiveness of acai berries for weight loss. These sites, such as channel8health.com, dailyhealth6.com, and online6health.com, created story headlines like “News 6 News Alerts,” “Health News Health Alerts,” or “Health 5 Beat Health News.” According to an FTC press release, they are "meant to appear as if they belong to legitimate news-gathering organizations, but in reality the sites are simply advertisements aimed at deceptively enticing consumers to buy the featured acai berry weight-loss products from other merchants."
Asked about the veracity of health claims about acai berries by the Chicago Tribune, a nutrition professor from Tufts University confirmed that the offending companies' claims that acai berries boost weight-loss, cleanse the colon and prevent cancer have yet to be verified. The only thing we know for sure about acai berries, he said, is that "they are a natural berry fruit … rich in many antioxidants."
9. Audiomasons Speakers Are 20,000% More Eco-Friendly Than Yours
The next time you're listening to Phish and fretting about the mismatch between the band's pro-environmental stance and the energy-wasting device being used to play their music, you might want to check out Audiomasons' line of speakers. The company boasts that its hand-carved, stone speakers are up to 20,000% more sustainable than some systems on the market. And while "20,000%" ranks up there in credibility with "bajillion" or "like...really sustainable," it turns out the folks at Audiomasons have already put a chart up explaining their claim in anticipation of naysayers who would wave away such numbers as PR drivel.
Closer examination reveals the statistic is technically correct, if you're comparing Audiomasons speakers to ones made out of virgin cast aluminum 3003, a material that eco-friendly media outlet TreeHugger.com says is rarely used in speakers. Also, there's no way to verify whether Audiomasons takes into account the energy-intensive process of extracting and cutting the stone, or if it has employees scavenging around active volcanoes or using a zero-emission method of creating the speakers from stone.
Audiomasons' website proudly points out that the energy saved from the manufacturing of a stone speaker versus the competition is "the same amount of kinetic energy contained in more than 1,500 two-ton trucks going 100 mph down a straight road, the combined force of which could likely flatten a small town," which is surely both the most convoluted and coolest way of saying "our speakers are really good for the environment."
Since the definitition of sustainablity is very much subjective, Audiomasons' marketing claim that its speakers are 20,000% more sustainable probably falls under the umbrella of puffery rather than falsehood.
10. The White Tea in Nivea's My Silhouette Cream Makes You Thin
Nivea's My Silhouette slimming cream enjoyed a popular run in the United States and even managed to satisfy the discerning tastes of former model and current daytime talk-show host Tyra Banks back in 2009. Alas, both the FTC and the Canadian Competition Bureau had to play party-pooper two years later by suggesting that an ointment made primarily from white tea and anise couldn't shatter the laws of thermodynamics and reduce fat in targeted areas.
The FTC settlement, reached in June 2011, fined Nivea's parent company Bieresdorf Inc. (BDRFF.PK) $900,000 and forced it to cease any advertising claiming the cream's "Bio-Slim Complex" leads to any weight loss or reduction in body size. In a press statement showing that federal officials love a good pun as anyone, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said, "The real skinny on weight loss is that no cream is going to help you fit into your jeans." The Canadian Competition Bureau offered no such humorous remarks when it imposed a similar fine on Nivea's Canadian distributor two months later, highlighting the difference in our two nations' political cultures.
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