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Misleading Ads: When Is It OK for the Media to Mislead Us?

Grand outdoor billboard

Is it ethical for companies to airbrush models into perfection? Or to make misleading, even blatantly false, health claims? Whether it’s ethical or not, it seems that more and more companies are coming out with misleading ads.

Increasingly, companies are being outed for employing illusions and trickery to sell their products. Yet their defense is compelling: people are responsible for being discerning consumers. According to the FTC, it’s only false advertising if a “reasonable” person would believe the claim.

So, was it “reasonable” for millions of consumers to be misled about Vitaminwater? Could we realistically believe that a high-calorie, high-sugar, colored water beverage made by Coca-Cola was a health drink? Um… probably not. As their defense lawyer retorted, we drank the Kool-aid.

Same goes for Skecher’s Shape-up shoes. Could we have reasonably believed that a special sneaker could shape our glutes and abs while we walked around not exercising? (In this case, apparently, we could reasonably believe it; Skechers was ordered to pay $40 million in refunds.)

What about Victoria’s Secret doctoring up its catalogs? Is that unfair? Only if a reasonable person could believe that there’s such thing as a 100% flawless body.

A Yahoo news article last week that exposed the before and after photos from Victoria’s Secret catalog had an interesting take. Usually, these types of articles let us breathe a sigh of relief about our own imperfections—see, NO ONE is perfect—and also garner a lot of “hater” accusations in the comments. Flaws and all, these models are still gorgeous, and we shouldn’t be dwelling on their slight imperfections, they say.

But this particular article went further, asking about the role of Victoria’s Secret catalog in our society. Do we look at diamond-encrusted-bra models as standards for how we should look? If so, then perhaps Victoria’s Secret should be responsible for setting the standard with real photos, so that we can at least have a fair chance.

But Victoria’s Secret models and spokespeople say they polish their photos because we want them to. It’s part of the fantasy that we want to indulge in. No one could reasonably believe that if we buy a Victoria’s Secret bikini, we’ll look like a Victoria’s Secret model in it. We’re just having fun in this imaginary world of armpit flab-less beach frolicking that comes in the mail.

We couldn’t reasonably believe in a flaw-erasing swimsuit, glute-shaping shoes or immune system boosting sugar-water. Or could we?

That’s where the nature of the subconscious adds a twist. Scientists and psychologists have shown that the buyer’s brain is primarily driven by the subconscious mind. We’re practically defenseless when it comes to certain marketing tactics.

In which case, what our “reasonable” brain thinks is completely irrelevant. The brain sees a model with a perky bum wearing Shape-ups. Our rational mind knows we can only get that bum with real glute exercises. Subconscious mind already decided to buy a pair.

In all likelihood, companies wield misleading promises knowing they’ll be effective at the subliminal level, and knowing they’ll be off the hook if they can say “you’d have to be an idiot to believe that.”

So, what do you think: since it’s been proven that the consumer’s brain is ruled by the subconscious mind, is it still reasonable to judge whether marketing claims are ethical by asking what consumers would “reasonably” believe?

Or should we, as consumers, take more responsibility for what we choose to buy, and try—to the extent our rational brain is capable—to be more vigilant?

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Chelsea Ratcliff

Chelsea Ratcliff

Writer and expert

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