Misleading advertising and the feedback via social media

“up to” must be one of the most deliberately deceptive phrases in advertising. Up to 50% off, often means that one or two items are 50% off and most are either not reduced at all or are at a much lower discount. I got caught out by it once, exactkly once, at Homebase, where christmas decorations were ‘up to 50% off’, the up to being in letter 2cm tall and the 50% in letters 50cm tall. Does Homebase really think that is an ethical way of doing business, or are they just content to effectively steal money off customers who don’t check the price they’ve actually been charged until too late? I think the latter, but they lost at least one valuable customer in the process. Any self-congratulation by the marketers is misjudged, they will have lost a lot of money in the long term.

Up to 20Mb is used by BT to sell broadband packages that offer only a few people that rate, with most fobbed off with much lower ones, even 2Mb in my case. When challenged, BT responded that you pay for the package, not the rate, the package being of course ‘up to 20Mb/s’. To advertise a package in a manner that overstates its merits, knowing that people look at the headline ‘up to’ rate, is quite deliberate misleading of customers. Somehow it slithers through a tiny hole in the law that states that advertising must not be misleading by arguing that ‘up to’ is not the same as ‘is’. That’s the sort of morality that Clinton used in his defence in the Lewinsky scandal. BT can get away with it because there is no competition at the line provision level, all the alternatives have to use the same line, except wireless, which is not a real alternative. I worked in BT until a few years ago and know their fondness for confusion marketing. I hated it then, and I still hate it now. It belongs in the black market, and should have no place in an organisation that considers itself otherwise to be an ethical company. It only persists because of ongoing poor leadership quality in marketing that has plagued BT for decades. But they are not the only company to believe they can win by confusing customers.

In the absence of proper regulation, customers have to defend themselves. Most of us have a personal blacklist. Homebase and BT are on mine along with Stansted Airport, British Airways, British Gas and National Express. Other people have their own pet hates, and they use their competitors whenever they can.

Social media, such as twitter and facebook, provides the best weapons in this war. People can tweet their gripes and embarrass those who provide poor service. If enough do so, companies are forced to take notice and do something about it. It takes a lot of advertising spend to win people over and undo adverse publicity propagated on social media.

But social media used well can also be a superb marketing tool. If a company sorts out problems that people raise, they will reward them with good commentary. Recently, my xbox died, but I had very good service from Microsoft getting it repaired and I said so a number of times on Twitter. And I will also be very likely to buy a new one when they upgrade. By contrast, I complained about my broadband, and BT’s response was basically to dismiss my complaint, so I said so on twitter, and will look around more actively for alternatives. Social media spotlights and amplifies the behaviour of companies, whether good or bad. Bad marketing and bad customer care have always existed, but social media acts as an amplification circuit that speeds up the rise or fall of companies. And that has to be a good thing for all of us.

5 responses to “Misleading advertising and the feedback via social media

  1. Although the “up to 50% off”-phrasing in advertisement might be a trick to mislead customers, strictly speaking it’s not a lie (given that there actually are at least a few 50% discounts). It’s a fact. Only in the head of customers the “up to 50% off” becomes a “everything is 50% off”, which brings me to my second point: I think you’re underestimating the intelligence of the customers. I’m pretty sure most people will realize the real discounts when they entered the shop (they might have been lured into the shop, though. I give you that). They certainly can tell if they’re buying the pants 50% off or 10% off. Personal responsability, to me, seems to be the healthier choice than laws against this sort of marketing.
    Regards 🙂


  2. I see your point on advertising and agree. I do agree with Joël that not everyone is duped by this. Perhaps there should be legislation to protect the vulnerable ;->

    I wonder, though how much retail discounting is just reducing an intentionally inflated price.

    There are some stores who stock items for 28 days at way over their intended price, with no intention if selling many of them (if any), then at *sale time*, the price is reduced and suddenly the item look like a bargain.

    I’d argue that many of the sale prices we see may be less than the original retail price, but not necessarily less than the original value of that item.

    Just a thought.

    All that said – the power of self-publishing is going to rock many brands more than they know. And they though the music industry was having a hard time…


  3. Your point about “in the absence of proper regulation”. The natural state of a regulator is one of capture by suppliers. In the world of web 2.0, they can either use social media or be bypassed by it.


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