Better Business by Robb Hicken: Truth in advertising is good for businesses and customers

Robb Hicken, chief storyteller for the Better Business Bureau serving the Snake River RegionMay 7, 2013 

Robb Hicken

While driving to work, I recently heard an advertisement that said, “We’ll teach you the two things you must know to beat the odds in today’s economy.”

The ad states these tips come from acclaimed author and real estate entrepreneur Robert Kiyosake and urges listeners to act now to get a free gift just for attending the workshop at a local hotel conferencing center.

As the radio spot wrapped up, a disclaimer says: Results from programs are based on individual effort and other factors. Additional products and services will be offered for sale. “Rich Dad Poor Dad” author Robert Kiyosake will not be present at this event.

Similarly, the same advertisement in the Idaho Statesman was transparent about the event, prize promises and the expectation and outcomes. A simple asterisk and fine print provided consumers with additional information and a sense of honesty.

Truthful advertising benefits not only consumers, but also all businesses.

The entire business community suffers if consumers don’t trust advertising. Businesses that make offers or promises they can’t keep, and may have no intention of keeping, steal sales that could have been made by reputable companies.

One of the most questionable claims an advertiser can make is “lowest prices guaranteed.” The flip side — for businesses such as those that buy gold — is “highest prices paid.” Despite what may be an advertiser’s best efforts to determine competitive prices, it’s highly unlikely that he can know at all times what everyone else is charging or paying.

Ads that say a company’s policy is to match or better a competitor’s prices are less problematic, provided that the terms of the offer are specific, in good faith and realistic.

They should clearly and fully disclose any material conditions that apply and specify what evidence the consumer needs to present to take advantage of the offer. Such evidence should not place an unreasonable burden on the consumer.

The asterisk is another advertising mechanism that is often abused. It should be used to impart additional information about a word or term in the ad that is not in itself inherently deceptive. An asterisk or comparable reference symbol, should not be used to contradict or substantially change the meaning of any advertised statement. To put it another way, “the small print should not taketh away what the big print giveth.”

Some might say that consumers are savvy enough to see through these kinds of claims. If we concede that point, we’re accepting what an attorney said 100 years ago — that consumers don’t believe advertising anyway.

Remember that good business succeeds on honesty and transparency, and when a business hides small items, consumers can be quick to question what other practices are being put in the fine print. Don’t give your customers the chance to question your business reputation.

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rhicken@boise.bbb.org, 947-2115

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