Smelling The BS: Puffery In Advertising

Puffery is all around. It’s on nearly all products, whether they are ‘Made in America’, ‘organic’, ‘fair-trade’, etc. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) defines puffery as a “term frequently used to denote exaggerations reasonably to be expected of a seller as to the degree of quality of his product, the truth or falsity of which cannot be precisely determined”.

This basically means that advertisers are allowed to make statements without any substantiation. For example, a certain brand of mints will give you the “ultimate fresh breath”, or cereal that is baked with “natural wholesome goodness”. I can’t even think of a way to test a product for natural wholesome goodness, can you?

Consumers can have mixed reactions to puffery in advertising, usually in one of two ways. The first way is that consumers assume the attributes refer to technical details that they themselves don’t understand, but someone who is more knowledgeable than they are. The consumer will usually purchase the product, thinking that they are getting a product that will improve them somehow. The second way is the attribute descriptions are intended only to persuade (puffery).

Studies from the Journal of Consumer Research found that consumers reactions depended on their level of knowledge about the product and the context in which the media was viewed. For example, they discovered that when consumers thought themselves less knowledgeable about the products than the intended recipients of beer or cleansing gel ads, they were more likely to assume that the descriptions were useful. Results showed that when recipients who perceived that they had less knowledge than average consumers were shown additional puffery about a product, they increased their evaluation of the product. It didn’t matter whether the product was displayed in a professional magazine or a popular magazine.

A different study was conducted on fictional products to gauge consumers reaction to advertising claims that were difficult to decipher. A fictional cleansing gel displayed the ingredient “Sebopur Complex” (a fictional ingredient) and a fictional beer was brewed using the “European Pilsen Method” (another fictional method). Consumers who thought of themselves as well informed individuals reacted negatively to the product, often losing trust and alienating themselves from the product.

Puffery in advertising has been out for at least a half a century, and it doesn’t matter whether the product is made by a massive corporation or a local neighborhood business, advertising is designed to capture consumers attention and make products impressive. The less informed seem to fall for the technical details on product labels whether they mean anything or not. I can’t think of a better example than the sports supplement industry. Not only are the products not regulated by the FDA, but on top of that, they can pretty much proclaim whatever they desire on the labels. The more technical the label, the more impressive the product can look.

Next time you are out shopping, put on your big boy/girl pants and use a little common sense when you are shopping. Don’t buy something because the label is flashy. If it is food, all you have to do is flip the package around and look at the ingredient list, and you will be able to see if there are BS claims on the label. And if you make everything from scratch, you don’t even have to worry about puffery on food labels.

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