Honesty: The Best Advertising Policy

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At Advertise.com, we naturally believe in the power of online advertising. But we also believe in honesty. Unfortunately, in this industry the two are not always synonymous.

In its 2013 report “Busting Bad Advertising Practices,” Google revealed that it removed 350 million ads in 2013 due to harmful or deceptive messaging. Meanwhile, as native ads gain popularity for their ability to disguise themselves as editorial content, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning advertisers that running misleading ads could cost them.

Consumers today are increasingly skeptical about marketing claims of all kinds, and this is a primary challenge that all online advertisers face. In some markets, a “whatever it takes” philosophy has prevailed by increasing click-through rates in the short term, which encourages many advertisers to make exaggerated, misleading, or just plain false claims in their ads.

When it comes to engendering the kind of trust that’ll reward your investment in online ads, knowing what constitutes a deceptive or misleading ads is critically important. Today, advanced targeting and ad format options make it easier than ever before to reach people—but with more impressions comes more scrutiny.

Earlier this year, a school supply retailer was fined for advertising “never-ending sale” prices for certain products, when in reality, the figures listed were in fact full price. And in response to a slew of ads featuring unrealistic weight loss claims, the FTC also launched a health-based initiative called “Operation Failed Resolution,” fining one advertiser over $26 million for outrageous weight loss claims. Amid the recent rise in popularity of native advertising, the commission is also cracking down on ads that aren’t clearly marked as, well, ads:

ads on internet

The image above (courtesy of the appsfire blog) actually shows Pinterest’s new native ad format. Would you have noticed the subtle “Promoted Pin” label marked by the red arrow?

An Ethics Checklist
With so many ways to come off as deceptive—intentionally or not—how can advertisers avoid misleading messaging? Here are some general guidelines to make sure your ads are honest and ethical:

  • Be Factual. Use objective, verifiable facts as much as possible. If your ad is for last year’s version of your product or service, don’t use a photo of this year’s—even if they look the same to the untrained eye. When it comes to health-related or scientific claims, be extra careful when talking in absolutes or in hyperbole. Skew your ad copy more towards the literal than metaphorical—or worse, fantastical.
  • Use Valid Endorsements. When using someone’s image, likeness, or words to promote your product, be sure to get explicit permission from them to use in your ads. Although the “fair use” doctrine under U.S. copyright law offers some exceptions, any quoted material—even if taken from a publicly viewable review site like Angie’s List or Yelp—should always be cleared with the subject.
  • Be Honest About Your Competitors. Just like you should be honest and factual about your own product, treat your competitors the same—or, don’t mention them at all. Whenever comparing your brand to a competitor in an ad or on a landing page, use objective information to draw contrasts.
  • Don’t Advertise What You Don’t Have. For e-commerce retailers in particular, always ensure that your inventory can meet the demand you’re expecting to pull in through your ad campaigns. Don’t launch a high budget blitz unless you’re truly prepared to fulfill those orders. If you’re not sure what kind of influx to expect, consider adding “quantities limited” language or otherwise implying the amount on hand in the ad itself to prevent an unnecessary customer service challenge.
  • Is It Really Free or Cheaper? There’s no such thing as a “free lunch,” especially in online advertising. If you claim that your offer is “free” or use similar language, any terms and conditions should be reasonably stated. Avoid deceptive price comparisons as well—don’t compare your brand’s sale prices to your competitors’ regular prices. Or worse, intentionally listing inaccurate prices.

In an era of advertising when credibility, transparency, and trust are imperative to success, marketers should aim to educate their audiences above all else. Don’t try to do backflips in the name of persuasion. No matter how much effort you put into snazzy graphic design and a catchy pitch, if it’s not honest and ethical, it can result in an avoidable PR or customer service crisis—perhaps the worst advertising “format” of all.

Since 2001, Advertise.com has offered competitive online advertiser and publisher solutions to companies around the globe. Our mission is to help advertisers achieve their best ROI with high-quality, cost-effective ad units, as well as provide our publishers with monetization tools that yield the highest revenues. Contact us to learn more or get started with your advertising campaigns.