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Deception by Implication: A Typology of Truthful
but Misleading Advertising and Labeling Claims
Manoj Hastak and Michael B. Mazis
The authors develop a new typology of truthful but misleading advertising and labeling claims.
Although several typologies of deceptive or misleading advertising appear in the literature, the authors’
typology relies on legal cases as well as a diverse set of psychological theories to provide a richer and
more comprehensive understanding of why consumers are likely to be misled by a particular type of
deception. The goal is to generate a better appreciation of how consumers process various types of
potentially misleading information and to explore implications for further research.
Keywords: deceptive advertising, labeling, information processing, typology, Federal Trade Commission,
Food and Drug Administration
he blending of theory and practice has been an essential
element of social science research for the last halfcentury. Petty and Cacioppo (1996, p. 6) comment on
this fusion: “Basic theory-driven research should remain an
essential part of our overall research enterprise and we
should foster its integration and use in applied research.”
Public policy researchers have often used consumer behavior theory to derive predictions about consumer response to
misleading advertising. For example, Pechmann (1996)
relies on research on representativeness bias (Kahneman and
Tversky 1973) to make predictions about consumer response
to potentially misleading comparative price claims. Burke,
Milberg, and Moe (1997) use research on feature-absent
inferences (Simmons and Leonard 1990) to derive predictions about potentially misleading health claims for food
products. That research is useful in understanding the psychological underpinnings of specific types of deception.
However, it has usually relied on a single theory to develop
predictions, and it does not provide a comprehensive theoretical view of various types of deception.
In contrast, when exploring numerous types of ad deception, researchers have frequently focused on legal frameworks rather than on theory-driven predictions. These legal
frameworks have typically been derived from an analysis of
deceptive advertising case law. Analyses of Federal Trade
Manoj Hastak is Professor of Marketing (e-mail: [email protected]
edu), and Michael B. Mazis is Professor Emeritus (e-mail: [email protected]
american.edu), Kogod School of Business, American University. Initial
work on the typology was undertaken as part of a project for the Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding truthful but misleading
claims in food labeling. The authors are grateful to Alan Levy and
Nancy Crane of the FDA, Janice Albert of the Food and Agriculture
Organization, and other members of the FDA project team for their
valuable contributions. The authors are solely responsible for opinions
expressed in the article. Lauren Block served as associate editor for
this article.
© 2011, American Marketing Association
ISSN: 0743-9156 (print), 1547-7207 (electronic)
Commission (FTC) or Lanham Act decisions have been used
to create typologies to describe several types of deception.
Some of the typologies have been exhaustive. For example, Ford, Kuehl, and Reksten (1975) propose a classification of 13 categories of deception. This typology has been
criticized as “somewhat cumbersome and the categories do
not appear to be mutually exclusive” (Gardner and Leonard
1990, p. 287). This critique may also apply to Preston’s
deception typologies based on case law. Preston (1989b)
develops 15 categories of “deceptive implications” derived
from FTC decisions and 11 categories based on Lanham
Act cases (Preston 1989a). In his seminal work on deceptive advertising, Richards (1990) also relies on Preston’s
typology of implied deceptive claims to address consumer
comprehension of advertising claims.
Petty and Kopp (1995) develop a more parsimonious set
of “deceptive implications” by synthesizing Preston’s classification system into four categories. This typology provides a useful basis for identifying different types of deception that have been the focus of FTC and Lanham Act
deception cases. Petty and Kopp also provide multiple
examples from legal cases to illustrate the application of
their typology. However, they do not provide a theoretical
basis for understanding various types of deception.
Some of the typologies seem to be too parsimonious.
Gardner (1975) identifies a three-level typology of advertising deception: unconscionable lie, claim–fact discrepancy,
and claim–belief interaction. Russo, Metcalf, and Stephens
(1981) also identify three types of ad deception: fraud, falsity, and misleadingness. However, such typologies are too
succinct to develop a full understanding of deception and to
provide a comprehensive framework for advertising deception research. In addition, they tend to be based on practice
rather than theory.
These ad deception typologies distinguish between
expressly false claims and implied claims that mislead consumers. In assessing express claims, courts or regulatory
agencies rely on factual evidence to determine whether an
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing
Vol. 30 (2) Fall 2011, 157–167
158 Deception by Implication
advertised claim can be substantiated on the basis of
scientific evaluation. However, consumer perceptions are
frequently relied on in the assessment of implied claims.
For example, Preston and Scharbach (1971) note that consumers often make assumptions about the intent of the
advertiser and thus draw inferences that go beyond the literal content of the advertisement. Most implied claims are
literally true but may mislead consumers. As a result, our
analysis focuses on these truthful but potentially misleading
advertising claims.
Courts and government agencies have recognized that literally truthful advertising claims may mislead consumers.
For example, the FTC challenged advertisements for Kraft
cheese slices that claimed the product contained five ounces
of milk. Consumer research found that consumers were led
erroneously to believe that the cheese slices contained as
much calcium as five ounces of milk. In reality, some of the
calcium was lost in processing (Federal Trade Commission
v. Kraft, Inc. 1991; Stewart 1995). The Food and Drug
Administration (FDA) has focused on claims by food producers that certain products are free from recombinant
bovine somatotropin (“rBST-free”) or genetically modified
organisms (“GMO-free”). The FDA has maintained that
claims about the absence of bovine growth hormones or
genetically modified ingredients imply to consumers that
the advertised food product is safer or of higher quality than
other brands in the product class (Korwek 2000).
In summary, a review of the literature suggests two broad
approaches to understanding various types of deception.
Some researchers have developed deception typologies that
are primarily based on case law and examples of deceptive
practice (e.g., Petty and Kopp 1995; Preston 1989b;
Richards 1990). Other researchers have relied on psychological theory to explore specific types of deception (e.g.,
Burke, Milberg, and Moe 1997; Pechmann 1996). However, there has not been a systematic effort to develop a
typology of deception that integrates both approaches.
The purpose of this article is to present a new typology of
truthful but misleading advertising claims that attempts to
achieve this integration. Our focus is on truthful claims with
false or misleading implications rather than on claims that
are patently false. In developing the typology, we rely on the
work of other researchers as well as on legal cases involving
deceptive advertising and labeling claims. Furthermore, we
rely on a diverse set of psychological theories to provide a
more comprehensive understanding of why consumers are
likely to be misled by a particular type of deception. The
goal is to generate a better appreciation of how consumers
process various types of potentially misleading information
and to explore implications for further research.
Integrating consumer behavior theory into legal analyses
is potentially valuable to researchers and to public policy
makers because understanding how consumers process
information enables public policy makers to generalize
beyond a single case or public policy issue and to make
valuable predictions. A theory-based typology is consistent
with good public policy because when a specific case is
being considered, the typology can provide a theoretical
basis for arguing that a particular advertising claim is misleading and also suggest past legal precedent in finding
similar advertising to be misleading. For this reason, a
typology (such as the one proposed herein) supports the
fact-finding process by suggesting an interpretation of a
challenged claim and also by indicating how the interpretation may be tested to determine whether it is consistent with
proposed theory.
Typology of Truthful but Misleading
In this section, we identify five major types of misleading
advertising claims. We also provide examples illustrating
each type of misleading claim. Finally, we discuss the psychological mechanisms that may explain how consumers
may be misled by each of the five claim types. Table 1 provides a summary of the five types of misleading claims.
Omission of Material Facts
Marketers sometimes make claims in advertising or on
product labels that are literally true but are misleading
because a material fact or facts have been omitted. For
example, the marketer may fail to disclose limiting conditions that are necessary for correct interpretation of the
claim. The claim would not mislead consumers if prominent and understandable qualifications were presented.
Without effective qualification, consumers may draw broad
inferences from a claim based on prior experience or on the
physical appearance of the product.
Omissions can be classified as pure omissions or halftruths. In the former case, the marketer provides no information on the issue or attribute of interest, and in the latter
case, incomplete information that leads to biased inferences
is provided.
Consumer inferences that arise when material facts are
omitted are best explained by the literature on schemas
(Alba and Hasher 1983). A schema is a well-developed
knowledge structure about a particular domain. For example, most U.S. consumers have a schema that contains their
knowledge, beliefs, and expectations about the safety of
food products. This schema has developed over time and is
based on information from a variety of sources, including
personal experience (“cooking foods reduces the risk of getting sick”) and information from the media (“the FDA protects the food supply”). As a result, most consumers believe
that the food supply is relatively safe.
An important function of a schema is to provide consumers with “default values” for information that is typical
of a particular stimulus but is missing in a given description
of that stimulus (Abelson 1981; Kardes 1993; Taylor and
Crocker 1981). Thus, consumers will go beyond the provided information and make inferences based on the
schema. For example, if there are no specific disclosures on
the label of a food product regarding safety, consumers will
rely on their “food safety” schema to infer that the food is
safe for consumption like all other foods. If a food product
has unique properties that affects its safety or creates
unusual digestive problems, consumers may be misled in
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 159
Table 1.
Typology of Truthful but Misleading Advertising and Labeling Claims
Claim Type
Omission of
material facts
Key fact or facts have
been omitted.
due to semantic
Use of unclear or deliberately confusing language,
symbols, or images.
Claim about an attribute
leads to misleading inference about the same
Claim about an attribute
leads to misleading inference about another
Endorsement by expert or
consumer testimonial is
Claim Subtypes
(1) Pure omission
(2) Half-truths
(1) Attribute uniqueness
(2) Attribute performance
(1) Expert source
(2) Typical consumer
(3) Multiple sources
the absence of a disclosure informing them about such
The effects of omission of key information on consumer
inferences can also be explained by Grice’s (1975) conversational norms. Gricean theory may be particularly relevant to
understanding how consumers process half-truths. Specifically, according to the “maxim of quantity” proposed by
Grice, the provider of information is expected to make his or
her contribution as informative as required—no more and no
less. If the recipient of information (through an advertisement) applies this conversational norm, he or she will conclude that all information needed to draw valid inferences has
been provided. Failure to do so will induce the recipient to
generate invalid inferences and thus be deceived.
As an example of a pure omission of a material fact, consider the case of the fat substitute Olestra. In 1996, the FDA
approved the use of Procter & Gamble’s Olestra as an
ingredient in certain snack foods. The FDA’s review of
clinical studies found that the product has the potential to
cause gastrointestinal problems in some people. Studies
also showed that Olestra-containing products might inhibit
(1) Failure to disclose gastrointestinal upset caused by
(2) “Free” offers do not disclose relevant terms.
(1) Schema theory
(2) Grice’s theory of conversational norms
“Fresh Italian” pasta sauce
contained heat-processed
(1) Pragmatic implication
(1) “No cholesterol”
claim interpreted to imply
competitors contain
(2) “Contains oat bran” claim
interpreted to imply a
substantial amount of oat
(1) Feature-absent
(2) Pragmatic implication
“Low cholesterol” claim
interpreted to imply a low
amount of fat.
(1) Logical or probabilistic consistency
(1) A surgeon endorses a
dietary supplement.
(2) An extreme weight loss
testimonial does not
reflect typical experience.
(3) The claim “recommended
by more pediatricians”
may not be based on a
representative sample.
(1) Informational influence: source expertise
(2) Informational influence: source similarity
(3) Social proof
the absorption of certain fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.
According to schema theory, a warning is needed to inform
consumers of material facts about potential gastrointestinal
discomfort and about potential lack of vitamin absorption
resulting from consuming Olestra. In the absence of a warning, the schema default value is that both “regular” and
Olestra-containing snack foods are unlikely to cause digestive discomfort. Thus, the warning is required to supply a
material fact about which most consumers would be
Irradiated food is another example of a situation in which
a claim is potentially misleading because a material fact has
been omitted. Research has shown that irradiating foods can
potentially affect a product’s taste and flavor. If consumers
were not informed that a particular food product is irradiated, their schema default value would likely indicate that
the product would taste like regular (nonirradiated) food.
Consequently, the FDA as well as regulatory agencies in
many other countries requires foods that have undergone
irradiation to be labeled. The logic behind this labeling
requirement is that a change in the taste and texture of a
food product is a material fact that should be disclosed to
160 Deception by Implication
However, the FDA does not require labeling for irradiated ingredients. Its rationale is that no meaningful evidence exists that irradiation of an ingredient is likely to
affect the characteristics of multiple-ingredient food in a
significant way. In other words, irradiation of ingredients
does not produce any material changes in the final product.
In essence, the FDA does not consider irradiation itself a
material fact and therefore does not require disclosure of
irradiation unless it believes that the food properties, such
as taste and texture, have been altered in a significant way.
In contrast, some European countries (e.g., the United
Kingdom) require labeling of irradiation of both finished
foods and ingredients. This approach is based on the
assumption that consumers have a “right to know” whether
food products undergo any significant processing, such as
irradiation. Thus, irradiation of foods is in and of itself considered a material fact. This example illustrates that the
interpretation of what constitutes a material fact can vary
across cultures and regulatory approaches.
Some negative option plans provide an example of marketing representations that are half-truths. In many
instances, negative options or “free” offers do not disclose
all relevant terms and conditions of the offer. A recent
example is the FTC (2005a) charges against Experian.
Experian advertised that it provided “free credit reports” to
consumers who visited the website freecreditreport.com.
However, the FTC charged that the company failed to disclose that consumers who signed up to receive the free
credit report would automatically be enrolled in the company’s credit monitoring service and charged $79.95 if they
did not cancel within 30 days. According to Grice’s theory,
consumers would assume that the credit reports were truly
free without any strings attached and thus would be
Research and Policy Implications
It would seem that deception occurring through omission of
material information could be minimized or cured through
prominent disclosures. However, consumer knowledge and
involvement may moderate the effectiveness of disclosures.
For example, Sujan (1985) suggests that novice consumers
are likely to engage in schema-driven processing even in
situations in which some of the information presented to
them contradicts the (default) implications of the activated
schema or category. Lacking the ability to detect when
detailed information contradicts schema-based default values, consumers may engage primarily in top-down processing. In contrast, experts are more likely to engage in careful
piecemeal processing when they detect discrepancies
between provided information and the schema. Fiske and
Kinder (1981) show similar processing differences between
involved and uninvolved participants in processing new
information. Their research shows that less involved people
rely on the activated schema to process information and
thus remember schema-consistent information better than
schema-inconsistent information. In contrast, involved people go beyond the activated schema to process schemainconsistent information and therefore remember both consistent and inconsistent information equally well.
In a different domain, the ELM (elaboration likelihood
model) posits that both motivation and ability to process
information may influence the mode of information processing. Consumers who are not knowledgeable about (low
ability) or are uninvolved with (low motivation) the brand
are likely to engage in peripheral processing of advertising
or labeling information and thus may not encode detailed
information embedded within these mediums (see Johar
1995; Mitra, Raymond, and Hopkins 2008).
The preceding literature has important implications for
the effectiveness of disclosures. Disclosures designed to
counter the effects of schema-driven processing can be
viewed as providing respondents with information that is
inconsistent with the activated schema. Research cited in
the preceding paragraph suggests that consumers will likely
process such inconsistent information only if they have
both the ability and the motivation to do so. Uninvolved or
low-knowledge consumers will likely rely mainly on their
activated schema (and associated default values) and thus
will not sufficiently process the information in the disclosure to correct their take-away from the advertisement or
label. In this situation, requiring a detailed disclosure may
not be the best policy solution, because the added costs of
requiring the disclosure may overshadow any potential
benefits. Additional research designed to further explore
these predictions would be useful. Another area for research
pertains to the role of complementary disclosures across
media. Because there is limited opportunity for disclosures
in, for example, television advertising, more detailed disclosures on the website on which the product is purchased
may be an effective way to inform consumers about material facts associated with the product.
Misleadingness Due to Semantic Confusion
Consumers may be misled by the use of confusing language
or symbols in advertisements or on packages. Semantic
confusion can occur because a promotional claim uses a
word or phrase that is similar to a more familiar word or
phrase. Such confusion is likely to cause consumers to misperceive or miscomprehend the claim.
The effects of semantically confusing language or images
may be explained by research on pragmatic implication
(Alba and Hasher 1983; Harris and Monaco 1978; Harris et
al. 1989). Pragmatic implications are inferences that are
strongly implied or invited rather than asserted directly.
Inferences based on pragmatic implication often occur
because terms or phrases used in product descriptions
(1) are confusing or have more than one meaning and/or
(2) strongly suggest the underlying intent of the source of
such descriptions. Considerable evidence supports the ubiquity of inferences based on pragmatic implication in consumer processing of a variety of stimuli, including marketing communications (Bruno and Harris 1980; Gaeth and
Heath 1987; Harris 1977, 1981; Harris et al. 1981; Harris et
al. 1989).
In 1990, Ragu Foods introduced a line of pasta sauce
described as “Fresh Italian.” However, the sauce contained
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 161
heat-processed, remanufactured tomatoes. In addition, Citrus Hill brand orange juice was labeled “Fresh Choice.”
However, the product was made from frozen concentrate
and contained orange oil and essence to enhance the flavor.
In both cases, the manufacturers could argue that the source
of the ingredients is “fresh” tomatoes or oranges. However,
the claim “fresh” would likely confuse and mislead consumers because they would take the pragmatic implication
that a “fresh” product contains unprocessed ingredients
only. Subsequently, the line of pasta sauce was changed
from “Fresh Italian” to “Fino Italian,” and the term “fresh”
was dropped from the labeling of the orange juice.
Stouffer Foods was found to have falsely represented the
sodium content of Lean Cuisine entrées. Stouffer’s advertisements for Lean Cuisine entrées used the phrase “With
less than 300 calories, controlled fat and always less than 1
gram of sodium per entree.” Consumers likely took the
(pragmatic) implication that the product was low in sodium.
If so, they were misled because 1 gram is equivalent to
1000 milligrams of sodium—a high amount of sodium
(Andrews and Maronick 1995).
Misleadingness due to semantic confusion can sometimes occur for products that refer to a particular geographic area in the brand name. Consider the case of
Louisiana Hot Sauce, a well-known condiment. The manufacturer may intend the name to suggest that the product is
a Cajun-style hot sauce, but a reference to Louisiana naturally leads to the pragmatic implication that the product is
made in Louisiana. The degree to which consumers are misled depends on whether the phrase “Louisiana Hot Sauce”
has become a commonly used or generic phrase in the language and whether the term implies a type of hot sauce
rather than a place of origin to consumers. For example,
consumers in the United States would be unlikely to believe
that Boston baked beans, New York cheesecake, and champagne are produced in Massachusetts, New York, and
France, respectively.
One significant cause of misleadingness due to semantic
confusion is that terms are interpreted differently in different cultures. For example, superlative terms such as “premium” and “best” are prohibited as part of descriptions of
beer in the United Kingdom, whereas these terms are commonly used in the United States. British regulators seem to
be concerned that consumers might interpret these terms as
signifying that the particular brand of beer has a higher
quality than the average beer. In the United States, such
terms are regarded as “puffery”—that is, exaggerated
claims that are discounted by consumers.
Research and Policy Implications
Several different approaches could be used to pragmatically
imply a false claim. Few researchers have examined differences between different pragmatic implications in misleading consumers. In one study, Searleman and Carter (1988)
examine four types of pragmatic implication: juxtaposing
imperative statements (e.g., “Get a good night’s sleep. Buy
Dreamon Sleeping Pills”), using comparative adjectives
without stating the qualifier (e.g., “Lackluster Floor Polish
gives a floor a brighter shine”), using hedge words (e.g.,
“Ty-One-On pain reliever may help get rid of those
headaches”), and reporting of piecemeal survey evidence
(e.g., “John Doe Jeans are available in more colors than
Gloria Vanderbilt’s, are more sleekly styled than Sergio
Valenti’s, and are less expensive than Cheryl Tiegs”). They
find that though respondents confused all four types of
pragmatic implication claims with the corresponding
directly implied claims, they were less likely to be misled
by comparative adjectives than the other three categories.
Additional research examining the deception potential of
different types of pragmatic implications would be useful.
Misleading inferences based on pragmatic implication
are likely to be difficult to correct. Available evidence suggests that instructions designed to sensitize respondents to
the possibility that a communication may mislead them are
not successful (Harris 1977). Detailed training sessions
have achieved some success (e.g., Harris et al. 1981) but
have also resulted in respondents becoming suspicious of
truthful claims in the tested communications. That is, training seems to make respondents skeptical of all claims,
including directly asserted statements (for a discussion, see
Gaeth and Heath 1987).
The problem associated with correcting misleading inferences generated by pragmatic implications is intensified by
elderly consumers’ susceptibility to this form of deception.
For example, Gaeth and Heath (1987, Experiment 2) show
that age differences exist in the ability to discriminate
between pragmatic implication and direct assertion statements. However, their findings are limited in that they studied only one type of pragmatic implication (juxtaposition of
imperatives), and they found support for age differences
only when respondents were allowed to examine the deceptive advertisements while answering questions. Further
research designed to extend their findings to other types of
pragmatic implication claims and to other “vulnerable”
populations (e.g., children) would be useful.
Intra-Attribute Misleadingness
Intra-attribute misleadingness refers to a situation in which
a claim about an attribute leads to misleading inferences
about the same attribute. Consumers might generate two
types of misleading intra-attribute inferences when exposed
to advertising or labeling claims. First, attribute uniqueness
claims refer to situations in which a marketer incorrectly
implies that a brand is uniquely associated with a particular
attribute or feature. For example, consumers may interpret a
claim such as “Brand X has no cholesterol” to mean that
Brand X is the only brand without cholesterol. To the extent
that adequate proof does not exist to support such uniqueness claims, the consumer may be misled. Second, attribute
performance claims refer to situations in which a marketer
implies incorrectly how well a brand performs on a certain
attribute or feature. For example, consumers may interpret
the claim “Brand X has protein” to mean that the brand is a
good source of that attribute. To the extent that the brand
possesses only a small amount of protein, the claim would
be misleading. Similarly, marketers sometimes make representations that a brand is superior to other brands or to other
formulations of their brand on an attribute (“Brand X has
less fat than Brand Y”). Consumers are prone to make more
general inferences about the brand on this attribute (“Brand
162 Deception by Implication
X is a low-fat food”). When such inferences are erroneous,
consumers are misled.
The effects of attribute uniqueness claims are explained by
studies on “feature-absent” inferences (Burke, Milberg, and
Moe 1997; Simmons and Leonard 1990). That research
reveals that when a brand prominently features an attribute
that is not typically discussed on labels or in advertising
(e.g., amount of vitamin K in a food), consumers may infer
that other brands in the category do not possess that
attribute. Because the attribute has been neglected by marketers in the past, consumers may assume that a typical
brand in the category does not possess the attribute. Consequently, mention of the attribute by one brand leads to the
inference that this brand uniquely possesses that attribute.
The effects of attribute performance claims are accounted
for by the concept of pragmatic implication, which we discussed in the “Misleadingness due to Semantic Confusion”
section. Specifically, these inferences likely occur because
consumers convert explicitly stated information into its
probable underlying intent (Alba and Hasher 1983). For
example, when consumers interpret the claim “brand X has
protein” to mean that the brand is a good source of protein,
this is based on the assumption that such an interpretation is
intended by the marketer. The expectation is that the marketer would not make such a claim if the product contained
only a trivial amount of the nutrient. A similar logic
explains why consumers interpret a superiority claim such
as “brand X has less fat than brand Y” to mean that brand X
is a low-fat food.
When Mazola vegetable oil made a “no cholesterol” claim
on its product label, the FDA was concerned that consumers
might interpret this as a uniqueness claim. In reality, no
brand of vegetable oil contains cholesterol. Thus, although
the express claim is literally true, the likely implied claim
(of uniqueness) is false because it may imply to consumers
that only that brand is cholesterol free.
In the 1980s, when claims about the health benefits of
eating fiber were ubiquitous, companies made claims such
as “made with fiber” or “contains fiber” for products such
as doughnuts. Because these doughnuts contained an insignificant amount of fiber, consumers were likely misled by
such claims. More generally, if a health claim is made for a
particular nutrient, consumers are likely to infer (through
pragmatic implication) that the product making such a
health claim has a reasonable level of the nutrient. One
approach to preventing these types of misleading claims is
to establish minimum nutrient levels that must be met
before a marketer can make such claims.
Candy companies have developed lower-fat versions of
popular candy bars in an effort to appeal to consumers concerned about the relatively high fat and calorie content of
most candy bars on the market. Although companies might
desire to promote these “lower-fat” versions with claims
such as “30% less fat than regular candy bars” on labels and
in advertising, even with a 30% reduction in fat, these candy
bars may still contain a significant amount of fat. Nevertheless, the concept of pragmatic implication suggests that con-
sumers will incorrectly assume that the intent of the manufacturer is to convey that the candy bar is a low-fat food.
In addition, companies frequently refer to a fruit juice,
such as apple, orange, or cranberry juice, in their product
names or as part of a claim on package labels. Because
most of these products contain at least some fruit juice,
these claims are literally true. However, in the absence of
information to the contrary, consumers may infer incorrectly that all these products contain 100% fruit juice. In a
similar vein, POM Wonderful recently sued several beverage manufacturers, including Coca-Cola, Welch’s, and
Ocean Spray, for advertising that their fruit juice blends are
grape–pomegranate or cranberry–pomegranate blends.
Although it is literally true that these beverages contain
pomegranate juice, which is high in antioxidants, the juice
blends typically have a small amount of pomegranate juice
and largely contain apple juice (Hyland 2009). One
approach to eliminate consumer misperceptions could be to
require labeling of the percentage of juice content for all
products purporting to contain fruit and vegetable juices.
Such a requirement might enable consumers to determine
the relative juice content of competing products.
Research and Policy Implications
The FDA has long been concerned with marketing claims
about nutrients that erroneously convey to consumers that
the product has a smaller amount of an undesirable nutrient
than is, in reality, the case. Before the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (Pub. L. 101-53) in 1990,
marketers were able to make claims such as “reduced fat”
or “light” without any requirements for nutrient (fat) content. With the passage of the act, the FDA set standards for
many of these claims. For example, for a “fat-free” claim,
the product must have less than .5 grams of fat per serving,
and a “low-fat” claim is allowed for products with no more
than 3 grams of fat per serving. Other claims, including
“reduced fat,” “low cholesterol,” “light,” and “healthy,”
also have FDA-designated minimum requirements. More
recently, there have been calls for the FDA to specify qualifying nutrient levels for carbohydrate-related claims. Food
marketers are increasingly using claims such as “low carb,”
“reduced carb,” and “carb smart.” However, little research
has examined how consumers interpret these claims and
whether they are misled by them.
Particularly noteworthy are situations in which the product’s brand name connotes or implies performance on a particular attribute or function that is false or misleading. For
example, many weight loss products use names that suggest
that the product will help people lose weight. In 2000, as a
part of a settlement, the FTC (2002a, 2005b) ordered
Enforma Natural Products to stop using the names “fat trapper” and “fat trapper plus” for two of its weight loss products unless it could produce reliable evidence that the products cause weight loss. The name “fat trapper” likely
communicated to consumers that the product trapped fat in
the body and thus caused weight loss. Moreover, it is
unlikely that any disclosure designed to convey that the
product does not cause weight loss by itself (i.e., without
diet and exercise) is likely to be effective. Consequently,
banning the use of the brand name may be the only possible
solution. However, this is a rather drastic remedy. Research
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 163
examining the effects of disclosures designed to correct the
potentially misleading effects of brand names is virtually
nonexistent and would prove most useful to illuminate
appropriate action in such situations.1
Interattribute Misleadingness
Consumers may rely on a claim for one attribute (“Brand X
is low in cholesterol”) to infer a claim on another attribute
(“Brand X is low in fat”). The inference occurs because
consumers believe (rightly or wrongly) that the two attributes are correlated. To the extent that the inferred claim is
false, consumers are misled.
Evidence that consumers process information in this manner comes from literature on inferences based on logical or
probabilistic consistency. This literature suggests that prior
knowledge and expectations of the association between two
attributes (“brands that are low in cholesterol are also low
in fat”) influences information processing when information about only one of the two attributes (e.g., cholesterol)
is provided. Several studies have shown inference making
in this manner (e.g., Andrews, Netemeyer, and Burton
1998; Broniarczyk and Alba 1994; Dick, Chakravarti, and
Biehal 1990; Ford and Smith 1987; Huber and McCann
1982; Roe, Levy, and Derby 1999).
The problem of potentially erroneous inferences generated by means of logical consistency is exacerbated by a
phenomenon termed “conservatism” or “belief perseverance” (Lord, Ross, and Lepper 1979). Research in this area
suggests that when people form an inference or belief, they
tend to hold onto that belief even when confronted with evidence that directly challenges it. This problem is particularly acute when the evidence challenging a prior belief is
ambiguous or difficult to interpret (e.g., Hoch and Deighton
1989; Hoch and Ha 1986). Thus, for example, if a product
label says “low in cholesterol,” consumers may rely on
logical consistency to infer that the product is low in fat
even if the label discloses the actual grams of fat in the
product. The reason is that numerical information about
nutrients is ambiguous and difficult to interpret for many
consumers (Viswanathan 1994; Viswanathan and Hastak
2002; Viswanathan, Hastak, and Gau 2009). In such a case,
setting qualifying standards or banning the claim might be
more appropriate than merely disclosing the grams of fat in
the product.
Foods such as cakes and pastries are often marketed as
being low in fat to make them more appealing to weightconscious consumers. Consumers may infer on the basis of
logical consistency that such products are also low in calories. However, they may be misled because many of these
foods contain a high number of calories. Similarly, most
brands of potato chips contain no cholesterol. However, a
1Generalized performance-suggesting names such as Slimfast seem to
be allowed in general. Only names that specifically and falsely suggest a
particular method of performance are not allowed (e.g., Fat Trapper) or are
allowed with disclosure (e.g., Aspercreme).
brand making a “no cholesterol” claim may be erroneously
perceived as low in saturated fat as well.
Dairy cows are sometimes treated with a growth hormone
called rBST to increase milk production. Milk producers
that market milk from cows not treated with rBST have
sought to label their product “rBST-free.” A logical inference that consumers could draw from such labeling is that
this milk is safer and/or of higher quality than milk from
rBST-treated cows. To the extent that such an inference is
not supported by scientific data, consumers may be misled.
From 1988 to 1996, Doan’s advertised its analgesic products as having a “unique” ingredient that “other pain relievers don’t have.” This is a literally true statement. However,
consumers inferred incorrectly that as a result of this “special” ingredient, Doan’s was more effective than other analgesic products for back pain relief (Mazis 2001).
A more recent example is DanActive dairy drink. Dannon’s advertisements for DanActive made the express claim
that the product is “clinically proven to help strengthen
your body’s defenses.” The FTC (2010) argued that the
advertisements conveyed (by implication) that the product
reduces the likelihood of getting a cold or flu, an unsubstantiated claim. Most consumers likely perceive a correlation
between stronger body defenses and lower susceptibility to
colds and flu. Thus, information on one attribute likely
leads to inferences about the other.
Research and Policy Implications
Consumers’ tendency to cling to their inferences even in
the face of contrary information may pose a particularly
significant problem for low-literate consumers. In their
review, Viswanathan, Rosa, and Harris (2005) note that as
many as one-fourth of the adult U.S. population lacks even
rudimentary language and numeracy skills. They further
suggest that functionally illiterate consumers tend to rely
more on concrete thinking and pictographic information to
make judgments and decisions. Consequently, numerical
or verbal disclosures presented to correct incorrect inferences based on advertising or label information may be
particularly ineffective with these customer segments
(Viswanthan, Hastak, and Gau 2009). This is both an
important and worthwhile research area with significant
policy implications.
The literature on “conservatism” or “belief perseverance”
discussed previously also may be particularly relevant to
situations in which consumers receive “corrective” disclosures some time after they have been exposed to misleading
or deceptive claims. For example, in many instances, consumers are exposed to deceptive claims in advertising or
sales presentations and subsequently receive “corrective”
disclosures closer to the moment of purchase. In these
cases, even clear and conspicuous disclosures may not be
effective because of consumers’ tendency to assimilate new
information with past beliefs. The FTC seems to be sensitive to this problem. In its policy statement on deception,
the FTC (1983) notes that “Oral statements, label disclosures, or point-of-sale material will not necessarily correct a
deceptive representation or omission. Thus, when the first
contact between a seller and buyer occurs through a deceptive practice, the law may be violated even if the truth is
subsequently made known to the purchaser.” The efficacy
164 Deception by Implication
of disclosures (or lack thereof) provided some time (i.e.,
days rather than minutes) after initial contact with deceptive
information has not received attention in the literature and
constitutes an important unexplored area.
Source-Based Misleadingness
Consumers are frequently exposed to endorsements by
expert individuals or organizations (“expert source”) or to
testimonials by ordinary users of the product (“typical consumer source”). However, there are many situations in
which such endorsements may mislead consumers. First,
when the “expert” offers an opinion about an issue outside
his or her area of expertise, consumers may be misled. Second, consumers may be misled when the expert or endorsing organization has a relationship with the marketer and
does not provide an unbiased opinion. Third, when marketers assert that a majority of relevant experts endorse the
product, consumers may assume that this involves a representative sampling of experts. However, in some cases, a
marketer will present only the opinions of experts who
favor the product. Fourth, a marketer might prominently
mention a credible organization on its product label, leading
consumers to assume erroneously that the product has been
endorsed by the organization. Finally, when consumer testimonials are presented, consumers may assume that these
involve a representative sampling of users and/or that these
users are disinterested consumers. However, a marketer
may present only the opinions of satisfied users and/or of
family members or friends.
Social influence theory provides a basis for conceptualizing
the effects of various sources on consumer perceptions and
evaluations. Specifically, the concept of informational
social influence that Deutsch and Gerard (1955) proposed
refers to the tendency to accept information from others as
evidence of reality (see also Bearden, Netemeyer, and Teel
1989; Burnkrant and Cousineau 1975; Dean and Biswas
2001; Martin, Wentzel, and Tomczak 2008).2 Both expert
endorsers (either individuals or third-party organizations)
and typical consumer endorsers likely produce informational influence through the internalization process. Specifically, consumers tend to accept the recommendations of the
endorser because of either the endorser’s expertise or the
similarity of the endorser to themselves. In situations in
which multiple endorsers (either experts or consumers) are
employed, the influence generated by the endorsers may be
further enhanced by social proof. Social proof suggests that
people are more likely to imitate the actions of a large
group than the actions of just one person because they tend
to reason that if a lot of people are doing something, they
must be right (Cialdini 2001).
An example of an expert offering an opinion outside his or
her area of expertise might be a surgeon endorsing a dietary
2The concept of informational social influence is similar to the process
of internalization that Kellman (1958, 1961) postulates.
supplement. Consumers may be misled if they assume that
the surgeon has nutritional expertise, thus creating informational influence. As another example, Dura Lube advertisements featured a former NASA astronaut. According to the
FTC (1999b), Dura Lube represented that the astronaut had
expertise in the evaluation of automobile engine lubrication
and that he endorsed Dura Lube by means of independent,
objective, and valid testing. However, the astronaut was not
an expert in automobile engine lubrication, and he had not
endorsed the product using scientific testing.
In addition, some marketers create and/or support “independent”-sounding organizations that then endorse the marketer’s products or positions. Consumers may infer that this
organization provides an unbiased expert opinion and thus
may be subject to informational influence. Screen Test
U.S.A. tried to convince consumers that it could assist them
in getting their children modeling jobs if they purchased its
services. To add credibility to their activities, Screen Test
U.S.A. claimed that it was endorsed by the American Child
Actor and Modeling Association. However, this association
was a shell corporation created by the owner of Screen Test
U.S.A. (FTC 1999a).
An infant formula manufacturer might make the claim
“recommended by more pediatricians than any other formula.” This type of a claim operates through informational
influence involving an expert source (pediatricians) and
through social proof (i.e., most pediatricians recommend
the product). In reality, 80% of the pediatricians surveyed
might have expressed no preference for any one formula.
Thus, although this claim may be literally true, the implication that a majority of pediatricians prefer the formula is
An orange juice manufacturer might include a reference
to the American Heart Association’s recommendation to
eat more fruit and vegetables. Consumers would be misled
if they inferred that the American Heart Association
endorses this brand of orange juice as a means to prevent
heart disease.
Research and Policy Implications
By many accounts, source-based misleadingness is on the
rise. In particular, the use of consumer testimonials (i.e.,
endorsements by typical users of a product) is widespread.
While consumer testimonials are popular in a wide variety
of product categories, they are ubiquitous in advertising for
dietary supplements, weight loss products, and business
opportunity services. For example, in a 2002 content analysis of weight loss advertisements disseminated through
various media (e.g., television, radio, magazines, newspapers, direct mail, websites), the FTC (2002b) found that
65% of all advertisements used consumer testimonials. Furthermore, the FTC found that the use of consumer testimonials appearing in weight loss advertisements in select
magazines (i.e., Family Circle, Cosmopolitan, Women’s
Day, Glamour, McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, Self, and
Redbook) increased significantly, from 12.5% in 1992 to
76% in 2001.
However, although many academic studies have examined celebrity endorsers, the effects of typical consumer
endorsements and testimonials have received limited attention (for exceptions, see Feick and Higie 1992; Martin,
Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 165
Wentzel and Tomczak 2008). Moreover, the literature has
focused more on the effects of testimonials on product
evaluations than on deception and miscommunication
issues. Two unpublished studies commissioned by the FTC
that address these issues were recently released (in 2009)
as a part of its review of its endorsement guides. The studies (Hastak and Mazis 2003; Hastak and Mazis 2004)
tested the effects of consumer testimonials on a variety of
products (e.g., weight loss, dietary supplement, business
opportunity) and found that consumer testimonials do communicate that product users will achieve results similar to
those portrayed in the advertisements and that most “corrective” disclosures (including “results not typical”) do not
significantly reduce this communication. Only one disclosure (tested only for a weight loss product), which stated
how much weight the average user loses using the product
(the “average results” disclosure), significantly reduced
such communication.
Partly from these studies’ findings, the FTC adopted new
endorsement guides (in October 2009) that explicitly reject
disclaimers such as “results not typical” and require instead a
disclaimer that informs consumers about the results they may
realistically expect to achieve (e.g., how much weight would
a typical user lose after using the product) (FTC 2009). However, this is clearly an area in need of additional research. For
example, although the Hastak and Mazis (2003, 2004) studies tested several products, it is unclear whether the deceptive
effects of testimonials vary by product type. Furthermore, the
economics of information literature suggests that products
can be classified into “search” and “experience” categories.
Search products can be evaluated before purchase, whereas
experience products must be consumed or used before they
can be evaluated. The literature suggests that consumers are
less likely to be skeptical of search products than experience
products because search product claims can be verified more
easily before purchase (see Ford, Smith, and Swasy 1990).
Thus, consumer testimonials may be more effective for
search products. Other issues worthy of investigation include
the effects of single versus multiple testimonials; multiple
testimonials with homogeneous versus heterogeneous experiences; and individual difference variables, such as locus of
control, ad skepticism, and susceptibility to normative influence as moderating variables.
explain to students the importance of psychological theories
in understanding consumer behavior. Furthermore, the
many unaddressed issues and questions highlighted herein
should provide a fertile ground for enriching class discussion and fostering deeper inquiry.
In addition, we believe that the typology offers the potential for improving the quality of expert opinions presented
in deceptive advertising cases. Such expert opinions are
increasingly being confronted in court through Daubert
challenges (Ford 2005), which call into question the scientific basis for opining about consumer perceptions of advertising and labeling claims. Although expert opinion sometimes relies on specific theoretical concepts drawn from the
marketing and psychological literature to bolster the proffered opinion (e.g., Federal Trade Commission v. Telebrands, TV Savings LLC, and Ajit Khubani 2005; Mazis
2001), there is no comprehensive framework in the literature that deals with the various deceptive implied claims
and their psychological/theoretical underpinnings. We
believe that the typology and framework proposed provides
a stronger basis for building expert analysis and opinion
than has been available heretofore.
Finally, the typology should help develop a better understanding of deception, which, we hope, will foster a new
steam of academic research in the field. We expect that the
theories presented will encourage researchers to develop
theory-driven research hypotheses about the effects of
deceptive advertising on consumers and about approaches
for enhancing the effectiveness of advertising disclosures.
To that end, we have presented several research ideas that
should provide a starting point for fruitful academic
research studies.
———,Richard G. Netemeyer, and Scot Burton (1998), “Consumer
Generalization of Nutrient Content Claims in Advertising,”
Journal of Marketing, 62 (October), 62–75.
In this article, we present a new typology of truthful but
misleading advertising and labeling claims. The typology
relies on theoretical frameworks in cognitive and social
psychology to develop a rich understanding of why consumers are likely to be misled by particular types of advertising and labeling claims. We provide numerous examples
from the marketplace and from FTC and FDA cases to
illustrate the elements of the typology.
We believe that the typology is beneficial for pedagogy,
litigation, and academic research. The typology should
assist pedagogy by providing students with insights into the
types of implied claims that are the source of controversy
between regulators and marketers. Moreover, the theory
and the examples presented should help students understand
the theoretical underpinnings of challenged advertising
claims. The theoretical discussion should help faculty
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