Stupid FTC Watch: Your Overlords Have Spoken
By Ken Magill
In another piece of evidence that Federal Trade Commissioners have way too little to do, they just released a study implying the words “up to” in advertising are inherently deceptive.
No, not because they’re inaccurate or wrong, but because a lot of people apparently don’t pay a whole lot of attention when reading advertisements after being accosted by market researchers in malls.
The study is part of a larger FTC agenda under which marketing’s overlords have decreed the words “up to” in advertising—as in “save up to”—must have meaning far beyond the pesky English language’s definition.
We can probably expect similar attacks on “as much as” and “as low as” soon enough.
First, the study: In mall intercepts in five markets, 360 consumers were shown three versions of a fictional ad for Bristol Windows.
One ad said the windows are “proven to save up to 47% on your heating and cooling bills!” A second ad was identical to the first but omitted the words “up to.” The third ad was identical to the first but included a disclaimer at the bottom that said: “The average Bristol Windows owner saves about 25% on heating and cooling bills."
Of the respondents who viewed the first ad, with the "up to 47%," one in four reported the ad indicated savings of up to 47 percent. One in three shoppers said the ad stated or implied savings of 47 percent.
For the ad with the disclaimer, 15.7 percent of those asked indicated savings would probably be 25 percent.
Of course, any normal person’s reaction to those findings would be: “Yeah? So what? These are mall intercepts testing people’s initial reactions to ads for highly considered purchases under highly unnatural conditions. Who in their right mind would make a $15,000 purchase based on a limited glance in a mall at a single print ad?”
These results offer no useful information.
That is, unless they’re part of an agenda.
On May 18, the FTC published decrees—or “settlements” in FTC euphemese—against five replacement-windows merchants barring them from making any claims about possible energy savings unless “at the time of making such representation, respondent possesses and relies upon competent and reliable scientific evidence to substantiate that all or almost all consumers are likely to receive the maximum represented savings or reduction.”
So you see?
Whoever was in charge of this farce decided they didn’t like the weasel words—and yes, I admit, they are weasel words—“up to,” mounted a witch hunt against five companies, made examples of them and commissioned a trivial, bogus study to back up their decree.
Read and heed, marketers. Your FTC overlords just sent you a message and it ain’t about windows.
Think I’m paranoid?
Then check out the statement the FTC supplied on the study to Consumerist.com:
"These figures indicate that a substantial percentage of consumers interpreted this 'up to' claim to say that a majority of users would receive the maximum promised results," wrote FTC staff attorney Serena Viswanathan in a statement, according to Consumerist. "This data supports the FTC’s view that advertisers making similar claims should be able to prove that consumers are likely to get the maximum results promised under normal circumstances."
Got that? Suddenly, “up to” can’t mean up to any more. The FTC has just declared it must mean “likely to.”
Why? “Shut up,” the FTC explained.