Confirmation and publication biases in academia result in misleading data (Chambers, 2017), but they are not the only cause of deceptive statistics. Did you ever notice slogans like “9 in 10 doctors recommend [brandname]!” or “80% of dentists recommend [brandname]!”? Such slogans are used in advertising to promote products, services or brands. They are hard to miss because the numbers used in those ads are quite impressive and that is exactly what makes them effective.
Numbers like “9 in 10 people” or “80% of people” are statistics. They are used as a tool to convey information because they can help us understand out-of-context numbers, and they can even increase the credibility of a message (Koetsenruijter, 2011) and persuade people (Baesler & Burgoon, 1994). For instance, the remark “8 dentists recommend Sensodyne” doesn’t mean much. However, when a statistic is used such as “8 in 10 dentists recommend Sensodyne”, it is a meaningful remark and it sounds imperative. Statistics are therefore very useful in advertising.
Have a look at the following Colgate commercial. First, they scare the viewer by mentioning a high percentage and then they use an even higher percentage to comfort the viewer. The use of percentages makes it look important again. So, are these statistics real?
Examples of misleading statistics in advertising
Personally, I was under the impression that the percentages used in ads like these were false and that companies were allowed to practically say anything they wanted without endangering people. However, that is not true. Usually, the claims are based on real data. However, a few years ago, Colgate used a deceptive slogan. It said, “more than 80% of dentists recommend Colgate.” That is definitely an impressive number. Now, you might think that this statistic is a lie, but it isn’t. However, it is misleading. The slogan indicates that more than 80% of dentists recommend Colgate above any other toothpaste brand. That is not the case, according to Politifact (a fact-checking website). They checked the data that is referred to in Colgate’s advertisement. While it is true that more than 80% of the participating dentists recommend Colgate, they were allowed to recommend multiple brands. It means that Colgate is not necessarily recommended above any other brand. What went wrong here is that the question asked in the study is different from what we thought the question was when we read the slogan — a misleading way to present statistics. As a result, this ad was named misleading and got banned.
Another brand that used a false statistic in their advertisement is the cereal brand Kellogg’s. They advertised their Frosted Mini Wheats with the following slogan: “clinically shown to improve kids’ attentiveness by nearly 20%.” Again, this is a very impressive claim. However, this claim is not only misleading, but it is also inaccurate. According to the Federal Trade Commission (a US government organisation protecting consumers), the study that is referred to in Kellogg’s advertising found that “only about half the children who ate Frosted Mini Wheats for breakfast showed any improvement in attentiveness, and only about one in nine improved by 20 per cent or more” (Federal Trade Commission, 2009). . What exactly went wrong here is not clear. Kellogg’s could have (deliberately) misinterpreted the data or they might have tampered with it. In any case, the slogan was named misleading. This ad was banned as well and the brand had to pay a fee of a few million dollars
These two ads participate in the spread of misinformation. They are examples of unethical advertising: dishonest ways to convince the consumer to buy a product. While there are certain rules about advertising, unethical advertising is not actually breaking the law (Clark, 2018). However, the examples before did break the law. It made me wonder why companies would use such unethical tactics. The advantage is probably a more effective advertisement but there are way more disadvantages when the company gets caught, for example:
- The advertisement will be banned;
- The company receives a million-dollar fee;
- The brand’s trustworthiness declines.
Surely that cannot be more profitable than a slightly less effective advertisement? The only reason I can think of companies using such unethical tactics is the same reason academic researchers might tamper with their data: desperation to succeed.
To summarise, statistics can increase credibility and companies use that to advertise and convince people to buy their products. As I mentioned, I was under the impression that companies could practically say whatever they want in their advertisements, so I am surprised that the numbers mentioned are based on actual data. However, my surprise does not make these slogans acceptable. Kellogg’s slogan is factually wrong and Colgate’s slogan is very misleading. Therefore I believe that in advertising, it is unethical for companies to use misinformation by tampering with data or presenting data in a misleading manner to get their message across, even if it does not endanger people.
Baesler, E. J., & Burgoon, J. K. (1994). The temporal effects of story and statistical evidence on belief change. Communication Research, 21(5), 582–602. https://doi.org/10.1177/009365094021005002
Chambers, C. (2017). The sin of bias. In The 7 deadly sins of psychology. A manifesto for reforming the culture of scientific practice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Clark, V. (2018, October 12). 3 Things Wrong with Unethical Advertising and Why It’s Such a No No. Dominion. https://www.dominionprint.com/3-things-wrong-with-unethical-advertising-and-why-its-such-a-no-no/
Federal Trade Commission. (2009, April 20). Kellogg settles FTC charges that ads for Frosted Mini-Wheats were false. FTC.
Koetsenruijter, A. W. M. (2011). Using Numbers in News Increases Story Credibility. Newspaper Research Journal, 32(2), 74–82. https://doi.org/10.1177/073953291103200207