Advertising Reality Check: Are You Leading -- Or Lying?

Last Updated May 6, 2011 5:24 AM EDT

Who doesn't want to be at the leading edge of advertising, using the latest and greatest methods to reach customers?

But mind that edge. It can be sharp.

Two recent examples come to mind. The first is Your Baby Can Read!, a reading program for babies as young as three months old. You've probably seen its TV ads, but the company also has a vibrant Facebook presence from which it broadcasts product claims.

Last month, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Your Baby Can Read! for "false and deceptive marketing." CCFC claims babies can't be taught to read â€" just memorize. The company denies the allegations.

The government also acted to shut down several other businesses using new media to get their message out. The FTC asked the federal courts to help it shut down 10 operations using fake news websites to market acai berry weight-loss products. The sites were meant to appear as if they belong to legitimate news-gathering organizations, but in reality they were simply advertisements aimed at deceptively enticing consumers to buy the featured acai berry weight-loss products from other merchants.

Both Your Baby Can Read! and the acai sites were leveraging the latest methods of reaching customers. Were they using them correctly? That's up to a the government, or a federal judge, to decide.

Don't stop innovating
Even though it can be confusing at times, advertising experts say innovation is important.

"While the traditional methods of television, print, and radio can still be a very important part of the marketing mix, social and digital media have opened a cadre of opportunities and delivery options to engage with them," says John Gatesman, president of GatesmanMarmion+Dave, a marketing communications agency in Pittsburgh.

But to a certain extent, it's also the Wild West out there.

"Smart advertisers are beginning to integrate their messaging across various communications platforms and are breaking down the silos and distinctions between traditional and other media, like digital, social and buzz," says Paul Kurnit, a marketing professor at Pace University.

The line between leadership â€" pushing the boundaries of new media â€" and lying may not be so clear in this new world.

Take the three biggest growth areas in nontraditional advertising. They're fraught with customer-service perils for the average company.

Mobile. Ads can ads range from straightforward, relatively legit campaigns that display banners at the top of the Web pages you visit, to the somewhat questionable, like shooting you an unsolicited text message or embedding a surprise ad inside a customer's mobile app â€" to the downright duplicitous, like company employees masquerading as consumers on some of the location-based social media sites that use mobile phones.

Social media. While many of these initiatives will be above-board, using only social media to augment and spread their messages, there are plenty of corporate liars out there who try to deceive users. Here's an ad for a company that ran a job listing for "a few good writers" who can "can leave native comments in groups and to people that are relative to our Company's products."

Online videos. When your customers think of online videos, they think of cute kittens on the Huffington Post or Justin Bieber videos on YouTube. You think of delivering your corporate message. The gold standard? Having one of your clips go "viral" and be seen by tens of millions of people. But unless you have the next superviral superbowl ad, your best shot is to look as non-commercial, homegrown and, in the words of marketing executives, as "authentic" as possible.

And there's the challenge. Innovate, yes. But don't lie.

But what is a lie? In the Wild West, who's to say what the truth is?

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, syndicated columnist and curator of the On Your Side wiki. He also covers customer service for the Mint.com blog. You can follow Elliott on Twitter, Facebook or his personal blog, Elliott.org or email him directly.
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Photo: andyarthur/Flickr
  • Christopher Elliott

    Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and journalist. A columnist for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the Washington Post, Elliott also has a nationally syndicated column and blogs about customer service for the Mint.com. He is at work on a book about customer service issues.