Too Good to Be True: What We Can Learn From These 5 Misleading Ads

misleading ads

From over-the-top claims to misleading information, the advertising world isn’t a stranger to controversy. As technology and the internet have permeated our lives, and we have access to more screens, it’s virtually impossible to escape the myriad of ads brands use to fight for our attention (and our money). 

No matter how often brands create ads that stretch the truth about their products, there are plenty of examples that trying to deceive the public doesn’t pay. 

On the contrary, it can cost thousands or even millions in fines and class-action lawsuit settlements. We will explore some of the most scandalous cases of misleading ads in recent years, their consequences, and the lessons small businesses can learn from them. 

L’Oréal’s “Genetic Booster” Products

One of the business verticals that has seen exponential growth during the 2010s and the 2020s so far has been skincare and anti-aging products, and L’Oréal is the global leader company in this segment. The French conglomerate has been reprimanded for several misleading ads. A few of them stand out such as the campaigns for the products Lancôme Génifique and L’Oréal Paris Youth Code, both launched in the US market between 2009 and 2010.

One of the offending ads for L’Oréal Youth Code

L’Oréal claimed in their ads that clinical studies showed that both products could “boost genes” and give people “visibly younger” skin in just seven days. The claims were so bold that the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint for deceptive advertising in 2014. Unsurprisingly, the French conglomerate couldn’t back their claims up with the clinical studies they said were performed on the products and admitted their fault.

This time, L’Oréal just received a ban from making any claims for their products “affecting genes” without reliable scientific evidence in future campaigns and the warning of getting a $16,000 fine if they violate the agreement. 

With a fine that amounts to pocket change, L’Oréal more or less got away with its claims this time, but this hasn’t always been the case.

L’Oréal Strikes Again

L’Oréal’s pattern of advertising its products with exaggerated claims reached the Chinese market in 2018, this time with its product Biotherm Life Plankton Essence.

Printed ad for Biotherm Life Plankton Essence

This product promised to give a “newborn skin” in eight days and that anyone using the product would experience the “miracle.” This claim brought the attention of Chinese authorities and the social platform Weibo users alike, resulting in a 200,000 yuan fine for L’Oreal and a social media crisis to tackle.

This time, the company said to the media that they would investigate to ensure more thorough revisions of the wording used in future advertising.

Nivea’s “Body Reshaping” Cream

Following with products targeting our vanity, the next offender is Nivea’s “My Silhouette” body cream, launched on the Canadian market circa 2011. According to Nivea, the daily use of this cream would “reshape and slim down” the user’s body due to the action of the “Bio Slim Complex,” the main active ingredient. The claims sounded like a stretch to the Canada’s Competition Bureau, which conducted an investigation and concluded that insufficient testing failed to offer proof these claims were accurate.

Nivea’s My Silhouette ad

As a result, Beiersdorf Canada Inc. (Nivea’s parent company) received a $300,000 fine, was ordered to refund the purchase price for this cream to its customers, and immediately remove the product from the shelves. Curiously, the “My Silhouette” cream was already out of the US market from the same issue when the Competition Bureau put Nivea on their radar.

Red Bull and Its Wings

Austrian energy drink Red Bull is famous for claiming to “give you wings” and get you through the day. Even though this claim is an exaggeration for illustrative purposes, a can of Red Bull should at least give you more energy than a regular cup of black coffee, right? Well, it won’t. A Canadian consumer of this drink realized that and filed a lawsuit against the company in 2019.

Signature Red Bull ad

The suit claimed that Red Bull exaggerated its energy-boosting properties and that drinking a can of Red Bull didn’t have more energy effects than black coffee. And it was right: according to Red Bull’s website, one 250 ml can of the drink has 80 mg of caffeine, while a Starbucks Americano in a grande cup can give you a whopping 225 mg of caffeine power. Despite Red Bull having other ingredients to boost its effectiveness, the suit claimed it wasn’t enough.

And the Red Bull folks apparently agreed because they chose to settle and pay an $850,000 compensation. This isn’t the first time Red Bull has been sued for false advertising, since angry US customers filed a class-action lawsuit in 2014 and agreed to pay $13 million to compensate people who bought Red Bull since January 1, 2002. 

From our research, it appears Red Bull still claims that drinking it will “give you wings” in its worldwide ad campaigns.

HelloFresh’s “Free” Meals

German-based HelloFresh used a very intricate advertising scheme to lure their US audience into subscribing to their auto-renewal service with the promise of getting a certain number of free meal kits (varied from 17 to 21) in a 2022 national advertising campaign that included TV commercials, mail, email, and influencer marketing. Only there wasn’t anything free. 

HelloFresh promo cards for their free meals offer

According to, a non-profit organization dedicated to detecting and exposing false advertising, to claim the free meals offer, which in reality was an overtime discount, consumers had to not only subscribe to HelloFresh service without a clear disclaimer that warned them that the subscription would auto-renew, but they had to spend around $500 on meal kits before the customer could receive the said “free meals,” of around a $150 worth at the time. 

After the investigation, filed a complaint with the FTC against HelloFresh for these deceptive marketing tactics, which made the company change its wording and overall messaging for the campaign. This offer was no longer available by the time of writing this article.

When Trust Is Lost

Many people persuaded by these ads to buy these products lost their trust in these companies. In particular, surveys of Gen Z buyers show they will swiftly boycott a company they do not deem trustworthy, with little likelihood of changing their minds. Neuroscience tells us that loss of trust triggers an emotion regulation mechanism called “cognitive reappraisal” that reshapes a person’s unconscious opinion about something, in this case, a business.  

When a business faces a crisis in which its trustworthiness is affected, it must tackle the situation immediately because, in parallel with the cognitive reappraisal, our brains are prone to what neuroscientists call “sinister attribution error.” This is a circumstance where our perception is more likely to skew negatively, and we tend to relate a business with the bad time it put us through, in this case, with a misleading ad. For example, the people affected by the L’Oréal ads would hardly buy a product from this brand straight away ever again because, most likely, they’ve attached the implicit meaning of “distrust” or “suspicious” to the company name. 

To recover trustworthiness, it’s crucial to understand how the human brain assesses this quality and acts according to them:

  • Ability: the perception that an organization is capable of behaving in a trustworthy way;
  • Benevolence: the perception that the organization has shown genuine care and concern;
  • Integrity: the perception that an organization has followed its commitments and values.

Following these three points, the best thing a business can do to handle a reputational crisis is promptly communicate what happened, why it happened, and how it will compensate the affected customers. Being transparent and keeping the public in the loop of how they’re handling the situation, even if it isn’t perfect, it’s a better strategy than not addressing it because our first response to a trust-breaking experience is to associate the lack of comment with a lack of integrity, and that translates to the loss of clients.

The Takeaway

There’s no better way to finish this article than by saying there are compelling ways to advertise and write persuasive copy ethically. Big brands are masters in using the way our brains make decisions in their advertising. Our founder Bridget has been talking about neuromarketing for a while, and we can use it to highlight what small business owners can apply to cultivate trust in their copywriting:

Our brains decide before we notice using one of its least evolved areas, the limbic system. Here are some ways small businesses can write copywriting by knowing this:

  • Use numbers: brands like L’Oréal use numbers to claim visible results on certain product use days because of our brains like numbers. Adding numbers makes a text more digestible and more credible. Also, adding a timeframe in which people could expect results has been linked to the release of dopamine, known as the “feel-good hormone.” 

For example, “Get 50% more leads in three months” sounds more appealing than “Get more leads.”

  • Tell the bad news in a pleasant (but straightforward) way: sharing unpleasant information, such as HelloFresh’s conditions to claim their free meals offer, are a tricky aspect of copywriting. But instead of hiding this type of information from your audience, you can make it more digestible with these hacks:
  • Make your headline the main benefit of your offer: tell your audience the most significant advantage of buying from you.
  • Showcase the problems your offer solves: your audience will be more compelled to buy your product if you describe your product’s features as solutions to their problems.
  • Offer alternatives: if your offer implies a big purchase decision, you can offer downgraded alternatives to still get a sale and have a potential upselling opportunity afterward.
  • Persuade, not deceive: the examples presented in this article showcase the fine line between persuasion and deception when a brand takes it too far and starts hiding and twisting information.

The Biotherm case highlights how words impact how an audience perceives a brand or a product. Word choice affects your marketing efforts’ effectiveness and serves as a vehicle to provoke emotions and actions. 

Big brands know this, and L’Oréal’s use of wording in this case (“newborn skin” and “miracle”) targets the worries many people have towards aging and exploits them by promising things topical skincare products can hardly deliver. Appealing to emotions with tactics like storytelling is an excellent way to persuade with your copy, but doing it responsibly without over-promising is the way to go.

  • Back up your claims and showcase them in your copy: even if you create an excellent product and want to shout out to the world how amazing it is, make sure you have hard evidence proving that your product works. Anything from client reviews, clinical studies with their sources, and other types of testing depending on the product will work.