Sometimes, information can seem so bizarre that you really have to verify it before you dare believe it.

When a friend told me that the makers of energy drink Red Bull were sued for failing to give a customer wings, and ended up paying out a huge settlement, I had no choice but to look it up.

Had the plaintiffs actually thought they would be able to fly? Not exactly. In fact, although the dearth of wings was mentioned, the lawsuit actually involved the beverage’s failure to live up to its claims of “vitalizing body and mind,” when in fact its caffeine and sugar content is far lower than that of the cup of coffee beside me now; and it is only those substances (not the over-touted taurine) which gives the consumer any energetic boost.

The issue at hand was that the company, while claiming premium results for the drink, also charges premium prices: judging from prices online earlier this morning, you can expect to pay up to ten times more for what’s inside that can than you would for the same amount of caffeinated soda – a cola or a root beer – and that’s what moved the plaintiff to call Red Bull on its product’s lack of pteraphoric capability (you may have had too much coffee – ed).

It’s not just wing-growing claims that have been called into question: in 2013, two New Jersey men sued American sandwich chain Subway, because their advertised “footlong” subs measured only eleven inches. The lawsuit – so they claimed – was not about any personal damage in missing that last inch, but, rather, holding companies strictly accountable for their advertising claims.

Often, however, the cases are far less whimsical – and more sinister in a corporation’s intent to deceive its public about the medicinal benefits of its products, in order to gain more market share. This practice was around even before actors in white lab coats glibly proclaimed the healthy effects of smoking, but the global ban on cigarette commercials from American airwaves in 1971 has not stopped advertisers from playing doctor with the public mind.

Kellogg’s cereals cashed in on the anxiety surrounding the 2009 Swine Flu epidemic by emblazoning the words: “Now helps support your child’s immunity!” on their boxes of Rice Krispies; by 2010, the Federal Trade Commission had forced them to remove the banner, as the mix of vitamins added to the cereal had no proven effect on immunity.

This has not dampened advertisers’ enthusiasm for bending the truth in the name of grabbing the consumer’s health dollar – despite a stunning lack of clinical evidence to prove any benefit to immunity whatsoever, manufacturers of such potions as AirBorne still blithely announce to the public that their product will help to defend them from colds, even when walking into the sea of germs that is public transportation, without any accountability to scientific truth.

Pseudo-science isn’t just used to boost a company’s claims to the added benefits of their products; sometimes the products are as fraudulent as the advertising – a company selling a $200 kit to parents with the claim “Your baby can read!” was thankfully shouted down by both watchdog groups and the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

However, other fraudulent products stay on the market, even after being proved a total scam. While researching this article, I came across not one, but two separate garment companies marketing leggings “infused” with caffeine, and boldly claiming weight loss (“As much as two inches off your waist!”) as the selling point of the otherwise unremarkable garment. Does it work? Of course not!

The FTC was able to force a refund settlement to those consumers who bought the stockings – and sent in the proper form – but both companies still cheerfully advertise the stockings as an actual weight loss solution. Nivea’s “Skin Firming” cream reached the same outcome. The cream was purported to help to slim down a double chin, but could not support this claim with sufficient evidence.

Now, because I have researched the product, my web searches will offer me the selfsame improbable claims about caffeinated pantyhose, until my admittedly diverse browser history crowds it out with something even more embarrassingly bizarre. And although I’m fluffy enough to be tempted to try them, I know better than to believe the ads – although some companies are taken to court for the more flagrant statements that ad agencies make on their behalf, the rule seems ever to be “let the buyer beware.”

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about fraudulent advertising you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! 

Sources:

Red Bull

Subway

Rice Krispies

Your Baby Can Read!

Weight Loss Pantyhose:

Wacoal

Lytess

Nivea