It doesn’t pay to deceive the public.
In advertising, there’s a big difference between pushing the truth and making false claims.
Many companies have been caught out for peddling mediocre products, using wild claims like “scientifically proven” with “guaranteed results.”
For companies that cross the line, it can cost millions and lead to a damaged reputation.
We found 18 examples of false advertising scandals that have rocked big brands — some are still ongoing and not all companies have had to pay up, but each dealt with a fair amount of negative publicity.
Karlee Weinmann and Kim Bhasin contributed to an earlier version of this report.
VW falsely advertised environmentally friendly diesel cars.
On March 29 this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a lawsuit against Volkswagen, which claimed that the car company had deceived customers with the advertising campaign it used to promote its supposedly “Clean Diesel” vehicles, according to a press release.
In 2015, it was exposed that VW had been cheating emissions tests on its diesel cars in the US for the past seven years.
The FTC alleged that “Volkswagen deceived consumers by selling or leasing more than 550,000 diesel cars based on false claims that the cars were low-emission, environmentally friendly.”
On top of potential fines for false advertising, the company could have to pay out up to $61 billion for violating the Clean Air Act,according to Wired.
Activia yogurt said it had “special bacterial ingredients.”
Ads for Dannon’s popular Activia brand yogurt landed the company with a class action settlement of $45 million in 2010, according to ABC News. The yogurts were marketed as being “clinically” and “scientifically” proven to boost your immune system and able to help to regulate digestion.
The Activia ad campaign, fronted by actress Jamie Lee Curtis, claimed that the yogurt had special bacterial ingredients. As a result, the yogurt was sold at 30% higher prices than other similar products. However, the Cleveland judge overseeing the case said that these claims were unproven.
The lawsuit against Dannon began in 2008, when consumer Trish Wiener lodged a complaint. On top of the fine of $45 million, Dannon was ordered to remove “clinically” and “scientifically proven” from its labels, according to ABC.
Phrases similar to “clinical studies show” were deemed permissible. Dannon denied any wrongdoing and claimed it settled the lawsuit to “avoid the cost and distraction of litigation.”
Red Bull said it could “give you wings.”
Energy drinks company Red Bull was sued in 2014 for its slogan “Red Bull gives you wings.” The company settled the class action case by agreeing to pay out a maximum of $13 million — including $10 to every US consumer who had bough the drink since 2002.
The tagline, which the company has used for nearly two decades, went alongside marketing claims that that the caffeinated drink could improve a consumer’s concentration and reaction speed.
Beganin Caraethers was one of several consumers who brought the case against the Austrian drinks company. He said he was a regular consumer of Red Bull for 10 years, but that he had not developed “wings,” or shown any signs of improved intellectual or physical abilities.
Red Bull released this statement following the settlement:
Red Bull settled the lawsuit to avoid the cost and distraction of litigation. However, Red Bull maintains that its marketing and labeling have always been truthful and accurate, and denies any and all wrongdoing or liability.
Tesco was criticised for an ad in response to the horsemeat scandal, which suggested the problem affected “the whole food industry.”
In 2013, UK supermarket chain Tesco was criticized after it ran a “misleading” ad campaign in the wake of its horse meat scandal, according to The Telegraph.
The supermarket had been caught selling beef contaminated with horse meat in some of its burgers and ready meals.
In an attempt to recover from the PR disaster, Tesco ran a two-page spread in national newspapers with the headline “What burgers have taught us.”
In the ad, Tesco was criticized for implying that the whole meat industry was implicated in the horse meat fiasco, which was untrue. The UK advertising regulator ASA banned the campaign.
Nearly £300 million ($432 million) was wiped off the value of Tesco following the horse meat scandal, according to The Guardian.
Kellogg said Rice Krispies could boost your immune system.
Kellogg’s popular Rice Krispies cereal had a crisis in 2010 when the brand was accused of misleading consumers about the product’s immunity-boosting properties, according to CNN.
The Federal Trade Commission ordered Kellogg to halt all advertising that claimed that the cereal improved a child’s immunity with “25 percent Daily Value of Antioxidants and Nutrients — Vitamins A, B, C and E,” stating the the claims were “dubious.”
The case was settled in 2011. Kellogg agreed to pay $2.5 million to affected consumers, as well as donating $2.5 million worth of Kellogg products to charity, according to Law360.