Deceptive advertising is marketing or promotion that is false or misleading. Federal and state governments outlaw deceptive advertising for its potentially harmful effects on consumers. The Federal Trade Commission is the U.S. government’s chief advertising regulator. Attorney generals’ offices handle the responsibility at the state level, usually through consumer protection agencies. Fake news websites and costly free trials are common examples of deceptive advertising.

Fake News Websites

Deceptive advertisers sometimes disguise their tactics through websites that pretend to be legitimate news sources and sometimes use logos from well-known media outlets to make the sites look official. The "news" articles are actually ads touting the benefits of a product, usually a health enhancer, and featuring unverifiable testimonies by physicians or other "experts." They might be placed alongside articles featuring real news about politics or the economy. Below the articles are links to free trial offers. Deadlines for signing up for these offers are short, typically one day. Cancellation policies and other details are buried in the “terms and conditions” sections of the text, where consumers might not see them.

“Free" Trials

Ads claiming to offer free trials of products are deceptive if hidden charges are part of the offer. By law, anything advertised as “free” must not cost consumers any money. Companies use this deceptive practice -- often online – to entice buyers to select the free trial offer in return for their credit or debit card information. These companies then charge merchandise to buyers’ accounts without their consent. Charges can be high and are usually set to cover the cost of the so-called “free trial” merchandise.

Membership Plans

Another type of deceptive ad lures consumers into buying many products for very little money -- for example, "Five CDs for only $1” -- while not revealing that taking the bait implies signing up for a club membership in which buyers agree to purchase additional products from the advertiser at regular prices. The FTC requires companies’ ads to follow the “prenotification negative option” rule. Ads must clearly explain whether plans have minimum purchases, how buyers can cancel membership or reject merchandise and what postage and handling costs apply. Nonprint ads, such as phone or TV promotions, also must describe the terms and conditions of membership plans.

Mouse Print

Deceptive advertisers use “mouse print,” or fine print, to clarify exaggerated claims in their ads. Mouse print explains the limitations, additional charges, policies and restrictions on product offers. But following overstated claims with truth in advertising explanations is a bait-and-switch tactic. For example, a retailer attracts buyers by promising to match its competitors’ lower prices. But the mouse print in the retailer’s ad pulls the “switch” by stating that price matching applies to limited products at select stores.

Mouse print is also found on product labels. A 15-ounce box of cereal might contain only 13 ounces, for example, and this might be noted in the small print. Food merchandisers who downsize the content of their goods but keep the price and package size the same are acting deceptively, even if the mouse print is truthful. Consumers might not know they’re getting less of a product for their money without reading the mouse print.