Why do we put up with scam ads?
When I say scam ads I do not mean the same thing the great Keith Reinhard means when he uses the term–i.e., fake ads that creatives put together to win awards. I mean ads that are designed to scam money from the weak-minded and gullible with demonstrably false or deceptive claims. You don’t have to think hard to come up with examples. Let’s start with Enzyte, a product that promoted “natural male enhancement.” Broadcast and TV networks gladly accepted millions of advertising dollars from Enzyte, even though they knew it was not approved by the FDA, and had no credible evidence demonstrating its effectiveness. Fast forward to February 22, 2008. Steven Warshak, the president and owner of Enzyte was convicted on 93 counts of conspiracy, fraud and money laundering and sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was also fined $93,000 and his company, Berkeley Premium Nutraceuticals was ordered to forfeit $500 million. I hope he has a 350-lb. cellmate named Otis.
The television networks that accepted the money for the media buy faced no penalty, nor did the NASCAR team that accepted millions of dollars create an Enzyte-painted car. According to the letter of the law in the United States, they were not culpable(though from a purely moral standpoint they do seem a bit lit accessories to a crime). The question is should that change? In countries like Canada and the United Kingdom, the content of advertising is subject to regulatory scrutiny and claims of fact must be proven. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing in light of the fact that media outlets and corporate sponsors have proven over and over again that they will gladly accept money from companies of which any thinking person must be deeply suspicious. This isn’t just about Enzyte. This is about countless unscrupulous companies selling miracle diets, get-rich-quick schemes, dietary supplements that claim to solve a host of medical problems though even their own fine print acknowledges the absence of any clinical trials or proof of effectiveness. The category can be summed up as all things too good to be true.
As advertising professionals, we have to realize that when we share the airwaves with scam ads, we are all diminished. The value of media and sponsorships are debased by the implicit possibility that the claims being made by an advertiser are demonstrably false. Despite roundly negative public perceptions about the advertising business, I have never met a good ad man or woman who thought that lying about a product was acceptable. If in the future a few “good” companies are required to prove the veracity of the claims in their advertising, it seems a small price to pay to protect millions of gullible consumers–to say nothing of our own reputations.