Article / Produced by TOW Project

Much of contemporary advertising falls into the category of what may be referred to as “harmless puffery.” This may apply both to the text of an advertisement as well as to the image created and associated with a company’s product. For example, the TCBY Yogurt chain calls itself “The Country’s Best Yogurt.” However, there is likely widespread disagreement about whether their product is really the country’s best yogurt. As far as is known, the company has not taken surveys to accumulate evidence to back up their claim, nor do they provide any substantiation to what is basically a matter of opinion and an immeasurable claim. This is no doubt an exaggeration, an example of puffery that few people take seriously as a demonstrable claim. Yet most people would not regard the company's name as a lie. The reasonable consumer takes the claim for what it is—public relations fluff.

To hold advertising to strict truthtelling standards that would put puffery off the table would reduce advertising to mere statements of verifiable facts and would cause most advertising to lose its appeal. “The city’s best pizza” is understood to be a slogan, not a fact. To a large degree, any statement of unverifiable opinion could be considered a violation of truthtelling, unless perhaps it includes an explicit statement of “It is my opinion that….” Yet we can usually tell when someone is expressing an opinion, and we recognize that advertising is generally a mercenary kind of opinion, not a claim of objective truth. We don’t need to be told, “The city’s best pizza—in the opinion of the owner.” Opinions are valuable to society—even when they are wrong—and advertising has value too, even if it amounts to harmless puffery. Do we really want a world where sports fans chant, "We're number 14, or at best 13," or where lovers croon, "I love you with 93% of my heart?"

But take the example of a car dealership that advertises, “Credit problems? No application refused.” Most people would not take an ad like this literally because we recognize it as commercial puffery. We wouldn’t really believe that a person with very poor credit, or who has just filed for bankruptcy, would actually be granted credit. Because we take it with a grain of salt, we might think the ad is unlikely to harm anyone. Yet because it makes a specific claim—“no application refused”—it does have more potential to mislead than a vague opinion statement does. Unless the advertising conveys to the average person the actual reality of the situation, the ad should explain what it really means. In this case, the company should include a disclaimer that makes it clear that all credit applications are subject to review. Or, to minimize the possibility of being misunderstood, they should delete the portion of the ad that claims, “no application refused.” The difference here is that the claim is not merely an opinion, but a claims to be a fact, "No application refused." If it is not a fact, it is an unacceptable violation of truthtelling.

Advertisers may also make implicit claims, not by the direct text of their ads, but by the images that are associated with their products. Men’s shaving products are often accompanied by beautiful women being attracted to the men who have just finished using a company’s razors, shaving cream or after shave lotions. The suggestion is that if you use this product, you will be surrounded by beautiful women who find you irresistible. Or at least that you’ll feel more like an attractive man. Or it may be that the ad simply uses the beautiful woman to grab your attention, and you know perfectly well that using it won’t make you more attractive.

Regardless of the psychological workings of the ad, most reasonable consumers see through this puffery and don’t expect an entirely accurate portrayal of the appeal of the product. In fact, most people, when they think about it rationally, recognize that their hygiene products have little to do with their sexual attractiveness. Yet the image associated with such products remains a popular one for advertisers, which is the reason that this form of puffery continues. It is hard to work up too much outrage at this type of puffery, to the degree it doesn't really mislead anyone. (Whether this type of advertising reinforces harmful gender stereotypes, demeans women or men, or promotes unhealthy body images is a worthy question, although one beyond the scope of this discussion.)

Of course, when advertisers make measurable claims, they are presenting themselves as telling the truth, fulfilling the moral demands of truthtelling, as well as the laws requiring truth in advertising, apply. For example, when toothpaste manufacturers make the claim that “4 out of 5 dentists surveyed recommend Crest,that must be verified by the surveys themselves.

Truth is also expected when verifiable claims are made outside of an advertising context. Exaggerating non-advertising claims is usually intended to be misleading, to present the person or situation as better than he/she/it actually is. If the truth were plainly told, it would clearly not leave as positive an impression as the exaggeration. For example, embellishing your work experience or educational background on a resume is unethical, since the recipient of the resume expects the truth and makes decisions based on receiving the truth in those documents. Saying, “I’m the best person for this job,” is allowable because everyone understands it’s not based on an objective assessment of all candidates. Saying, “I graduated from Oxford,” when you did not, is not allowable.

Even when giving opinions that cannot be verified, you should still be wary of exaggerating, since the person who requests your opinion may be depending on an accurate assessment. If you are asked your opinion about a former student or co-worker, for example, any specific claims you make are expected to be true. Even a statement as vague as “one of my best students” should only be made if the student was indeed better than most other students.

Of course, hyperbole (the use of exaggerated emphasis to make a true point) is a common figure of speech employed in contemporary language. It is also used in the Bible, particularly the poetic sections. Psalm 6:6 reads, “Every night, I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping” as a hyperbolic way of saying, “I am in deep sorrow.” We don't expect the Psalmist's couch to actually be saturated or the bed to float away. Jesus’ statements, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off . . . If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off . . . And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out” (Mark 9:43, 45, 47) are often regarded as hyperbole. We would be horrified if someone amputated their foot in the hope it would prevent him or her from robbing banks again. But hyperbole is not expected in situations where someone is soliciting your opinion and, if it is offered, it is normally followed with an explanation that more clearly specifies one’s actual opinion.

One example where this is difficult to sort out is when it comes to letters of recommendation. This is particularly troublesome when it comes to recommending employees whom you have terminated and who, without your endorsement, will have trouble securing other work. One of the common solutions to this, often recommended by a company’s lawyers, is to say nothing, except to confirm that the person in question worked at your company during the stated period. But this can be very problematic in the case of a dangerous ex-employee, since it does not protect future employers from potential harm through incompetence, lack of character, or violent personality. Yet most companies do not want to risk being sued for slander. In court, the truth is an absolute defense, but most companies will want to avoid litigation in the first place.

When recommendations are given, it is not uncommon for them to be exaggerated, building up the person being recommended to be better or more qualified than he or she actually is. This is also the case when recommendations are given for employees who are going back to school to further their education. This common practice of exaggeration in references causes problems, because the recipient of the reference expects a forthright evaluation of the person so that it can be determined whether or not the person is a good fit for a particular position or organization. A poor fit serves neither the employee nor the organization well.

The commonplace nature of these exaggerations is why there is cynicism about recommendations and references, with some actually discounting them and questioning their overall value. This is a difficult area, since prudence under the law may prohibit material disclosure about a candidate for a position. Though you would not be violating the obligation to tell the truth, it’s not helpful at all for the person requesting the recommendation. To be fair, if you adopt this policy, it should apply to all requests for recommendations, since it would not be right for your non-disclosure to be interpreted as disapproval of the candidate. This would even be the case if someone asked you for more clarification “off the record.”

We may be tempted to engage in such exaggeration on our own behalf. We may want to say or imply something like, “I’ve been in the kind of situation you’re talking about many times, and here’s what I’ve found is the best way to handle it,” when in fact we have only faced the situation once or only heard about how others faced the situation. If, in fact, we have high confidence about what to do in such a situation, we may feel justified in portraying ourselves so confidently. But the claim to have done something we have not is, in fact, a lie told in a situation where the truth is expected. Rather than exaggerating how often you’ve encountered a specific scenario, simply tell the person how you would handle it. You can say that you’ve seen it (if you have) and spell out how you would deal with such a situation.