As marketers, we’re expected to create a certain level of interest around the brands we promote or represent. We can do this by fixing certain negative perceptions, promoting the positive ones, making sure it’s in the minds of potential clients or customers, and a myriad of other ways.
However, it’s a common misconception that marketing requires puffery – or exaggerating or twisting facts in an attempt to boost interest in the brand.
Still, this form of marketing hype creeps into marketing strategies one way or another, for both large and small brands, and either intentionally or unintentionally.
What Is Puffery?
Puffery is a statement or claim that is promotional in nature. It’s usually subjective and not to be taken seriously. Examples of these include claiming that one’s product is the “best in the world”, or something completely unbelievable like a product claiming to make you feel like you’re in space.
Most consumers usually just disregard outlandish claims, unless a brand successfully associates it as a slogan, such as Red Bull’s claiming it gives you wings. Though customers don’t really believe the energy drink will literally give them wings, Red Bull has successfully used the statement to improve their brand position.
Why Puffery Can Work
There’s a reason why these forms of marketing have existed for a long time and still persist today: They can work well.
Claims that a product will solve a key problem in your life is sure to grab your attention, figures that show how much money you’ll save might entice your wallet, and overemphasized trivial traits might make you change your vote.
As consumers, it’s not really our fault. It’s the same reason why we generally prefer less complex songs. We like simple bite-sized pieces of information and marketers throughout history have taken advantage of that. But unfortunately, cases of abuse have been widely committed, often involving false advertising and scams.
Legal Issues and Risks of Puffery
It’s because of this practice that false advertising became illegal together with trademark violations under the Lanham Act in 1946. However, while companies have largely complied and adjusted their strategies, a number of violations still occur to this day, often leading to massive lawsuits.
One of them is the successful $13 million class action lawsuit against Red Bull in 2014. No, not because the drink didn’t really give you wings, but because they claimed that their drink could improve concentration and reaction speeds, when in fact, it couldn’t be scientifically proven. Red Bull, however, maintains that their labeling is accurate.
This example shows how dangerous it is to skirt the issues of false advertising with puffery. Perhaps Red Bull really does improve concentration and reaction speeds, though only for a short time, and only for certain people. I’m sure we know someone who thinks better and reacts more quickly when they get their daily dose of caffeine.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health even published a paper claiming that caffeine reduces reaction time and improves performance after testing it in a simulated contest of taekwondo. However, in this case, the court still ruled against Red Bull as it alleges that they pushed it too far — which becomes the problem for marketers as there is no clear quantitative border on what is too far.
Reputational Damage from Puffery
Let’s take things to a more personal level.
Perhaps you meet someone at a marketing conference who’s singing praises about this new software they just purchased. They’re being fairly reasonable about their statements and are able to point to specific areas that the product is better than what you’re currently using. On top of that, you’ve verified that they weren’t a salesperson for the company, so you decide to give the product a try.
After purchasing it, you find that the product is solid, but doesn’t live up to your expectations due to the claims that this person has made. You may not necessarily be unhappy with the purchase, but you’re no longer happy either as it was oversold to you. The next time this person recommends something, you probably aren’t going to take their statements without a grain of salt.
The same can be said about brands that make certain claims and fail to deliver.
Consumers will likely remember that they were let down by certain claims. Depending on how much they were let down, you can expect them to talk about it to others. While you may have gotten the initial sale, you may have just damaged the long-term relationship that could have been established with a customer.
The Decreasing Effectiveness of Puffery
People who are more familiar with a product are less likely to be affected by puffery, according to research. This is because they are more knowledgeable about it and are easily able to spot the points that, to them, make no sense, thus decreasing the effectiveness of the ad.
The same can be said with a lot of online marketing pitches.
While people who are unfamiliar with the current developments in search algorithms might find the idea of paid link farms pointing to their site to be an attractive thing to boost web traffic and performance on SERPs, those who aren’t getting bad SEO information would know that this isn’t a good idea and find the proposal undesirable. However, even a quick search of “are link farms good” on your favorite search engine would return results that state and show why this isn’t a good idea.
With the growing amount of information available to us, verifying claims using search engines makes things even easier, aside from building knowledge in our areas of interest much easier than in the past. While there are still barriers in place today that prevent the access of information, or in some cases, aren’t easy enough, these barriers are being broken down each year.
With the rising difficulties of effectively using puffery, coupled with the potential legal issues and the always-existent risk of costly damages to a brand’s reputation, it is becoming increasingly detrimental to use puffery. It should be avoided by brands now and even more so as we head into the future.