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A slogan reading misleading statistics in advertising: manipulation and countermeasures

Misleading Statistics In Advertising: Manipulation & Countermeasures

By Jason Carroll · Updated Sep 6, 2023

The skepticism is warranted if you ever feel uneasy about a statistic or claim that seems too good to be true. Companies using misleading statistics in advertising to manipulate consumer choices and perceptions is a massive problem.

Like many others, these brands realize that presenting their products in the best light possible is a great way to increase consumer confidence and sales. However, they go about it deceptively, and many consumers fall for it because they are not aware of the techniques advertisers use to manipulate data.

This article covers the most common types of misleading statistics in advertising and how to spot them quickly. 

1. Data Cherry-Picking

Cherry-picking is the selective presentation of data, showcasing supporting information only in a particular narrative while conveniently ignoring or downplaying unsupportive stats. 

This causes a skewed view of reality, often leading consumers to overstate a product's benefits or effectiveness. For example, a company can claim its software solution has a 5-star rating on Trust Pilot, conveniently neglecting to mention the hundreds of 1-star reviews.

You can do any of the following to spot the cherry-picking technique.

  • Assess the full scope of information: Are the details comprehensive, or does something seem omitted? Does it only focus on a single data point?
  • Confirm with other reputable sources: If a statistic seems too good to be true, it often is untrue. 
  • Scrutinize the quality and fairness of the sample: Are the statistics based on a sufficiently large and representative sample? Small or biased samples can lead to misleading conclusions.
  • Investigate the source: Consider the reliability of the source providing the data. Reputable sources typically present balanced, accurate, and unbiased information.
  • Look for auxiliary data and context: The advertiser may have left out contextual information to mislead. So, look for additional data points or evidence supporting or refuting the claims.
  • Trust your critical thinking and intuition: Skepticism is a healthy approach when evaluating potentially misleading statistics in advertising. Sometimes, the gut feeling that something isn't right is your best guide.

2. Sample Size Misrepresentation

This involves using small or unrepresentative samples to make general claims that significantly skew data in the company’s favor.

For example, a massive skincare brand might claim that 99% of its users improved their skin tone without mentioning the study only involved ten customers. This makes the product appear more impressive than it is in actuality.

Here’s how to spot sample size misrepresentation.

  • Check for sample size disclosure: See if the advertisement discloses the number of participants involved in the shared study. Don’t trust anything that doesn’t provide a sample size.
  • Weigh the sample size against assertions: Bigger claims should have a larger, more comprehensive sample size to support it. 
  • Assess representativeness: Make sure the sample fairly represents the target population; otherwise, the data can be misleading. A good rule of thumb for studies is to use 30% of the audience at a minimum.

3. The Use of Vague or Ambiguous Terms

Vague or ambiguous language can cloud real meaning. This makes it difficult to understand the real value or efficacy of the product or service. For example, using "clinically proven" without sharing what the product is clinically proven to do and details about the clinical trial.

To spot this manipulative tactic, consider the following.

  • Examine the word choice for general or ambiguous language: Words like "almost," "up to," “a significant number,” or "many" can be red flags. Companies that use misleading statistics in advertising love using ambiguous or vague terms.
  • Insist on quantifiable data: Phrases like "best-selling" or "fast-acting" should be backed up by concrete numbers. If not, research to find out if the claim is valid.
  • Check for supplementary data or context: Every advertisement that makes a claim should provide sufficient context and supporting details that explain the findings.
  • Find benchmarks or comparisons: If there are no comparisons to an industry standard or similar product, be cautious.
  • Assess the underlying message: What is the advertisement conveying? Is it doing so in a transparent manner? Such questions can help you spot deception.
  • Ensure the source is credible: Trustworthy sources are typically more transparent and avoid ambiguous or unsupported statements.

4. Manipulating Graphs and Visuals

This is when a company alters or misrepresents visual data to create false impressions of the product's advantages or performance. For example, a pie chart can have numbers that don’t add up to 100 percent. Similarly, a company can use 3D charts to hide something or make their graph pop.

Some ways to spot such misleading statistics in advertising are as follows.

  • Inspect axes labels: Ensure graphs' X and Y axes are labeled and scaled appropriately. Confirm that the units of measurement and intervals between values make sense.
  • Evaluate proportions: Check if the visual elements are proportional to the data they represent. Misleading ads often manipulate the size of pie slices, bars, and other visual elements to distort perception.
  • Review for missing or cut-off information: All relevant data points should be in the graph or visual.
  • Examine the baseline: Does the graph start at zero? If not, they may have altered the data to look more impactful. Manipulating the baseline to create an illusion of more dramatic changes is common with misleading statistics in advertising.
  • Consider the necessity of 3D visuals: Do the 3D effects enhance understanding, or is there a visual trick? 3D graphs can make things look more enticing than they are in reality.
  • Weigh the visuals with the overall narrative: How do the visuals fit into the broader message of the advertisement? Does it align with the credibility of the ad claim overall? Deceivers can use visuals to support predetermined storylines without accurately reflecting the underlying data.

Other Notable Tactics

  • Comparison (product vs. product ads): Amplifying a product's capabilities by pitting it against inferior alternatives to improve sales.
  • False scarcity: Highlighting promotions or discounts as "limited-time" to induce quick decisions without sharing how often such offers occur.
  • Fake endorsements: Using manufactured endorsements, such as made-up or skewed testimonials, to enhance a product's perceived quality.
  • Correlation without causation: Implying a direct cause-and-effect link between two correlated factors while ignoring possible external influences.
  • Outdated stats: Leveraging old statistics to back up a claim, potentially offering a misleading view of the current landscape.

How to Counter Misleading Statistics in Advertising

Distrust among consumers increases as more people get hurt by deceptive advertising, which isn’t good. It has led to a demand for more openness, spurring the emergence of various advertising regulating bodies committed to ensuring consumers receive truthful and accurate product information.

Some of the most popular regulators include the following.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC)

As America's watchdog for consumer rights, the FTC can pursue companies engaging in false advertising. This includes those employing deceptive tactics like adding misleading statistics in advertising materials.

The commission actively inspects ads and initiates action against businesses found making untrue or unsupported claims. Consumer rights organizations frequently collaborate with the FTC to address consumer interests and catch deceptive advertising methods.

Anyone can report misleading claims to the FTC at or their state attorney general consumer protection website.

The UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)

The ASA oversees advertising across various media outlets. Its mission is to ensure ads are lawful, respectful, and transparent, focusing mainly on accurate statistics. 

They actively scrutinize advertisements to ensure they meet their specific guidelines. Consumers can file a complaint on the dedicated complaints page for ASA and its sister organization, The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).

Independent Reviews

Independent reviews are evaluations carried out by either neutral experts or everyday users. They evaluate products on various factors, including functionality, quality, longevity, and overall worth.

These assessments are crucial for informing potential buyers about the positives and negatives of a particular product, enabling more informed purchase decisions.

Here are some great independent review platforms.

  • CNET: This platform specializes in high-tech and consumer electronics reviews. It offers comprehensive evaluations, scoring, and purchase guidance on a broad spectrum of products. You can find reviews on almost any tech, from mobile devices and computers to home appliances and gadgets.
  • Consumer Reports: This respected not-for-profit organization conducts thorough investigations on consumer goods. It offers detailed reviews, ratings, and buying tips to guide consumers in making educated choices.
  • Good Housekeeping: The organization is a magazine that offers unbiased reviews in several categories, such as beauty, home appliances, and general household items. Their experts meticulously test each product to gauge safety, performance, and overall value.
  • Wirecutter: A subsidiary of The New York Times, Wirecutter offers expert reviews and product suggestions across various items. The site's seasoned journalists and specialists extensively research and evaluate products to provide dependable and impartial advice.
  • Yelp: This user-focused platform lets consumers review and rate local businesses. It’s a community-driven directory where individuals share their experiences and viewpoints.
  • TripAdvisor: They are a leading name in travel destination search and feedback. Users share their experiences and make recommendations about accommodations, dining establishments, attractions, and more.

While these platforms strive for impartiality, it's wise to consult multiple sources when evaluating claims or anything you suspect is misleading. That way, you’ll have a well-rounded view of the business or product.

Consumer Protection Organizations

A consumer protection organization (or consumer watchdog group) is a body that observes and assesses business conduct, products, and services to defend consumer interests — and promote honesty and fairness.

These organizations carefully examine statements and methods, looking for misleading statistics in advertising to hold corporations accountable and educate the public about risk.

Some of the prominent consumer protection organizations include the following.

  • Better Business Bureau: The BBB is an intermediary between businesses and consumers. They allow customers to leave reviews, offer evaluations, and conflict resolution assistance to help consumers make educated decisions and resolve grievances with brands.
  • Consumer Federation of America (CFA): Operating as a nonprofit entity, the CFA champions consumer rights and protections through research, educational efforts, and advocacy campaigns in various sectors. Areas of interest include consumer privacy, product safety, and financial services, among others.
  • Consumers International (CI): This is a global federation that unites consumer organizations from around the world to advocate for rights and protections. With a presence in over 100 countries, CI focuses on pressing issues such as digital rights, sustainable consumption, and product safety. They aim to drive changes in policies and business practices that impact consumers globally, and their work plays a crucial role in setting international standards.
  • Public Citizen: This nonprofit focuses on consumer representation and corporate responsibility. It aims to safeguard consumer interests in areas like product safety, financial regulations, and healthcare while pushing for greater transparency and ethical trading standards.

Sectors Most Vulnerable to Misleading Statistics in Advertising

Data manipulation in advertising is a universal issue, but certain industries are more prone to such practices, notably the following.

  • Tobacco
  • Food and beverage
  • The weight loss sector
  • Nutritional or health supplements

Case Studies: Misleading Statistics in Advertising

Here are some real-world case studies.

Tobacco Industry

Tobacco brands have downplayed the harmful effects of smoking for decades, dating back to the mid-20th century. For example, they commissioned a research committee in the 1950s to create industry-sponsored research to downplay the link between smoking and cancer.

While scientists criticized the commissioned research, it created enough doubt in consumers to allow the tobacco industry to continue business as usual. A Public Health Chronicles publication exposed the industry's plans to stimulate controversy (see below).

Food and Beverage

The food and beverage sector frequently employs skewed statistics to make untrue claims about their products. For example, 5-hour Energy claimed its drink shots were recommended by doctors and more effective than coffee. However, those claims were deceptive, violating the state Consumer Protection Act.

The makers of 5-Hour Energy paid $4.3 million in penalties and fees.

Regulatory bodies like the FDA continue to crack down on misleading health claims, but companies in this sector often find new ways to deceive unnoticed.

Weight Loss Industry

The weight loss industry is notorious for misleading statistics. Companies often products market products with outrageous claims like "lose 20 pounds in 10 days," supported by small, short-term studies that are not representative. 

Sometimes, these claims are even backed by "doctor-recommended" stamps, where recommending physicians are paid spokespeople.

For example, Sensa claimed its weight-loss product’s powdered additive (sprinkled on food) enhanced food smell and taste, making consumers feel full and eat less. 

This unfounded weight-loss claim led to huge company losses when the FTC forced them to pay $26.5 million as a settlement. FTC charges also included failing to disclose paid customer endorsement.

Nutritional or Health Supplements

Gerber claimed its Good Start Gentle formula prevented children who took it from developing allergies, which could have significant consequences for kids. This unsubstantiated claim got it in hot water with the FTC.

Fortunately, the company settled the lawsuit with the FTC by agreeing not to make or imply any similar claims for the product.

Knowing about case studies like these can provide consumers and business executives with invaluable insights.

Final Thoughts

Regulatory bodies play a crucial role in setting and enforcing standards. Their proactive involvement is necessary for holding companies accountable and protecting consumers from false claims.

However, awareness is the first step in combating misleading statistics in advertising. The more consumers are aware, the less effective the tactics of manipulators. 

In addition, it's not worth it for companies to use disingenuous statistics or data in advertising. It erodes consumer trust, which is critical for any brand's longevity. And once trust is compromised, regaining it is a steep uphill battle, often requiring substantial financial and reputational investments.

Ultimately, the onus is on consumers to be vigilant and advertisers to maintain ethical standards. 

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Jason Carroll

Jason is the founder of JC Digital, a lifelong storyteller and performance marketer who has helped add $100M+ in revenue to consumer brands over a decade in the industry.

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