Sometimes false advertising is easy to spot. Statements like “Lose 20 pounds in 5 days” or “Make $1 million a month while sitting at home” seem to choke on their own incredulity, but sometimes marketers employ a little more finesse to bamboozle you. Here are six examples of shamelessly false advertising campaigns that weren’t just implicitly misleading—they were blatant lies.
Listerine was the first over-the-counter mouthwash sold in the United States in 1914 and by 1921 it was already falsely marketing its product. Declaring itself a cure-all for common cold ailments like sore throats and coughs, a dandruff preventative, an anti-shave tonic, and a safe way to protect yourself from cuts, bruises, wounds, and stings, Listerine was slapped with numerous false advertisement lawsuits. In 1975, the Federal Trade Commission ordered the company to spend $10 million in corrective advertising, seeing as their product was no more effective in treating colds than gargling warm water. Even then, the mouthwash giant didn’t really learn their lesson. In 2005, the company was slapped with another lawsuit. This time because Listerine claimed it was as “effective as floss” after rigging clinical trials.
Touted as one of the world’s first successful businesswomen, Lydia Pickham exploited her reputation as a local medicine woman to propel her herbal remedy into a commercial success, eventually grossing almost $400,000 yearly. The remedy claimed to cure all womanly ailments and weaknesses and sold for $1 a bottle. What was in the herbal remedy? Turns out, it contained less than 1% solid substance from vegetable extracts and almost 20% alcohol. If a woman took the suggested 1 tablespoon every 2-4 hours, she will have consumed 5 ounces of 13.5% or higher alcohol by the end of the day – more than enough for a healthy buzz that made life seem a bit more cheery to boozy housewives. When the Federal Trade Commission tightened its laws on claims made by medicines, Lydia Pickham’s Vegetable Compound had to swallow the restrictions with a spoonful of sugar.
In 1996, the Amoco Oil Company agreed to settle a Federal Trade Commission charge that its “Crystal Clear Amoco Ultimate” advertised unsubstantiated claims. The premium gasoline, because of its clear color, boasted superior engine performance and environmental benefits. The fact is, at the time the country was going through a clear revolution. Pepsi had gone clear (Crystal clear, in fact!). Clearly Canadian was dominating shelves. And Amoco, which had for years made a clear colored fuel, decided to capitalize on the trend. Unfortunately, they had no factual evidence to substantiate their “better for the environment and your engine” claims, and the company was forced to curb their campaign.
Starting in 1919, Dr. William Frederick Koch bottled and marketed a cancer, infection, and allergy cure-all with the help of his brother Louis. His drug glyoxylide, which he claimed cured “practically all human ills, including . . . tuberculosis” sold for $25 (1948 price) in local drug stores. The FDA had always been suspicious of the doctor, but not until they tested the drug in 1948 and found it contained nothing more than distilled water were their suspicions confirmed. And what proved to be more appalling, they discovered that Dr. Koch had been treating cancer patients by telling them to detox with the aid of enemas and fresh fruit and vegetable juices, taking only the smallest doses of painkillers. Unfortunately, despite all of his patients dying enough evidence was never found to present a viable case against him, and Dr. Koch moved to Rio de Janeiro in the late 1940s.
“It’s the one designed by the school teacher!” Airborne, which entered the market 10 years ago first claimed to prevent colds, then claimed to boost your immune system, and is now claiming a federal lawsuit. In March of this year, Airborne settled a lawsuit in which it agreed to pay over $23 million in fines for false advertising. David Schardt, who spearheaded the lawsuit against Airborne says there is no factual evidence to back the companies claims, likening Airborne to a placebo and advising people fighting colds to simply take a Vitamin C pill.
We know this one isn’t a product, but the story was so good we had to include it. In September 1990, a group of drug crime suspects in Corunna, Michigan, received an invitation to a wedding from a well–known drug dealer in the area. Attendees were asked to check their guns at the entrance, apparently a common occurrence at these events. As part of a five-month undercover investigation, the police staged and advertised a wedding on a Friday night, figuring it was easier to make drug suspects come to them than to round them up. The groom was an undercover investigator, the bride a Flint police officer, and the bride’s father (and reputed crime boss) was the police chief. That evening, after the vows, the toasts, and the dancing, the band, called SPOC, or COPS spelled backward, played “Fought the Law,” setting off the cue for the evening’s real agenda. All the police officers were then asked to stand, and those who remained seated were arrested. A dozen suspects were booked and, by Saturday afternoon, 16 were in custody.
Portions of this story were excerpted from Forbidden Knowledge, which is available from our store.
13 Nostalgic Commercials from 1987
Money for (Almost) Nothing: Very Big Paychecks for Very Little Work
Presidential Siblings and the Headaches They Caused
The Secrets Behind Your Favorite Toys
12 Oddly Specific Museums Preserving Our History
Looking for smart gift ideas? Didn’t get everything you wanted this holiday season? Head over to the mental_floss store and check out our t-shirts, books, gift subscriptions and more.