Advertisements can tell consumers about prices and other information that may help them in the decisions they make about what to buy. But students also should know that ads are slanted by sellers to show a product in the best light. This lesson reveals to students how advertisers use words and images to make goods and services look their best. To protect consumers and make sure that competition among sellers is fair in the marketplace, the federal government requires that factual claims in ads be backed up with proof. Still, it is usually okay for sellers to talk only about the positives and ignore the negatives of what they are selling. Another common trick is to use exaggerated claims called “puffery.” It is up to the consumers to separate factual claims from opinions and exaggerations. This lesson challenges students to create a set of tips that could help consumers to make this distinction. Being able to tell the difference between factual claims and puffery or opinions can help consumers to make smart choices and avoid market disappointments.
Hold up a popular fiction book that your students probably have read–perhaps one of the Harry Potter novels. Ask the students:
- Is this story fiction or non-fiction? [Fiction]
- How can you tell? [A possible response is that students know from real-life experiences that some of the events in the story can’t be true.]
- Is the picture on the cover of the book fiction or non-fiction? [Fiction]
- How do you know? [Students might point out that the cover image is a drawing, not a photo or they may simply know that the characters depicted on the cover do not exist.]
[NOTE: If necessary, explain that works of non-fiction are intended to give a true account of something while works of fiction are not intended to tell the literal truth. Fiction comes from someone’s imagination.]
Explain that advertising, like books, contains words and images. Some of the words and images in advertising may be true, while others are fiction.
- Explain the role of advertising from the seller’s point of view.
- Distinguish between fact and opinion in advertisements.
- View advertisements with a healthy skepticism.
Interactive Activity: This interactive quiz helps students to better understand the difference between factual claims and opinion.
Don't Buy It: What's In the Shopping Bag?: This PBS Kids page shows students how advertisers make their products seem more attractive.
Don't Buy It: Advertising Tricks: This PBS Kids page shows students how advertisers make food look more attractive in commercials.
Don't Buy It: Get Media Smart: This PBS Kids page provides a number of resources dedicated to helping students recognize advertising techniques.
Federal Trade Commission: This is the homepage of the FTC, an organization designed to protect consumers.
Self Regulatory Programs for Children's Advertising: This article provides regulations on advertisements made to children under the age of 12.
Activity 1: Fact or Opinion?
The students are told that sellers make a variety of claims in advertisements; some claims are factual and some are statements of opinion. Factual claims are statements that can be proven true or false. The following statements are provided as examples of factual claims.
- The bike has three gears.
- The bike is available in red or blue.
- The price of the bike is $90.00.
Opinions are statements based on a belief or value. For example:
- The bike is better than bikes made by other companies.
- The bike is easier to ride.
- The bike is more fun to ride than other bikes.
The difference between fact and opinion is explained. The students are then asked to read 10 advertising claims and tell whether each asserts a factual claim or an opinion.
At the conclusion of the activity, the students are asked these questions and told to be ready to discuss their answers.
- Which do you think are more useful to consumers—facts or opinions? Why?
- All the facts and opinions focused on the good qualities of the good or service. What do you think is the reason for this?
Activity 2: Packages Are Advertising, Too!
The students learn that packaging is a form of advertising. Packages are designed to catch our attention as we walk down store aisles. They are a seller’s last chance to convince us to buy a particular product rather than the one next to it.
The students complete the interactive activity What’s in the Shopping Bag? They learn how advertisers use words and images on packages to make their products seem great.
Discuss student responses to the THINK ABOUT IT questions in Activity 1.
- Which do you think are more useful to consumers—facts or opinions? Why? [A factual claim makes a statement that is true for everyone while opinions may only apply to the person who makes the statement.]
- All the facts and opinions focused on the good qualities of the good or service. What do you think is the reason for this? [Sellers want to make what they are selling look good so that consumers will buy. Negative images and statements rarely encourage consumers to buy–except perhaps indirectly by saying something negative about a competitor.]
Locate an ad in a magazine and read each sentence. If the sentence states a fact, put an F beside it. If the sentence states an opinion, put an O beside it.
Visit Food Advertising Trick s to find out how food stylists make burgers, chicken and ice cream look so great in ads. The interactive activity is part of Don’t Buy It: Be Media Smart Web site created by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
- Watch for advertisements that seem to promise more than they can deliver. If you prefer, pre-record a few ads with questionable claims and images. For younger students, ads promoting action figures, racing cars and dolls are among those most likely to include questionable claims. Older students will probably be more interested in promotions for clothing, cars, music, etc.
[TEACHER BACKGROUND: The major responsibility for government regulation of advertising rests with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). FTC rules permit a practice known in the trade as “puffery.” Puffing is exaggerating the features, qualities or benefits of a product by claiming that it is “the best” or “the greatest.” However, the FTC also requires advertisers to make available to consumers the data on which all factual claims are made. If a business cannot provide such proof, the FTC may find the advertisement misleading and the advertiser guilty of deception. The FTC has the power to fine the sponsor, stop the ad and order the sponsor to issue corrections. Complaints should be sent to the Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Response Center, 600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20580. Toll-Free: 1-877-FTC-HELP. Web: https://www.ftc.gov/ .
Recognizing that false advertising can harm businesses as well as consumers, advertisers have imposed voluntary standards upon themselves. In 1971 several advertising organizations joined forces with the Council of Better Business Bureaus to establish a procedure to focus on complaints about advertising. These complaints are examined by the National Advertising Review Council. The Council consists of representatives of advertisers, advertising agencies and the general public. In 1974, the same organizations created the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) to promote responsible children's advertising. Generally, CARU reviews advertising directed to children under 12 years of age. Guidelines for children’s advertising are posted on CARU’s Web site in an article named Self Regulatory Programs for Children's Advertising . Complaints concerning children’s advertising should be sent to the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, Council of Better Business Bureaus, Inc., 70 West 36th Street, New York, NY 10018.]
Assessment is based on the three pieces of advice the students offer to help people avoid being misled by advertising.
- Write down three pieces of advice that you would give others so that they are not misled by advertising claims and images. [Some possible answers of advice you could give to others so they aren't misled is: look for factual claims that can be proven true, beware of opinions, read the fine print, read food labels, just because something is shown on a package doesn’t mean it is inside, and ads sometimes promise more than they can deliver.]
Consider consolidating the students' tips into a class tip sheet that the students could use in their own efforts to separate fact from opinion and exaggeration in advertising.