It can be a daunting challenge for consumers to separate true advertising claims from false ones. That is especially difficult given the spending power merchants put behind advertising campaigns meant to sway consumers to buy their products. And when increasing sales takes priority over accurate information, advertising can include misleading claims.
For this reason, U.S. government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are mandated to protect consumers from deceptive practices and false advertising. The agencies file hundreds of cases each year when a product fails to meet the expectations created by the advertisers.
24/7 Wall St. considered some examples of misleading product claims by reviewing cases processed by government agencies. We also reviewed media reports of misleading claims made by companies. For this list, a product had to be involved in a major settlement in recent years. We focused the list on specific products rather than services.
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43. Gerber Good Start Gentle formula
Gerber made unsubstantiated claims that its Good Start Gentle formula prevented children who took it from developing allergies.
42. Sensa weight-loss product
The FTC ruled that Sensa’s fat-burning products – which claimed to enhance the smell and taste of food and thus making users feel full and eat less – misled consumers and made unfounded weight-loss claims.
41. 5-Hour Energy
5-hour Energy alleged that its energy drink shots were better than coffee and that doctors recommended it. Those claims were misleading and the makers of 5-Hour Energy were ordered to pay $4.3 million in penalties and fees.
40. Lumosity app
Lumos Labs said its app would help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, though it had no proof. The company was fined $2 million by the FTC.
Coca-Cola falsely claimed its Vitaminwater brand could promote healthy joints and reduce the risk of eye disease, among other health benefits.
38. Nissan Frontier
An ad showed a Nissan Frontier pushing a dune buggy up a hill – a feat the truck is unable to pull off in real life.
Ovaltine advertisements claimed the drink had nutritional value, but the nutritional value actually comes mostly from the milk the product is mixed into. The nutritional advantages of Ovaltine are still being debated.
36. Frosted Mini Wheats
The Kellogg Company claimed Frosted Mini Wheats could improve children’s attentiveness. But attentiveness increased as much as promised in only 11% of children who ate the cereal.
35. Pom pomegranate juice
Pom Wonderful claimed its fruit juice helped reduce the risk of medical issues such as heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction. Those claims were not backed by research and were ruled to be deceptive.
34. Camel cigarettes
An advertisement for Camel cigarettes claimed that doctors preferred the brand. The cigarette commercial showed actors dressed as doctors puffing on cigarettes between house calls.
33. Kind Bars
The nutritional contents of the different Kind Bars did not meet the requirements that would allow the company to include the word “healthy” on the packaging.
32. L’Oreal skincare cosmetics
L’oreal claimed its Lancôme Génifique and Youth Code cosmetics prevented skin aging by boosting genetic activity in the user. The company was unable to support those claims when pressed.
31. Sony PlayStation Vita game console
Sony claimed that its PlayStation Vita handheld gaming console was “game changing,” promising features such as cross platform and remote play. Yet many of these features were only available on certain games.
30. New Balance toning shoes
The athletic shoe maker said its toning shoe could help wearers burn calories, though the shoes were never proven to be any better at helping to burn calories than other types of shoes.
29. Sale Slash diet pills
Sale Slash used fake endorsements from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey to make unfounded weight-loss claims about its diet pills.
28. Eclipse gum
The Wrigley Company said its Eclipse Gum with magnolia bark extract could kill germs that cause bad breath. The claim was unfounded, and Wrigley agreed to pay $6 million to $7 million to settle a class-action suit and pay back buyers.
27. Activia yogurt
Dannon used actress Jamie Lee Curtis to tout “scientifically proven” claims that Activia helps regulate digestion and boost the immune system. A judge said Dannon “simply hadn’t proven” its claim and ordered the company to pay $45 million to settle a lawsuit.
26. Pure Green Coffee antioxidant capsules
Pitchman Nicholas Scott Congleton claimed that Pure Green Coffee helped weight loss. The company used fake news organizations and logos from actual media outlets to prop up its bogus claims. Even Dr. Oz endorsed this product on his show, although he was later hauled in front of a Senate’s Consumer Protection panel to defend his actions.
25. D-Lite, SunSplash, and Vitality tanning systems
Mercola Brand Tanning Systems claimed its tanning systems did not raise the risk of melanoma, a type skin cancer, but “these claims are false and not supported by science,” the FTC ruled.
24. True cigarettes
True cigarettes implied that users of its products could avoid the health risks associated with smoking. Stanford University research said an internal tobacco industry document showed that the product was named True to ease concerns of those worried about health issues related to smoking.
23. Chemence glue products
Chemence overstated how many of the chemicals in its glue products were made in the United States. The Georgia-based company agreed to pay a $220,000 judgment to resolve the lawsuit brought by the FTC.
22. iSpring Water Systems
iSpring Water Systems claimed its water filtration systems were made in America, but many were either largely or entirely manufactured overseas.
21. Chemical Free Solutions bed bug eradication product
A line of cedar oil-based products from Chemical Free Solutions LLC claimed to prevent bed bug infestations – a statement unsupported by science.
20. Nectar Brand mattresses
Nectar Brand marketed its mattresses as made in the United States, when they were made in China.
19. Benjamin Moore & Co. paint
Benjamin Moore & Co. said its products contained no volatile organic compounds and that they were emission-free, though it could not support those claims.
18. Capital Home Advocacy Center mortgage assistance
Capital Home Advocacy Center, which offered mortgage relief to homeowners, claimed it was accredited by the Better Business Bureau, even though it had actually received an F rating.
17. American Plastic Lumber Company building materials
American Plastic Lumber Company overstated the amount of recycled materials in its products.
16. Nopalea fruit drink
TriVita claimed that its Nopalea drink would reduce pain and inflammation, improve breathing, and provide a number of additional health benefits – none of which are scientifically proven. The company settled with the FTC for $3.5 million.
15. Smart Balance margarine substitute
Blended Butter Sticks from Smart Balance claimed to block cholesterol, but they have too much saturated fat for that to be true. Smart Balance has removed the claim.
14. ADT Home Security
ADT falsely identified the safety and technology experts who endorsed its home-security product as independent. Those experts had actually been paid for their endorsements.
13. Tarr Inc. weight-loss product
Products marketed by 19 companies operating as Tarr Inc. claimed to help weight loss, build muscle, and reduced wrinkles. Those claims were made using fake celebrity endorsements and user testimonials.
12. Withdrawal Ease/Recovery Ease natural supplement
Withdrawal Ease and Recovery Ease products of Catlin Enterprises claimed to alleviate the symptoms of opiate withdrawal and increase the likelihood of a person overcoming opiate dependency. The FTC called these statement false, lacking any scientific evidence.
11. Skechers Shape-Ups
Skechers said in advertisements that its Shape-Ups shoes would help wearers lose weight and tone their muscles. Those claims were deemed deceptive, and Skechers settled for $50 million.
The breakfast cereal claimed it could lower cholesterol. After receiving a warning letter from the FTC challenging this claim, Cheerios parent General Mills changed the label to say the cereal “can help lower cholesterol.”
9. Lucky Strike cigarettes
Lucky Strike claimed its cigarettes were an appetite suppressant for women. Science has shown nicotine has appetite suppressing properties, but cigarette smoking – with the many harmful chemicals – brings significant other health risks.
8. Mars Petcare US dog food
Mars, the company that makes M&M’s, said its Eukanuba dog food could extend dogs’ lifespans by 30% or more. The FTC ordered the company to stop making those unsupported claims.
7. Vibram fivefinger shoes
Vibram claimed its FiveFinger running shoes offered health benefits compared with regular running shoes, though it could not back up those claims.
6. Airborne dietary supplement
Airborne claimed that it helped ward off harmful bacteria and germs, preventing ailments like the flu and cold, but there was no evidence to support the assertion. In essence, this was a way to market regular vitamin supplements at an even higher price.
5. ExtenZe herbal supplement
ExtenZe claimed its product was “scientifically proven to increase the size of a certain part of the male body.” That was untrue, and the company paid $6 million to settle a class-action suit.
Snapchat claimed that messages sent on the app would disappear, yet third-party apps can save the messages indefinitely.
The German carmaker claimed its diesel cars were environmentally friendly when in fact Volkswagen vehicles were rigged to cheat emissions tests. The company has so far paid out an estimated $15 billion in settlements for the scandal.
2. Splenda artificial sweetener
Splenda’s advertising tagline “Made from Sugar” was alleged to be misleading. The sugar substitute maker decided to settle a lawsuit from a competitor over the slogan.
1. Philip Morris cigarettes
An advertisement claimed Philip Morris cigarettes were scientifically proven to be less irritating to the nose and throat, which were of course untrue. There is evidence that scientists and cigarette industry executives knew about risks of smoking as early as the 1940s.
Detailed Findings & Methodology
The marketing tactics used by companies that have settled lawsuits related to misleading advertising vary. In many cases, improper labeling and unfounded claims in advertising and on packaging are the issue. In others, companies use words with ambiguous meanings, such as “green” or “all-natural.” Some companies hire individuals who appear as either impartial consumers or experts in the field.
The FTC’s quest to protect the consumer closely reflects topical issues in American culture. For example, many of the agency’s investigative and enforcement initiatives focus on products touting weight loss, those that profess to be healthful food options, and products offering relief from opiate addiction. There has also been an increasing focus on environmentally friendly products, as companies try to sell items they claim are “green” at a premium.
A recent area of FTC scrutiny has been the claim by some companies about the percentage of their products that is made in the United States, which many tout as a selling point for their products.
In recent years, some of the products that have been cited for misleading claims are among the most trusted brands in the marketplace. Volkswagen claimed its vehicles were environmentally safe, but in 2015, the German automaker was caught using software in its vehicles that deceived regulators about emission levels. The company was fined billions of dollars by regulators, and its public perception was damaged.
Other companies that have built up strong reputations with consumers such as Coca-Cola, Wrigley, and Benjamin Moore appear on this list as well because of their missteps.
To identify the most misleading product claims, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed significant government and private actions taken against companies based on deceptive practices or false advertising. To be considered for the list, a product had to be involved in a major settlement in recent years. Some products are on the list because the company took advantage of ambiguity and a lack of scientific evidence to make their claims. Others, such as Volkswagen, perpetrated a deception by rigging certain vehicle models to evade emission standards. For historical perspective, we also included products such as tobacco that made claims that were either deceptive or misleading. We focused the list on specific products rather than services.
24/7 Wall Street is a USA TODAY content partner offering financial news and commentary. Its content is produced independently of USA TODAY.