Don't be Swayed: Savvy Shoppers Guide to Advertising

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Merchants use advertisements to attract consumers and sell their products. Consumers use advertisements to compare products and make informed choices. Both groups should know that State and Federal laws require all advertising to be fair and accurate.

Determining if an ad is false or inaccurate is sometimes tricky. Even an ad that's legally true can be misleading. Here are some advertising practices to watch out for.

Advertised but sold out
The store must have enough of the advertised item on hand to meet a reasonably expectable demand, unless the advertisement states "limited to stock on hand" or has similar wording. A store that is out of an item may offer you a "rain check," so you can buy the item later at the sale price. A rain check is a store courtesy, not a legal requirement. Even with a rain check, the store is not excused from having enough supply of the advertised item in stock to meet reasonably expectable demand.

Assembly required
If a children's toy is sold unassembled, the outside of the package must clearly state that the product is unassembled.

Bait and switch
A product is advertised at a low price to draw shoppers to the store (that's the "bait"). Once there, a salesperson tells shoppers that the advertised product is of poor quality and steers them to a high-priced item (that's the "switch"). A merchant cannot advertise a product that he or she doesn't really intend to sell.

Going out of business sale
If a company advertises that it is going out of business, liquidating, or quitting, the statement must be true.

Limits on the quantity sold
Stores cannot limit how many of an advertised item a shopper can buy unless the ad states "limited to one per customer" or has similar wording.

Low-price claims
If a retail store, or even a car dealer, claims to have the lowest prices in town, he or she must be able to support that claim. A more general claim, such as "low, low prices" does not have to be proven.

Misleading pictures
The item sold in the store must be the same one pictured in the ad.

Package prices
The store must tell you if you have to buy more than one of an item to get a discount. For example, an ad cannot say "Batteries: 10 cents each" if the batteries are sold only in packages of 10. However, the ad could say "Batteries: 10 cents each, sold only in packages of 10 for $1 per package."

Regular price or sale price?
To be on "sale," the item must have been offered for purchase at a higher "regular" price within the previous three months. Watch out for a "regular" price that's inflated just to make the sale price look more appealing.

True but misleading
If an advertisement says an item is "available through Sunday at only $5.99," but the item can be purchased after Sunday at $5.99, the ad is misleading, even though it is literally true.

Used, defective, irregular, or refurbished
If an advertised item is used, defective, irregular, or refurbished, the ad must say so clearly.

Where to get help
If you have a complaint about the advertising practices of a business, here are some organizations you can contact:

  • County District Attorney's Office
    Look in the white pages of your phone directory under County Government.
  • Office of the Attorney General, Public Inquiry Unit
    P.O. Box 944255
    Sacramento, CA 94244
    Call 800.952.5225. Complaints can be filed online
  • California Department of Consumer Affairs,
    Consumer Information Center

    Call 800.952.5210
  • Better Business Bureau
    Go online or check your local phone directory for an office in your area.
  • Federal Trade Commission
    Go online or call toll-free 877.FTC.HELP or 877.382.4357.
  • Department of Consumer Affairs
    1625 North Market Boulevard, Suite N-112
    Sacramento, CA 95834
    800.952.5210 toll-free
    800.326.2297 TDD