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Who’s responsible for monitoring misleading advertising?

Question: Leo, thanks for your site. Which agency controls or watches the advertisements of all the links that are posted? The big complaint that I have are the sites to clean your PC, which say “Free”, and at the end you have to pay for activation. Should it be a requirement that a big red note says, “This is not a free site”? I fully realize that there’s no free lunch but these lead you on to sites and cause you to waste much time.

The practical answer to this specific question that you asked is there’s not really such an agency.

Yes, in the United States you might think of your state’s Attorney General, but practically speaking they’re rarely going to step in and help unless it’s something really, really serious and widespread.

Besides, most of these ads have some very slippery wording that actually keeps them out of trouble.

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Weasel words

What I call “weasel words” are words that can be interpreted to mean more than one thing, or nothing at all.

The phrase “Free Download” is an example. (Typically, the word “free” will be much larger and more prominent than the word “download”.) All “free download” really might mean is that the download is free; you can download without paying anything at all.

Now you might think that implies that the program that you just downloaded is itself free; but that’s not what they said. “Free download” taken it’s most literal means “the act of downloading that file was free”. What happens next may or may not be. You could download it to your computer without paying anything. Using or running it? That’s another matter.

Other examples are things like “FREE System Scan” or “FREE system cleanup analysis”, (often with the same emphasis on the word “free”). Again, you can download the program for free. You can even run the program for free and it will scan and analyze your computer … all for free.

Oh, you want to do something with the results of the analysis? Well, that’s going to cost you. All they promised was a free analysis or a free scan or a free something that actually does nothing particularly useful; nothing except leading you to the point where they say – in so many words – “for this to be useful and to do what you may have thought we promised, you’ll need to pay”.

Again, if you read the wording of what they offer carefully, they did not actually offer to fix anything for free. You and I, and many others, simply assumed… I mean what good is a scan without a repair?

Salesman with an agendaSadly, weasel words work

I would love for these advertisements to be clearer.

The examples above at least honest, albeit with a high degree of mis-direction. And you know why the mis-direction is there? Because it works. Not as many would click on those ads or use those downloads if the ad included the information that payment would be required for anything useful.

And enough people do get duped into paying at the end that it makes it worthwhile for these companies to continue to do what they do.

What, exactly, are you paying for?

Another pet peeve of mine are things that look like programs but are actually recurring services.

You think you’re purchasing a program with a one-time payment. You download the program, you try it out, and now you want to buy it like so many other programs; except that you don’t look carefully at checkout time. What you find is that you’re paying not for a program but for an annual subscription. It’s not $29; it’s $29 per year or worse.

I’m not saying that subscription services for software are bad. I am, in fact subscribed to a few. What’s bad is playing on people’s expectations that they’re buying a one-time thing, only to find out that they’re committing to much more.


Unfortunately, there really is no practical recourse for individuals, other than being skeptical and vigilant.

Yes, you can complain to various agencies (like I said, your state’s Attorney General or whatever might apply in your country) but my belief is that unless it’s a horrific lie they’ll slip through on the technicality that they were, in fact, telling the truth: you just misunderstood.

Even when it is a horrific lie, most of the watchdog agencies are so overwhelmed that it would have to affect a lot of people over a long period of time to get their attention.

So, what’s a poor user to do? I can’t emphasize this enough: be skeptical, always. As you’ve said, there is no such thing as a free lunch, so don’t expect one.

The same goes for the programs that offer to clean or magically fix your problems. You don’t need software, free or otherwise, to clean your computer. While there are (truly free) programs like CCleaner that can help the cleaning process, it’s certainly not required. And no software is going to magically fix all your computer’s problems.

Another saying that’s really good to remember: if it’s too good to be true, then it’s probably not true.

Instead, turn to resources that you trust. It could be a friend, it could be a relative, someone who is perhaps a tad more computer savvy and experienced with the types of issues that you’re facing. Develop a relationship built on trust. Use that relationship then to learn what’s really possible, what you can do yourself, and when additional tools might be called for; and when those tools are called for, exactly what tools might be trustworthy and appropriate.

But above all, always be skeptical.

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3 comments on “Who’s responsible for monitoring misleading advertising?”

  1. And do be careful yourself. I know of several very legitimate businesses who regularly get accused of being spammers or using misleading advertising simply because people don’t read. It’s also our responsibility as consumers to take the time to be reasonable.

    • Unfortunately, many companies which used t be reputable intentionally use misleading language. Often, because the company has a good reputation earned many years ago people trust them and they get burned. I agree the buyer has to beware, but it’s o hard to find a good alternative. My prime examples would be cable providers, cell phone companies and ISPs. I find myself carefully researching before signing any service agreement and I stick to no contract prepaid wherever possible.

  2. I’ll never cease to be amazed by the sheer number of problems that people cause themselves by wanting all their software for free. I’ve dealt with countless people using a thousand dollars worth of computer equipment and won’t pay for *any* software. So many problems could be avoided by simply ponying up 30 bucks for quality software and not rolling the dice on that “free” offering.


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