You've seen their faces in magazines and newspapers — happy-looking people pictured in advertisements for a product or service. But Consumer Reports says you shouldn't assume these smiling faces are all satisfied customers.
Leslie Ware — the editor of the Consumer Reports "Selling It" page — gets thousands of letters from readers who send in examples of perplexing product claims and advertisements.
Lots of mail comes in with the same picture used in ads for different products. One reader sent in two ads with the same family pictured. The ad on the right is for cable television, the one on the left is for Direct TV — the satellite competition.
Here's another case of double exposure. Same guy, different product.
In one ad, this man gained 28 pounds, in another he lost 30 — and apparently found a girlfriend.
"Both these ads were in the same magazine. So which product are you going to buy?"
And then there's this guy. Here he's Gerard, Saturn's customer of the week. But in a Honda ad he's Steve Warrick, who's just bought a Civic. Another reader found him at yet a different dealership. And it doesn't stop there.
"He's not only buying cars, but he's benefiting from the Newsweek education program. Apparently he hasn't always been a model student, though, because he's also attending a reform school in this ad here."
So how does this happen?
"Companies can get these photos from stock photo agencies and that's legal, and it's fine, and a lot of magazines do that, including Consumer Reports. The confusion comes in when, perhaps, two different companies buy the same image to advertise different products."
And Leslie says that can lead to major confusion for the consumer — and overexposure for the people pictured in the ads.
The Federal Trade Commission says the laws aren't clear cut when it comes to the use of photographs in ads. Regulations do require that any testimonial used has to be true — but the person pictured doesn't necessarily have to be the person making the testimonial.
If you see an ad or a product claim that raises questions for you, you can send a copy to Consumer Reports, 101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers, NY, to the attention of Selling It. If you think an ad is deceptive, you can file a complaint with the FTC. Go online to ftc.gov and click on the consumer section to find a complaint form.