Caveat Emptor! Let The Buyer Beware

A businessman muses on the epidemic of dishonesty in today's marketplace

Mel Copen
By Mel Copen

We live in a nation that is driven by the marketplace. No surprise - it always has been, but the principle of "caveat emptor" (let the buyer beware) has become more relevant today than ever, despite a substantial increase in protective legislation and government regulatory/watchdog agencies.

Technology and consumer patterns have had a big impact, providing new ways to deliver messages to large numbers of people through the written media, television, fax and the Internet. But the most important factor seems to be a change in attitudes. What was once considered questionable or even unethical behavior is now enthusiastically endorsed by many sellers and is resignedly accepted as a way of life by customers.

In advertising, volume has become a key to value. The recent run-up of the dot-com stocks is illustrative. Many shaky organizations that have never made (and may never see) a profit have acquired market valuations that dwarf some of the giant, stable companies that have been the backbone of American business. The value is a function of the number of visitors accessing their sites, providing substantial potential for advertising. One consequence is apparent for people who use the Internet for research. Organizations play with search engine "rules," giving their web pages a higher priority than others -- so they get more "hits." The inconvenience to the researcher is irrelevant as long as they achieve their purpose.

Exposure and visual impact is critical. Once upon a time, chuckling at Burma-shave ads along US highways was the frontier. Things have changed substantially! Sports stars' clothing is emblazoned with ads for every type of product. Stadiums have blank, blue sections on their walls on which TV stations can superimpose constantly changing ads - much more lucrative than the placement of a single poster. Companies pay substantial sums to have their products prominently displayed in movies. And huge automated billboards displace trees along our highways, with total disregard for drive safety. Recently, we have even begun to see advertisers renting space on the sides of personal vehicles to catch the eye of other motorists and pedestrians alike.

Candy bars that promise 50% fewer calories meet that claim by making the bar 50% smaller. And movie ads may truncate a reviewer's "worst movie of the century" to "movie of the century."

Most insidious is the advertising that is specifically designed to mislead, particularly when it is done by "reputable" firms. Again, years ago, the frontier might have been the "99 and 44/100ths percent pure" claim of a popular soap product. Pure what? - but harmless fun was about as far as it went. Today we are deluged with mail specifically designed to mislead people to part with their money by inferring that they have won a contest or will receive a valuable vacation or prize just to test or endorse a property or product.

Fine print that requires a microscope to read and a lawyer to interpret is rampant. For example, a recent newspaper ad entices buyers with "12 months free film developing" which the fine print translates into an offer quite different from what a reasonable person might infer, namely one limited-sized roll of film each month. Airlines advertise low fares that are not available, and travel dot.coms promise to find the lowest fares offered, when they clearly know that they cannot deliver. Candy bars that promise 50% fewer calories meet that claim by making the bar, inside the same sized package, 50% smaller. And movie ads, in this category for a long time, may truncate a reviewer's comment about "the worst movie of the century" to "movie of the century." TV shows have stopped indicating reruns, in an attempt to boost viewership. And political research determines the words that will "turn on" a particular audience and those are the words the politician uses, regardless of the words that were used yesterday or will be used tomorrow.

Some promoters openly subvert the law and get away with it. For example, a number of telemarketers, having encountered Georgia's strong "no call registration" system, employ computers which automatically dial numbers to deliver carefully worded messages that describe the product but give no indication of who is calling and leave no trace on your caller ID. You are asked to leave your name and telephone number for a callback.

There are an increasing number of practices, although not illegal, that undermines confidence in the system. A number of years ago, when the price of silver went through the roof, the CEO of a prestigious jewelry firm announced that it was no longer possible to put prices on store items because they had to be changed so frequently. Several months later he explained that consumers would have to wait to see the impact of the plummeting silver price until it worked its way through inventories. Similarly, a few days ago I drove by a local gas station and noted that the noon price was 2 cents higher than it was that morning. That evening it was up 3 cents more, despite the fact that no gas deliveries had been made that day. And on a recent trip up the east coast, the high and low price differed by 70 cents a gallon. Is it any wonder that the credibility of companies involved in the distribution chain and the government groups that are investigating the situation is in question? But a "ho hum" reaction is typical.

A recent major "innovation" has been the introduction of pre-paid cards, sold, often at discounts, to provide "convenience and savings." The Japanese telephone system has used these cards for years. Guess what? People lose cards or forget about them. To date, it is estimated that the cash flow and profitability of the Japanese telephone industry has been augmented by the equivalent of several billion dollars from cards that will never be used. Wouldn't it be nice if funds from any unused cards were donated to charity? [Another dream!] The same principle applies to the incredible number of rebates being offered to get people to buy. Sellers know that a large number of people will forget, or lose their rebate documentation or will just find the process too tedious to pursue their claims. Airline frequent-flier programs have operated on the same principle, ensuring a low payoff by introducing expiry dates and extreme seat limitations, although in this area a consumer revolt seems to be having some corrective impact.

I try to either write about positive things, or offer constructive ideas. Obviously, what I have described above can not be considered positive. But there is much to learn by looking at what has happened. We have become indifferent, applying and accepting standards that would not have been acceptable very long ago. I don't think that most people are happy with this trend.

So how do we change it? Not by more legislation! It will change when we decide to change it. Notifying a firm that advertises on an offending billboard that you will not patronize that business will have an immediate impact. One company was forced to withdraw its objectionable advertising from Olympic telecasts. Why? Because enough people objected! Exploring issues of ethics, integrity and morality in public forums, in schools, in places of worship and in homes will have a longer range and more lasting impact. Setting an example by putting principle before gratification or convenience is likely to have the greatest impact. By establishing and supporting high principles, each of us can make a difference to help stop this incremental ethical erosion. Then "Caveat emptor" can take on a more precautionary meaning, rather than become a way of life.

Dr. Melvyn Copen of Cumming is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in dozens of foreign countries and provides consulting services for businesses and organizations throughout the world. Please share your comments with him via email at