Beware of deceptive TV product ads

From ridiculous claims of performance to hidden processing, shipping and handling fees, TV infomercials rely on the adage "there's a sucker born every minute."

Caricature of P. T. Barnum.
1851 cartoon by Henry Louis Stephens (1824-82) depicting pitch man and circus mogul P. T. Barnum as a "hum bug" (Via Wikipedia).

WASHINGTON, May 3, 2015 − Sometimes deceptive, infomercials bring in more than $250 billion in profits every year for the businesses that air them. Clearly, the people who buy these products are not like you, because you are smart, savvy and aware of the hollow allure of television advertisements.

The phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute,” which does not refer to you, is correctly attributed to David Hannum, in his criticism of 19th-century showman and circus king P.T. Barnum and his eager customers. Often erroneously credited to Barnum himself, the phrase means “many people are gullible, and we can expect this to continue.”

Enter those television infomercials.

1932 Listerine ad.
1932 Good Housekeeping advertisement for Listerine mouthwash from Lambert Pharmaceutical Co. (later Warner-Lambert). In 1976, the FTC ruled these claims were misleading. Today, TV has become the vehicle of choice for ads like this. (Via Wikipedia)

In March 2015, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced an $8 million settlement with Allstar Marketing Group, a direct marketing firm that used deceptive and misleading advertising and deceptive ordering processes when selling a number of products, including Snuggie, the Perfect Brownie Pan and the Magic Mesh screen.

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Allstar ran misleading infomercials on television featuring attractively priced offers for products to lure you to place an order either online or over the phone. The company then employed deceptive and confusing ordering processes that resulted in the addition of excessive and unauthorized charges to your bill..

One example was that familiar “buy one get one free” offer, where you received two of the advertised product allegedly for the price of one. You were then charged for two separate processing and handling fees, and, adding insult to injury, you were overcharged for those fees as well. The result: your total order was nearly double the cost of the original offer.

How gullible are all of the other people except you? Very. People believe that a knife really can cut through aluminum and then slice a tomato perfectly. They believe that running shoes will strengthen muscles and prevent injuries. People believe they can lose weight, live longer and avoid heart disease by drinking a juice concoction or swallowing a pill.

There are actually laws that govern advertising. Ads must be “truthful, cannot be deceptive or unfair, and must be evidence-based.”

But despite the fact that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) attempts to enforce these “truth in advertising” laws, vendors push the envelope, resulting in ads that often are beyond ridiculous in their claims and deceptive in disclosing fees, costs and process of ordering the product.

The FTC very closely monitors ads claiming that the products they tout can affect your health or your pocketbook. These include advertising claims about food, over-the-counter drugs, diet supplements, alcohol and tobacco. The agency also keeps a careful eye on products or services that are marketed to children, including violent movies, music and electronic games.

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When the FTC determines a fraud has been committed, it files an action in federal court seeking immediate and permanent orders to stop the ads. The FTC will also seek to freeze assets of companies perpetrating the fraud, and it will seek compensation for victims.

The No. 1 thing to look out for in televised ads is the high processing and handling fees, which are often hidden.

Next in line are “subscription” plans that you do not even realize you have authorized. In these situations, the fine print at the bottom of the TV screen, which often cannot be read because it is too small or in a color that cannot be seen, advises you that you’re being signed up for a subscription plan. The products these subscriptions typically promote are face creams and hair and other beauty products.

Deceptive “easy payments” are another lure. Use your calculator. Four “easy” payments of $39.95 will end up costing you almost $160. Before buying, ask yourself: Is the product really worth $160?

You should also know what “upsell” is. That’s when either the sales representative who completes your order on the telephone or the pre-programmed online screens you must navigate to order the product push you to buy extra products you probably do not need or want. Rest assured, there will be extra processing, shipping and handling fees attached to such add-ons, inevitably resulting in significantly higher costs to you. Marketers routinely rely on your penchant to impulse buy or on your all-too-human desire not to be rude to the person taking the order.

“Trial” periods are rarely inexpensive or “free,” by the way. The price shown in the advertisement is often just the price to try the product. If you actually keep the product, you will then be charged a much higher price.

If you buy a product promoted by a TV ad, make sure you get and keep all of the information from the transaction, including the identity of and the contact information for the seller and where to turn if there is a problem. If you’re doing this by phone, be sure to ask the order taker for the customer service telephone number. If you are completing your purchase on a website, bookmark or write down the web address and also write down all contact information, including the order ID number.

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There are some very sophisticated and truly bad guys out there trying to take advantage of you. Beware.


French yogurt purveyor Dannon was fined $21 million because its disclaimers were impossible to read on TV, scrolling on your screen too fast to be seen and often cleverly covered by graphics as well. The FTC says that disclaimers should be “clear and conspicuous.” Dannon’s were not.

Infomercial king Kevin Trudeau was fined $38 million last year and sentenced to 10 years in jail for misleading Americans about “natural cures” for deadly diseases. Among other things, he claimed in numerous ads that taking certain vitamins that he was hawking made it “impossible” to get cancer.

Even as he was already making millions − just the sales of his book he was peddling on TV were estimated to have netted him over $38.6 million − because Americans believed him, he upped the ante, declaring “every single one of you are deficient in vitamin D3 and calcium. If you take (these vitamins), it’s virtually impossible to get cancer and it’s impossible to get sick.” If only.

You do not need the next big thing: a machine that cleans your teeth and then your dishes, then shampoos your rugs, all for the incredibly low price of your first born child, but wait! There’s more! You also will get a car sanitizer, a meatball maker and a watch that can run your life. (Oops, Apple just came out with that product, didn’t it?)

Remember. You are savvy. If that TV ad sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.


Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website

His new book “Who Will Pay My Auto Accident Bills?, The Most Comprehensive Nationwide Auto Accident Resolution Book, Ever” can be reviewed on and can be ordered there, or obtained directly on Amazon: Click here to order.


Mr. Samakow’s “Don’t Text and Drive” campaign, El Textarudo, has become nationally recognized. Please visit the website and “like” the concept on the Facebook page

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Paul Samakow
Attorney Paul Samakow brings his legal expertise and analysis from the trenches of the courtroom to Communities Digital News. A native Washingtonian, Samakow has been a Plaintiff’s trial lawyer since 1980 practicing in the DC metro area. Paul can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email @ [email protected], or through his website @ He is also available to speak to your group on numerous legal topics.