brand story & messaging

Uber’s troubles reveal exaggeration’s slippery slope

Sandra Stewart | September 11, 2015

Is grandiose exaggeration acceptable in marketing? A lot of people seem to think so—even to the point of inaccuracy (more bluntly known as lying).

Uber’s legal troubles over its safety advertising illustrate both the prevalence of that attitude and why it’s wrong. California taxi companies, as well as the district attorneys of San Francisco and Los Angeles, have filed false advertising suits over Uber’s claims that it is “setting the strictest safety standards possible,” and that its safety is “already best in class” and “industry-leading,” and represents a “comprehensive and new industry standard.” A federal judge recently ruled that the suits could go forward, and late last month the district attorneys responded by expanding their lawsuits.

Uber got into trouble by making specific, verifiable claims (something we always advise for credibility and persuasiveness) that its accusers say it can’t actually verify (something we definitely do not advise). There’s a thorough legal analysis of the situation at Law 360. What disturbs me is the business analysis—some commentators seem to believe that where Uber went wrong was in not sticking to the marketing puffery of fundamentally unprovable claims like “background checks you can trust,” which imply that its drivers are more trustworthy than competitors’ but don’t actually say so, and thus are not actionable.

Is this really where we want to set the bar? Every article I’ve read on the issue has stated it as a given that most companies’ marketing will be littered with over-the-top puffery. Much marketing is, but puffloading is a shortsighted, cheesy, lazy and cynical approach that any business aiming for a positive impact on the world should avoid. It harms your brand reputation and contributes to a growing distrust of business (see Edelman’s 2015 Trust Barometer survey for research on that). If you have a great product or service, then smart, creative, customer-focused marketing can sell it without a frosting of dishonesty.

I hate to sound preachy, but while exaggeration up to the point of actionability may be legal, it just ain’t right.

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