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Why bait-and-switch ads are still an issue in the era of ethical marketing

Why bait-and-switch ads are still an issue in the era of ethical marketing

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Bait-and-switch advertising or bait advertising is not something new in today’s highly competitive business landscape. As consumers ourselves, we may have come across unsolicited offers on eCommerce sites, or may even have been directed to purchase a product at a discounted price that might not actually be available for sale.  

Hong Kong's Consumer Council describes bait advertising as advertising by a trader of products for supply at a specified price when there are no reasonable grounds for believing that the trader will be able to offer for supply those products at that price in reasonable quantities and for a reasonable period.

In the city, there has also been an increase in complaints regarding bait advertising and bait-and-switch cases, when compared to the previous financial year.  According to the official government figures, the number of complaints regarding bait advertising has reached 65 this financial year, representing a slight increase from the previous financial year (31). Meanwhile, the number of complaints related to bait-and-switch has also surged from 19 during 2021 to 2022 to 54 this financial year. 

Meanwhile in Singapore, Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS), also noted that there has been an increase in feedback on advertisements where the complainants said the advertised percentage of a discount or rebate was unachievable due to the conditions imposed on the promotion.

Out of all 303 pieces of feedback, the authority received 13 pieces of such feedback in 2022 involving banks, departmental stores and restaurants in Singapore. For instance, on Black Friday, a departmental store’s banners on the homepage of their website stated that consumers could enjoy a 50% discount on purchases above SG$799 when using a promotional code. However, multiple complainants pointed out that the terms and conditions capped the discount at SG$125, far less than the SG$399.5 discount they expected for meeting the minimum spending requirement, said the statement. 

Don't miss: HK sees slight increase in complaints regarding bait advertising

Industry players MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to attributed the increase of usage in bait advertising tactics to various factors. Beck You, CEO of BBDO Greater China, said one of the key reasons is the highly competitive nature of the market, where brands are constantly vying for consumers' attention.  

“Some advertisers may resort to bait advertising as a short-sighted strategy to generate immediate interest and drive traffic to their offerings. However, it is essential to note that not all brands adopt this tactic, and the majority of advertisers prioritise ethical and transparent practices,” he added. 

The advancement of technology is another key factor. Joshua Chu, group chief risk officer, Coinllectibles, said the competitive nature of the Asian market and the pressure to attract customers may push some businesses to resort to deceptive tactics in order to stand out and drive sales.  

“The growth of digital advertising and eCommerce platforms has provided new avenues for the dissemination of these tactics, making it easier for businesses to reach a wider audience and potentially exploit consumers. With the advent of generative AI, criminal enterprises also find it easier to disseminate false information with economies of scale, with law enforcement still trying to play catch up with new technologies,” he added. 

Ways to promote ethical advertising practices 

The best way for the industry to address any issues is to raise awareness about regulation and self-regulation among all agencies and advertisers, especially the small ones who may not have the same resources internally, according to a spokesperson from WPP.  

The spokesperson added that WPP requires that all work its agencies produce for clients complies with all relevant legal requirements, codes of practice and marketing standards. Its agencies have copy-checking and clearance processes for the legal team to review campaigns before publication.  

Establishing clear industry guidelines and best practices is also vital to fostering true advertising, said BBDO Greater China’s You. “By delivering on promises and being transparent about products, services, and pricing, brands can establish themselves as trustworthy partners in the eyes of consumers,” he added.

Additionally, self-regulatory bodies and industry associations can enforce stricter measures and penalties for offenders, ensuring that unethical practices are deterred and swiftly addressed, he added, "It is crucial for advertisers to prioritise ethical advertising practices and ensure that messaging aligns with the actual offerings, thus fostering a culture of authenticity and reliability."

Apart from raising public awareness of unfair trade practices, education is also important. Over the past few years, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department (C&ED) has proactively visited different industries and conducted briefings and provided traders with guidance on legal requirements under the Trade Descriptions Ordinance.   

Furthermore, Coinllectibles’ Chu said industry associations can establish educational programmes and awareness campaigns to educate both businesses and consumers about the risks associated with fraudulent advertising practices, emphasising the importance of ethical conduct and compliance with the law.  

“Of course, increased compliance requirements will add costs to operations, and it is imperative for the industry and regulators to make easy and affordable solutions that will balance the two competing interests,” he added. 

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