False or exaggerated advertising was rampant in the comic books of yesteryear. Many of these ads were for cheap toys that were meant to make a child’s dreams come true. Some were said to give you strange powers, while still others could help you see through walls… and clothing.
Why were these advertisements allowed to be printed? Did the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) just turn a blind eye?
Well first off, let’s take a brief look at some of the policies of the FTC.
Consider these two questions and their answers:
How does the FTC determine if an ad is deceptive?
A typical inquiry follows these steps:
- The FTC looks at the ad from the point of view of the “reasonable consumer” – the typical person looking at the ad. Rather than focusing on certain words, the FTC looks at the ad in context – words, phrases, and pictures -Ã¿to determine what it conveys to consumers.
- The FTC looks at both “express” and “implied” claims. An express claim is literally made in the ad. For example, “ABC Mouthwash prevents colds” is an express claim that the product will prevent colds. An implied claim is one made indirectly or by inference. “ABC Mouthwash kills the germs that cause colds” contains an implied claim that the product will prevent colds. Although the ad doesn’t literally say that the product prevents colds, it would be reasonable for a consumer to conclude from the statement “kills the germs that cause colds” that the product will prevent colds. Under the law, advertisers must have proof to back up express and implied claims that consumers take from an ad.
- The FTC looks at what the ad does not say – that is, if the failure to include information leaves consumers with a misimpression about the product. For example, if a company advertised a collection of books, the ad would be deceptive if it did not disclose that consumers actually would receive abridged versions of the books.
- The FTC looks at whether the claim would be “material” – that is, important to a consumer’s decision to buy or use the product. Examples of material claims are representations about a product’s performance, features, safety, price, or effectiveness.
- The FTC looks at whether the advertiser has sufficient evidence to support the claims in the ad. The law requires that advertisers have proof before the ad runs.
What standards does the FTC apply when evaluating claims in ads aimed at children?
The FTC pays particular attention to ads aimed at children because children may be more vulnerable to certain kinds of deception. Advertising directed to children is evaluated from a child’s point of view, not an adult’s. The FTC also works with the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. CARU is a private, self-regulatory group affiliated with the BBB that publishes self-regulatory guides for children’s advertising.
Comic book advertisements
Laws about false advertising have been around for a very long time. The following ads either slipped by the FTC due to no one filing a complaint, or the FTC deemed them appropriate for print after investigating them.
I would say that if the FTC followed the steps outlined above, the companies which ran these ads should have been hit with the consequences.
After all, the “reasonable consumer” in this case would be a child, the express claims are that the following products can make all of your dreams come true, make you the most popular, or give you special abilities.
They don’t have a disclaimer that these are just toys and intended for fun, the claims made are definitely material, and there is no evidence in the ad to support these claims.
Jet “Rocket” Space Ship!
The advertisment asks it’s reader to “Imagine all this!” and then goes on to describe a fanciful mission in which the “captain” blasts off for a mission in space and guns down some unknown target with “disintegrator guns” and “powerful nuclear bombs”.
The paragraph sums up with the following sentence:
“This is just an idea of all the wonderful things you can do with your sensational new Space Ship. Sturdily constructed of fiberboard, it will bring you more fun and adventure than you’ve ever known.”
First off, this thing apparently comes equipped with actual disintegrator guns and nuclear bombs. That’s pretty advanced equipment for a pre-teen space cadet to handle. Secondly, it’s supposed to bring the buyer more fun and adventure than they’ve ever known. I call that exaggeration. Not to mention breeding war mongers.
The message: Killing is fun, and for only $4.98 you can assemble a rocket from fiberboard (glorified cardboard) that will actually fly you and your friend in to space where you can nuke aliens, and in turn this will make you happier than anything else possibly could.
I guess they could get away with this since the title uses quotes around the word rocket. It’s a real space ship , but a fake rocket.
This is just one of the cheap toys the Honor House Products Corporation advertised and sold. Among the others were submarines, log cabins and tanks… all made of cardboard. Fun!
According to one testimonial from a man who purchased this toy when he was a young boy, the sub fell apart easily and the missiles, which were made of plastic, were launched through a cardboard tube with a rubber-band. He also claimed that the actual product looked absolutely nothing like the illustration. He described the toy as a cardboard box painted to look like a sub. No doubt the same could be said about the space ship, log cabin and tank.
This is a particularly interesting toy, and by far my favorite ad due to the text. Here’s what it says incase you can’t make it out:
Hilarious optical illusion! Scientific principle always works! With these X-Ray Specs you apparently see through flesh and peek at the bones underneath! Apparently see through clothing – and “embarrass” friends – they’ll BEG TO TRY IT FOR THEMSELVES! Be the most popular at work / school – BE THE LIFE OF THE PARTY! You also get funny tricks and amazing illusions to perform for your friends! Only $1.50 plus .50 postage & handling.
Now that’s good stuff. I guess advertisers can easily cover their tracks by adding the word “Apparently”. The sad thing is, this ad is from a 1987 comic book!
Where are they now?
What happened to the mail order companies of the ’50s such as Honor House Products, Helen of Toy and Norton Products (no, not the virus people)? Simply put: no one knows. I have done some rather intensive research in to this and haven’t been able to get any information. I have even emailed comic book companies and asked if they have any back information on the matter, and they don’t.
Most likely these companies folded as soon as people realized the garbage they were pumping out.
Mail order toy companies still exist, but they seem to be a little more forward and honest with what you get.
Does deceptive advertising still exist in comic books?
Sensational promises of space flights and overnight muscles have fallen by the wayside. However, there is no doubt that deceptive, unfair or exaggerated advertising still exists, even in comic books. Unfortunately advertisers are able to sneak it in without textual descriptions. Instead they use more impressionable images to get the job done. Visuals in advertising are meant to suck the viewer in and lead them through a series of strategically placed elements used to sell him or her on the product in question.
Advertising is more rampant in today’s comics than those of the past. The ads are more effective, and if anything more deceptive since they accomplish their purpose in a non-forward way, using tried and true legal techniques to “guide” the target to a purchase.
Adults aren’t immune to the affects of advertising, however children are more susceptible and impressionable, and this is the main audience that comic book advertisers tend to target.
Regardless of the underhanded tricks the old ’50s advertisements used, they are still fun to look at and enhance the nostalgic value of old comic books.