Misleading and Deceptive Advertising

TV advertising

Every year goes by and I receive phone calls from clients that ask about an ad they saw on TV. Here are some examples.

#1 Brenda from Moscow Idaho: “I saw on tv where you could get this $24 a month plan.”

Explanation: The ad is for an HMO Medicare advantage plan offered by Purple Cross (fictitious) of Washington that is available in Spokane County. It’s not available for Idaho residents or in surrounding rural Washington counties. The ad does not make that clear.

#2 John from Eureka, Montana: “What about this plan where you don’t pay anything and you get vision and dental.”

Explanation: This is in all likelihood an ad from a national health insurance company that offers a zero premium Medicare advantage plan in some of the larger markets such as Seattle, Spokane, Boise, or Salt Lake City. It’s not available in most rural areas.

There usually is some unreadable fine print at the bottom of the ad or the voice over quickly says at the end of the ad, “Not available in all area” or something to that effect.

What is boldly promoted in these TV ads? Yes, it’s the huge toll-free number held on the screen for eons to allow the viewer enough time to write it down.

These ads are similar to pharmaceutical ads. They extoll the virtues of their product while ignoring or glossing over the downsides. The drug ads portray how wonderful your life will be if you “ask your doctor for this drug”, oops, “ask your doctor about……” Meanwhile, the voice over quickly rolls past the myriad of potential side effects in an almost non-understandable monotone.

Print advertising

A couple in Bigfork, Montana showed me a mailer they received from Acme Health and Life, again, a fictitious name. The paper flier leads off with a bright red “0 or affordable premium….” The zero is in bolded bright red and the text reverted back to black.

I explained to them that there are no zero premium Medicare advantage (MA) plans in Montana that include prescription coverage. I also said that in some counties Acme has available a zero premium MA only plan, but this plan has no prescription coverage. If you enroll in stand-alone prescription drug plan, then you will then disenroll yourself from this MA only plan.

The couple said, “Isn’t that deceptive?” “Yes it is” was my response. In fact, I’d say it’s really close to bait and switch. You’re baited with the bright red zero only to find out that the zero-premium MA only plan won’t work for you.

After you call the prominent toll-free number displayed on the flier and have an ACME agent visit you, the agent will discuss a plan with premium. You are baited with the bright red “0” and then switched to a plan with a premium.

Acme skates free because the language says, “$0 or affordable premium…” It’s technically true, but it’s also unfeasible for most all consumers. This is classic bait and switch.

The Whole Point
Is the purpose of most Medicare related TV and print advertising to properly inform you about the products being advertised? Of course not. Instead the purpose is to use whatever manipulative trick it takes to get you to call the sponsor’s toll-free number.

If the company would send you a professional agent that put your interests ahead of the company’s bottom line, then it wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, you typically get the used car salesman type that overlooks and/or hides the defects of the product he is selling. End