Column: Truth in advertising at heart of Better Business Bureau

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After listening carefully while asking questions and having everything explained to me twice, I hastily signed the paperwork so that I could get started with the service.

I didn’t bother to read the legal sized-page of fine print in faded gray lettering on the back of the pink copy. The big, colorful, glossy brochure did a great job of explaining the deal with big bold lettering and sharp-looking pictures. Besides, the salesperson helping me had a sincere face and a contagious smile. I trusted her.

At that moment, I was a happy customer who just made a square deal.

Fast forward a few months down the road. I received my monthly bill in the mail, and the amount was wrong. It was way too high. I called the 800 number, navigated the phone labyrinth, and after a brief 30 minutes on hold, I was on the phone with a live person. The customer-service representative referenced something in that fine print I did not read.

The story goes on and on, and I could only begin to express my frustration. I felt burned, humiliated and intentionally deceived. In my mind, that business is dishonest, and they are misleading customers. It was falsely advertised and falsely represented by the business’s agent. They should know that is not how we do business in Montana.

This is my story, but it could just as easily be yours. It’s one far too many of us have gone through.

At your Better Business Bureau, our vision is to end this cycle by creating an ethical marketplace where buyers and sellers can trust each other. Truth in advertising is at the heart of what we do. In fact, truth in advertising is the reason we exist today.

In 1906, there wasn’t any organization regulating truth in advertising. Big business could say whatever it wanted about their products or services and many of them took a lot of liberties like a product’s medical benefits, misleading pricing, etc. Then, the Federal Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, and the government lodged charges for false advertising claims against some firms, including the Coca-Cola Company.

Samuel C. Dobbs was an up-and-coming executive with Coca-Cola, and he took particular interest in the trial. The charges didn’t stick, but during the court proceedings, Dobbs listened to the U.S. Attorney charge Coca-Cola with false advertising of its product. Much as that bothered Dobbs, he was even more shocked at the response of his company’s attorney: “Why all advertising is exaggerated. Nobody believes it.”

Dobbs couldn’t forget what he heard and began a serious examination of advertising of the time. He realized that so many businesses were intentionally misleading consumers to make a quick sale and it disgusted him. Dobbs set out to create an organization of volunteer business executives that created rules and standards for regulation of truth in advertising. There were several evolutions from Dobbs’ original effort, and then in 1912, the Better Business Bureau was officially born.

Today, BBB has a code of advertising. It can be found on its website at https://www.bbb.org/code-of-advertising. The question we ask ourselves and of business is, “Is this advertising truthful? Can you back up the claims you’re making?”

We might also ask ourselves, “Am I intentionally misleading my customers to bait them?” When you see a BBB Accredited Business Seal on a business’s front door or window, it means that they are committed to sticking to our code. But even if a company doesn’t boast the BBB Seal, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be adhering to those same standards.

Many of our small Montana businesses operate on the up-and-up. Business owners know that you have to play the long game and there is no way you can be successful unless your customers are comfortable coming back to you time after time. Many of the leaders in our local business communities paved the way for honest business transactions. I think our current business leaders have a good sense of honest and dishonest, and trustworthy and misleading. When you place an ad, trust your gut about what is right and wrong. Are you misleading your customers or are you carrying forward the traditions of honesty that make our Montana business communities great?

And if you see another business in our community making false claims, be sure to file a complaint at bbb.org.

Dan Buchta is the Montana marketplace director for the Better Business Bureau’s Northwest and Pacific regions.

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