The debate over truthfulness in ads is nothing new. In 1914, Congress passed the Federal Trade Commission Act, which gave the government legal tools to fight deceptive practices in the marketplace.
In the decades since, many companies in all sorts of industries—not just fast food—have faced punishment for misleading marketing, both by the Federal Trade Commission and the courts. Carmaker Hyundai, for example, agreed in 2004 to pay more than $85 million in a settlement after overstating the horsepower of 1.3 million vehicles. And shoemaker New Balance paid $2.3 million to customers in 2012 after falsely claiming certain sneakers helped burn more calories (see “Advertising in the Courts,” below).
“We want people to be encouraged to bring out the best product to the marketplace,” says Mark Bartholomew, a law professor at the University at Buffalo in New York. “But if people are lying, that’s like a poison infecting the marketplace. So false-advertising [laws are] supposed to clear that poison out of the system.”
These burger lawsuits may be harder to win than some of the nonfood cases, Bartholomew notes, because although we expect car companies to tell us the truth about their vehicles, we’ve become accustomed to exaggerated imagery in fast-food ads.