Can you legally make impossible promises?

35 replies
Another highly experienced copywriter and I were discussing two passages from Roy Williams, where he recommended promising something impossible:

"Fish so healthy you'll live forever."

"This bread is so amazing that
people have been known to pass out from the sheer
wonderfulness of it."

Is this kosher (so to speak)?

Does it get by because we can assume no one in their right minds would believe such claims?

And apart from the legal issue, do you feel this approach can work even if you're not cultivating a jokey image, overall, for your business? What I mean is, I can see how this would fit for a business that used this kind of tone consistently to promote itself. Do you think it can work outside that context as well?

Just raising some issues. I am not sure what to think about this.

Marcia Yudkin
#impossible #legally #make #promises
  • Profile picture of the author John_S
    Pom Wonderful not too long ago settled with the FTC over their "Cheat Death" campaign as I recall. Not sure about the details and facts of the case, however.

    If you want bread lawsuits over heath claims, you want Benjamin Suarez.

    Some company offered a fighter jet (they didn't have one) for accumulation of, like twenty-five million points in a contest. Sure enough somehow someone accumulated the points, and much legality ensued.

    What someone thinks is impossible is often interrupted by someone else doing it. Every time someone makes a joke, you can be sure somewhere, someone is going to take it as truth.
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    • Profile picture of the author thriftgirl62
      I like it...at first I thought you meant income promises but these are humerous and catchy.

      Things you would love to believe in a perfect world. Imagination is a good thing to make people use for something like this instead of worry running away with their imagination.

      Mother Nature's Menopause Miracles or Beat Fatique Forever

      There are so many you would stand out if you didn't make impossible promises because people are so used to hearing them - Maybe that's a good idea - stand out - instead of me too! Then again, tell them what they want to hear...is supposed to work too..

      Legally speaking - It's perfectly okay to take back something, even by force aka Robbery, if you truly believe it's yours. Even if you made a mistake and it wasn't yours after all, if you robbed someone under the true belief that it was yours, you are within your legal rights.

      In other words, if you believe it, it's true therefore it's legal - I guess?!!
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      • Profile picture of the author marciayudkin
        Here is a reference about the fighter jet case:

        snopes.com: Pepsi Harrier Giveaway

        Interesting, thanks.

        Marcia Yudkin
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      • Profile picture of the author RickDuris
        Originally Posted by thriftgirl62 View Post

        Legally speaking - It's perfectly okay to take back something, even by force aka Robbery, if you truly believe it's yours. Even if you made a mistake and it wasn't yours after all, if you robbed someone under the true belief that it was yours, you are within your legal rights.

        In other words, if you believe it, it's true therefore it's legal - I guess?!!
        Tell OJ that.
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        • Profile picture of the author Rezbi
          Originally Posted by RickDuris View Post

          Tell OJ that.
          Heh!

          That's funny. And so true.
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          • Profile picture of the author thriftgirl62
            What did I miss? I heard OJ was in trouble again? Went to jail or something. Did he rob someone??? I don't pay attention to people who don't exist for any good reason other than to take space - he doesn't until now for a minute....what's the funny part??


            That Robbery law is in California but I don't know about other States.
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            • Profile picture of the author Rezbi
              Originally Posted by thriftgirl62 View Post

              What did I miss? I heard OJ was in trouble again? Went to jail or something. Did he rob someone??? I don't pay attention to people who don't exist for any good reason other than to take space - he doesn't until now for a minute....what's the funny part??


              That Robbery law is in California but I don't know about other States.
              The funny part is I live in the UK and haven't seen a silly law like that here.

              The funny part is that I find it funny.

              The funny part is that there is something called freedom of speech and expression, although the so-called 'free' societies don't seem to allow them.
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        • Profile picture of the author Ronald Nzimora
          Originally Posted by RickDuris View Post

          Tell OJ that.
          Rick,

          I couldn't help but remember OJ when i read that quote you replied to. Iget what you mean. OJ did just that yet he went to jail! Ha ha.

          Legal? I don't think so.
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  • Profile picture of the author Mac Deyak
    Ha! So that's the way to get my dream fighter jet!

    To answer your question: It depends if you actually play it on as a joke - Make it very clear that it is in deed impossible e.g. Vertical Leap so high you'd reach the moon!
    however, if you play on the claim as if it is actually a serious promise then no, you better have a proper disclaimer, and make sure that you do the "not all results are typical" somewhere in the footnotes.

    - Mac
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  • Profile picture of the author Rezbi
    Originally Posted by marciayudkin View Post



    "Fish so healthy you'll live forever."

    This bread is so amazing that
    people have been known to pass out from the sheer
    wonderfulness of it."
    In my mind it's a matter of what is actually impossible and what is seemingly impossible.

    The first of these is actually impossible.

    The second is possible. Just as the plane deal was also possible. These just seem so ridiculously out of reach that it doesn't seem possible.

    But they are. As it's obviously been proven.

    The first can't be proven. The second can, if it's happened.
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  • Profile picture of the author bguandolo
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    • Profile picture of the author Hank Rearden
      Who is this Roy Williams, and why are we listening to him if his name isn't Claude Hopkins?

      - HR
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      • Profile picture of the author Ross Bowring
        Originally Posted by Hank Rearden View Post

        Who is this Roy Williams, and why are we listening to him if his name isn't Claude Hopkins?

        - HR
        Writer of the "Wizard of Ads" books If I'm not mistaken. Great books btw. Or maybe I'm wrong and it's the Cowboy's wide-out.

        --- Ross
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  • Profile picture of the author Rezbi
    Originally Posted by marciayudkin View Post

    Another highly experienced copywriter and I were discussing two passages from Roy Williams, where he recommended promising something impossible:

    "Fish so healthy you'll live forever."

    "This bread is so amazing that
    people have been known to pass out from the sheer
    wonderfulness of it."

    Is this kosher (so to speak)?

    Does it get by because we can assume no one in their right minds would believe such claims?

    And apart from the legal issue, do you feel this approach can work even if you're not cultivating a jokey image, overall, for your business? What I mean is, I can see how this would fit for a business that used this kind of tone consistently to promote itself. Do you think it can work outside that context as well?

    Just raising some issues. I am not sure what to think about this.

    Marcia Yudkin
    Marcia,

    I just read what he said.

    If you merely exaggerate, your customer's left brain will shoot your claims full of holes. But if you go beyond mere exaggeration - so far beyond it that the left brain knows you're just clowning - the right brain will happily embrace your glowing fantasy in all its positive glory.
    Yes, we're speaking to the unconscious. We don't need the customer to believe our silly, over-the-top promise. They don't even have to think it's cute.
    So it looks like he was just clowning and it's not meant to be taken seriously.
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    • TV ads do it all the time - at least they do here in the UK.

      If I wash my hair with "Head and Shoulders'' shampoo - a dozen gorgeous women all wearing super sexy stockings will jump into the shower - and massage me all over.

      And if I spray "Lynx" on me - I'll be chased by gorgeous women all day long - when they catch me (and I'll be walking very slowly) they'll strip off and demand to have red hot sex with me.

      I guess after all that's done - and I go back into the shower to cool down - and pick up the shampoo...
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      • Profile picture of the author Rezbi
        Originally Posted by Steve Copywriter View Post

        And if I spray "Lynx" on me - I'll be chased by gorgeous women all day long - when they catch me (and I'll be walking very slowly) they'll strip off and demand to have red hot sex with me.
        That doesn't really happen to you?

        Huh. So it wasn't the lynx after all.
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        • Profile picture of the author marciayudkin
          So it looks like he was just clowning and it's not meant to be taken seriously.
          No, I don't agree with that interpretation, and I certainly don't believe that puts the issue to rest.

          He is saying that the right brain takes in the statement and is delighted by it. In that context, the literal truth doesn't matter, he says. OK so far.

          However, not everyone has their right/left brains sorted out in the proper way, and therefore you can potentially get into trouble in advertising if something meant not to be taken seriously is interpreted seriously by enough people. Then it's called misleading or false advertising.

          My question was whether or not this technique raises the danger of being accused of misleading or false advertising. And that's why the fighter jet case is so relevant and interesting.

          Marcia Yudkin
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          • Profile picture of the author Rezbi
            Originally Posted by marciayudkin View Post

            However, not everyone has their right/left brains sorted out in the proper way,
            You're right there. Or is that left?

            Mine's the wrong way around. My left is on the right and the right is on the left.

            But seriously...

            I think the plane thing was a planned deception as they really thought no one could achieve it.

            There was no humour in the actual advert. Nor was humour implied, even though they claimed it was in humour afterwards.
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        • Lol@ Rezbi - going to try it today and see what happens...

          I can see how Roy Williams theory works - if you use it in the right context.

          One thing I did learn about "impossible promises" was from CM's "The Screaming Eagle" - don't do it - but do this instead.

          "Ride on the edge of unbelievability"

          I have made that work on a lots of Sales Letters.

          The other thing I've done is make the huge "Big Promise" and then just ever so slightly "negate it"

          A quick and not the best example.

          "Make a £797,000 In 28 Days Guaranteed"

          (But you will have to make the effort)

          Anyway I'm off now to spray on some "Lynx"
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      • Profile picture of the author straygoat
        Originally Posted by Steve Copywriter View Post

        TV ads do it all the time - at least they do here in the UK.

        If I wash my hair with "Head and Shoulders'' shampoo - a dozen gorgeous women all wearing super sexy stockings will jump into the shower - and massage me all over.

        And if I spray "Lynx" on me - I'll be chased by gorgeous women all day long - when they catch me (and I'll be walking very slowly) they'll strip off and demand to have red hot sex with me.

        I guess after all that's done - and I go back into the shower to cool down - and pick up the shampoo...
        But would the manufacturers be in trouble if they stated 'use Lynx and you will be a fanny magnet?' (sorry, US copywriters, fanny means something different over here!) that's what they are suggesting, but they don't state that explicitly. I suspect that they can get away with implying but not with stating as fact. Be interesting to know for sure though.
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  • Profile picture of the author Gary Pettit
    The problem behind the potential problem of legality is that impossible promises are not effective. The purpose is to attract, not swindle. Impossible promises only succeed in raising red flags about Integrity; a surefire way to lose buying decisions.
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  • Profile picture of the author John_S
    The purpose is to attract, not swindle.
    I wish I lived in that universe. The sky of your world must indeed be a sight to behold.

    There are an amazing number of people to whom the result is of negligible interest, as the swindle is the real payoff. They simply enjoy being or pretending to be a wiseguy (in the criminal sense of the word).
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  • Profile picture of the author mrdomains
    Originally Posted by marciayudkin View Post


    "Fish so healthy you'll live forever."

    "This bread is so amazing that
    people have been known to pass out from the sheer
    wonderfulness of it."
    There is a huge difference between the two.

    The first one is not ok.
    The second one is.

    My simple rule is to not use any situation / circumstance that cannot be proven.

    The first one is a fantasy and impossible to proove.
    The second one could arguably be proven to be true.
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  • Profile picture of the author thesweetspot
    So as long as someone has done what you claim is impossible, then you can promise whatever you like, but as long as you add,,,,it might not happen for you in legal jargon.
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    • Profile picture of the author BrianMcLeod
      Originally Posted by thesweetspot View Post

      So as long as someone has done what you claim is impossible, then you can promise whatever you like, but as long as you add,,,,it might not happen for you in legal jargon.
      Codswallop and piffle.

      Or as we call it here in 'Mericuh - BULLSH!T

      Don't post about what you don't know. What you've
      written is incredibly ignorant and DANGEROUS.

      Ugh.
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      • Profile picture of the author Rezbi
        Originally Posted by BrianMcLeod View Post

        Codswallop and piffle.

        Or as we call it here in 'Mericuh - BULLSH!T

        Don't post about what you don't know. What you've
        written is incredibly ignorant and DANGEROUS.

        Ugh.
        Where's 'Mericuh and what's the postrophe for?
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        • Profile picture of the author Jo_Shua
          Originally Posted by Rezbi View Post

          Where's 'Mericuh and what's the postrophe for?
          America I am guessing. The apostrophe is to put emphasis on a non-existent syllable -- Ah.

          It's how some of us 'Mericons talk. Brian just brought out the accent in the word.
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          • Profile picture of the author Rezbi
            Originally Posted by Jo_Shua View Post

            America I am guessing. The apostrophe is to put emphasis on a non-existent syllable -- Ah.

            It's how some of us 'Mericons talk. Brian just brought out the accent in the word.
            I can't believe you gave that a serious answer.
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            • Profile picture of the author Jo_Shua
              Originally Posted by Rezbi View Post

              I can't believe you gave that a serious answer.
              What can I say...? I'm a serious guy. :rolleyes:

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              • Profile picture of the author Dave WCITM
                I believe that making promises which you know you will never keep or which you yourself have not been able to achieve just heads us in the direction of breaking trust and isn't the trust between you and your clients what makes up the foundation of any good Internet Marketing business as the more you build trust the easier it becomes to up sell. Well that is my take on it anyway, now where is that Lynx?
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  • Profile picture of the author John_S
    I believe that making promises which you know you will never keep or which you yourself have not been able to achieve just heads us in the direction of breaking trust and isn't the trust between you and your clients what makes up the foundation of any good Internet Marketing business as the more you build trust the easier it becomes to up sell.
    Apparently you haven't been reading many mega headline sales pages. Or "Does Any Other Pot Want to Call The Kettle Black?!"

    "Who Else" thanks to the wonderful truthiness of IM translates out to "you'd be the first."


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    Never discussed ...a hundred and fifty times before, more like. Inside your mom's basement doesn't make you an insider, sorry.


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    Uh huh ...the Forbes list just musta missed that fella.


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    Yeah Warriors ...don't do that every. single. ad.
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  • Profile picture of the author RickDuris
    John_S is accurate.

    Quick resource: Most copywriters I know have a swipe file of Eugene Schwartz's best ads.

    Each ad usually contains a pretty amazing promise. And if you really study the ads, you'll discover he packs each ad with promise after incredible promise.

    If this subject interests you, you would be astute to study them.

    - Rick Duris

    PS: You must be aware some of Eugene's ads make some astounding claims, and may not stand the test of today's laws (at least in the US.) The one about "rubbing disease out of your body" comes to mind.
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  • Profile picture of the author Johnny12345
    Originally Posted by marciayudkin View Post

    "Fish so healthy you'll live forever."

    "This bread is so amazing that
    people have been known to pass out from the sheer
    wonderfulness of it."

    Is this kosher (so to speak)?

    As MrDomains pointed out, the first example is probably not OK. However, the second example probably is acceptable.

    Why?

    Because there's a difference between "puffery" (or "sales talk") and outright fraud.

    Here's an example that might be more illustrative...

    Saying your product will make your prospect "feel like a million bucks" is very different than saying your product will "cure their cancer."

    If a reasonably prudent person might believe that a given claim is real, true, or factual -- when it's not -- then it may be fraud.

    In a nutshell: puffery is OK... fraud is not.

    - John
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  • Originally Posted by marciayudkin View Post

    Another highly experienced copywriter and I were discussing two passages from Roy Williams, where he recommended promising something impossible:

    "Fish so healthy you'll live forever."

    "This bread is so amazing that
    people have been known to pass out from the sheer
    wonderfulness of it."

    Is this kosher (so to speak)?

    Does it get by because we can assume no one in their right minds would believe such claims?

    And apart from the legal issue, do you feel this approach can work even if you're not cultivating a jokey image, overall, for your business? What I mean is, I can see how this would fit for a business that used this kind of tone consistently to promote itself. Do you think it can work outside that context as well?

    Just raising some issues. I am not sure what to think about this.

    Marcia Yudkin


    Using "Forever" as part of a health claim, no matter how humorous you intend it to be, is a HUGE no-no. Generally speaking, you cannot make specific health claims for a food or supplement unless you want to get sued/fined.

    There is some grey area when it comes to supportable claims like "shown to lower cholesterol in 23 studies". But if you read carefully, that statement doesn't say "supplement X will lower your cholesterol". It says 23 studies showed that it did. A fine line, but a line nonetheless.

    The second claim is...well, "cute". Sort of. And being "cute" or using humor in copy doesn't usually work. That's why every great copywriting coach/teacher generally advises against it. It's very hard to make humor resonate with a market in a way that actually makes people want to buy.

    Sure, you make provoke a chuckle, but when I'm laughing...I'm not buying. I've been bumped out of my "buying trance"...and when that happens, I'm off to the next page, or website, etc.
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