They’re used by fly-by-night scam artists and huge companies with gargantuan ad budgets. They use outright deception, bad UX design, vague language, and fake pictures.
They’re misleading Facebook ads, and people click on them all the time.
Whether the goal is clicks, likes, or shares, advertisers are often willing to bend or outright break the rules to do it.
YOU, as a virtuous Facebook ad marketer, wouldn’t stoop to these tricks. But you might be tempted to do something similar.
You shouldn’t. People are getting savvier all the time, and they aren’t afraid of shaming what they think is bad advertising. Even if your ad is well intentioned, if people think you’re trying to deceive them, they’ll share it. It will make you look awful, Facebook will pull your ads, and you could even get your Ads account banned.
Here are 13 examples of deceptive Facebook advertisements, ranging from the worst clickbait to the subtlest misdirection. If any of them remind you of your own ads, stop what you’re doing, and go back to the drawing board.
1. Too Good to Be True Deals
People are genetically hard-wired to seek out a good deal, and the larger the discount, the greater the desire. That’s the case even when a deal is clearly too good to be true.
Advertisers know how to tap into people’s bargain hunting tendencies to drive clicks. No one is selling real Ray Bans for a fraction of their regular price, but plenty of people are willing to take the chance and click on the ad.
This is one of the most common tricks on Facebook, and unfortunately, it works. A 2014 study of 1000 Facebook ads for luxury items found almost a quarter of them were fake. If people are lucky, they’ll end up with a cheap rip off. More often, these sites aren’t selling anything at all, but are just a way to steal people’s credit card information.
2. Intimidation Using Personal Information
Encouraging people to vote is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean every voter registration tactic is too.
This ad taps into a powerful emotion—shame—to encourage people to sign up to vote. The suburban street, the “Don’t Let This Be You” and large headline declaring “All Voting Is Public” creates a powerful, but misleading idea: that a person’s vote will be public knowledge.
The imagery and language work together in this ad to create a false perception that a person’s neighbors will know whether they did or did not vote, and for whom. It’s voter intimidation, which might work in the short run but probably also has something to do with the fact that Congress is less popular than cockroaches, lice, and Genghis Khan.
3. Impossible Listings In Your Area
Are you looking for things to do in Waco, Texas? Maybe you’re interested in their fabulous fishing…
Or… wait, futuristic architecture?
These pictures aren’t from Waco. And when users clicked through to LivingSocial’s page, they didn’t get a list of 365 things to do in Waco. Instead, they got a call-to-action asking them to sign up for a daily coupon.
This is misleading and frustrating for consumers, but it’s also a poor use of resources for LivingSocial. Trying to analyze the sorts of people who click on these ads won’t tell them much of anything about who’s actually interested in their coupons. They may have modestly increased sign ups, but likely frustrated a lot more people who would otherwise be interested in signing up for their daily deals in Waco.
4. A False Sense Of Urgency To Drive Clicks
Creating a sense of urgency is a particularly effective way to get people to click on something. And what’s more urgent than terrible news about one of your favorite celebrities?
Don’t worry—Andrew Lincoln isn’t dead. But thousands of people clicked on this link before they realized that. The ad puts up all sorts of clear warning signs—misspellings, improper capitalization—but in the moment, people aren’t looking at that.
Urgency works, but it doesn’t mean anything if the content on the page doesn’t match their expectation. As soon as people realize that their urgency was misplaced, they’ll leave. That’s not a problem if you’re just selling Hollywood hoaxes, but it is a problem if you actually want people to stay on your website.
5. The “Like-To-Watch” Bait and Switch
In 2010, Nike unveiled a video around the World Cup. Since it’s Nike, you can assume the video was a hyper professional, beautifully shot ode to athleticism that makes you want to run a marathon, or at least finally use your gym membership.
This is what everyone heard about and wanted to see:
But when they actually found the video on their newsfeed, it looked like this:
Nike knew people would want to watch the video, and they decided to leverage that into page likes with some less than honest design. In order to watch, users had to first like the Nike Football page, which let Nike start advertising to them on their newsfeed.
Darkpatterns.org, a site dedicated to unmasking and shaming deceptive UX design, called this a classic example of a “bait and switch” that tries to get people to do one thing when they really want another. That was probably not the kind of attention Nike was looking for when they made this video.
6. Misuse Of Data Gained By Forced Disclosure
People voluntarily share a huge amount of information about themselves on Facebook all the time. Sometimes they share information without intending to in what’s called forced disclosure.
And, once in while, they get tricked into creating online dating accounts using their Facebook information.
That’s exactly what happened for some people who clicked on an ad for the online dating service Zoosk. They automatically had a profile generated using personal information, including photos, their real names, and the postal code where they lived. For one woman, who’d been happily married for 25 years, suddenly getting hundreds of emails from interested bachelors was a less than ideal experience.
The sooner people start using a product, the sooner it can trigger an “A-ha!” moment and turn them into regular users. That was probably what Zoosk was thinking when they set up their Facebook ads—let’s cut to the chase and let people who are interested in online dating start dating right now! But people who just click on an ad aren’t buying in, and they are certainly not assenting to their information being used like this.
7. The Fake Appeal To Authority
In 2012, the federal government opened up investigations into 19 financial companies for using misleading imagery and language in Facebook ads to sell mortgages. The ads created the impression that they were official and trustworthy by using government-style imagery or language to promote their products.
Some included the image of an eagle, or an official looking seal, or used acronyms that sounded like government agencies. Other times, they used misleading language, as in the ad below, to make it sound like the President was urging them to refinance (he’s not).
When people think they are dealing with government agencies, they’re more likely to trust the information they’re being given. Of course, if it’s not a government agency at the other end, then it becomes illegal.
8. Ads Disguised As News Stories
Advertisers know that the best ads don’t feel like ads at all. It’s why there’s so much attention being paid to native advertising. It can be effective, but it can also backfire if people feel that they’re being sold something in a deceptive way.
In this post, Snickers shared and promoted an article from an Australian news channel that featured a video of pilots passing a Snicker’s bar in zero gravity. It’s a great video, and clearly these pilots know that Snickers satisfies, but many people took to Reddit and the comments section to complain about what they saw as advertising masquerading as a news story.
It’s the sort of fine line that can result in a lot of likes and shares, but can also lead to a backlash from people who would rather keep their news sources and favorite brands separate.
9. Trick Questions and the Power of the “Like”
Facebook stumbled on a brilliant idea when they came up with the Like button—this one simple action generates all sorts of positive psychological effects in our brains, from building social capital to giving people tangible proof of their online presence. Advertisers know this, and sometimes they use it in less than honest ways.
In this case, a company drove page likes by asking people whether they “liked” Lord of the Rings. People who looked at this only briefly and thought “Yes! I do love mythical quests and CGI and famous British actors!” would like the page, without realizing they just agreed to like a company called My Job Chart. Maybe some of the 73,467 people who liked the company’s page were discerning fans of both the product and fantasy movies, but probably not.
10. A Patriotic Call to Action That Goes Nowhere
Along with cute baby animals and mothers, it’s hard to find anything more popular than supporting the troops. That’s why showing support for soldiers and veterans is a great way to create a positive brand identity.
Of course, you actually have to support the troops for this to count. Bank of America forgot that when they created this ad—people who liked the page, or clicked through, found lots of useful information on things like home mortgages, but nothing to actually tell them how they could show support for service members.
This might have just been bad design, with an unclear path from the post to the information people were looking for. But if supporting the troops can create a positive impression, appearing to take advantage of them can create a seriously negative backlash.
11. Images Stolen from the Competition
Most of the time, Facebook advertisers spend a lot of time creating engaging images that really resonate with customers. Sometimes, they just steal images from other sites.
In this ad, discount clothing website DressLily.com pulled images from larger, established chains like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus for their ad. Plenty of people were interested in the great deal for a “Lace Splicing T-Shirt” (with free shipping!), but it’s no surprise that people who actually bought something from the website were disappointed when the fashionable bargain they thought they were getting turned out to be poorly made knockoffs.
12. An Outright Stolen Company Identity
It’s bad when companies steal images from other sites. It’s even worse when they steal the brand’s image altogether.
This ad uses all sorts of dirty tricks. It offers a popular product at an incredible price, and creates a heightened sense of urgency with the words “Limited Supply” to make people take action without really looking more carefully.
But the most downright deceptive part of this ad is that it’s not a Dealzon.com ad at all. When users clicked on the link, they were brought to a site called GrabSwag.com, a penny auction site that charges people every time they bid on an item.
13. Using Stolen Images to Sell A Story
When you want to show people your product works, a picture is worth a thousand words.
“Wow! Only 8 weeks to a totally new me! This product really must work.” Says the average consumer.
The only problem is, these photos were stolen. It’s a regular problem with Facebook weight loss advertisements. People go through the painstaking effort to diet and exercise over several months, and put their photos online on their personal blogs or Facebook pages, only to end up inadvertently hawking a fake weight loss supplement.
The One Weird Trick to Avoiding Deceptive Facebook Ads
Over time, Facebook’s gotten better and better at cracking down on the worst, most egregious fake ads. But it’s a constant struggle, and people are still using most of these tricks all the time.
The unfortunate fact is, they work. And the psychological principles and design patterns that drive these dirty tricks are oftentimes the same ones that go into the smartest, most effective advertising. So how do you avoid falling into the trap of using the right tools in the wrong ways?
Bad Facebook ads, whether they’re intentionally or unintentionally deceptive, put business goals ahead of a user’s goals. Good advertising, on the other hand, always tries to strike the balance between the two.
You don’t have to put the user absolutely first, but you need to respect them and understand the experience they’re hoping to get when they click on your ad. Do that, and you’ll get better value for your ad campaign than a thousand misleading ads ever could.