What Is The "Bait and Switch" And When Is It Illegal?

We get a lot of people writing us about the “bait and switch.” Often the complaint is shady, but not really “bait and switch.”

The FTC has some guidelines about what is “bait and switch” advertising and what isn’t. Basically, “bait and switch” deals with a disingenuous advertisement. There needs to be an advertisement for the bait in order for there to be a “bait and switch.” Here are some quick guidelines:

• If the seller has the ability to sell you the “bait” but talks you into buying something else. That’s not “bait and switch.”

• If the seller runs out of the “bait” but the advertisement specifies limited quantities, that’s not “bait and switch.”

• If the seller does not intend to sell you the “bait,” and does any of the following in the course of selling other merchandise, then it’s probably the “bait and switch”:

    Disparages the bait or its warranty, credit terms, availability of service, repairs or parts.

    Employs compensation methods that discourage or penalize sales people for selling the bait.

    Refuses to take orders for the bait.

    Refuses to make delivery of the bait within a reasonable time period.

    Shows you a broken or defective product.

    Fails to meet anticipated demand for the bait without disclosing the bait’s limited availability in the ad.

    Fails to stock all outlets with the bait in the quantity specified in the ad.

So let’s say you see an ad for Lawnmower A. You go to Pete’s Lawnmower Store and you tell Pete that you’d like Lawnmower A.

Pete says, “Great! Here’s Lawnmover A. Just so you know, Lawnmower A is only good for people who have very small lawns. You might like Lawnmover B better!”

You say, “Holy cow, Pete. Lawnmower B is awesome. Can I have a discount on Lawnmower B?”

Pete says, “Lawnmower B isn’t on sale, but I’ll throw in this shovel.”

You say, “Deal!”

Pete upsold you on a lawnmower/shovel bundle, but he did nothing wrong. The lawnmower was available at the advertised price.

Scenario 2:
You see an ad for Lawnmower A. You go to Pete’s Lawnmower Store and you tell Pete that you’d like Lawnmower A.

Pete says, “Great! Here’s Lawnmover A. Just so you know, Lawnmower A is only good for people who have very small lawns. You might like Lawnmover B better!”

You say, “No way, Pete. My yard is the size of Paris Hilton’s bra. I want Lawnmower A!”

Pete says, “Well, honestly, Lawnmower A sucks. We’re trying to clear them out, but you seem like a nice guy and I’d hate to sell you this piece of crap lawnmower. Last week, this lawnmower killed 5 children. You’d be better off with Lawnmower B.”

You say, “Gosh Pete. I don’t care for children anyway. Give me Lawnmower A.”

Pete says, “Ok, Lawnmower A will take 6 months to ship. It’s on backorder.”

You say, “I’ll have no grass in 6 months. Sell me the floor model.”

Pete says, “I can’t sell the floor model, or my boss Super Pete will make me pay $600.”

You say, “Ok, Pete. I’ll just take Lawnmower B.”

Pete says, “Here’s your free shovel!”

That was the bait and switch.—MEGHANN MARCO

Guides Against Bait Advertising [FTC]
(Photo: Clean Wal-Mart)