Study: Nearly Half Of Consumers Fooled By “Up To” Claims In Advertisements

When you see an ad that promises to save you “up to 30%,” do you assume that means that you will see a savings of 30%? You’re reading Consumerist, so you’re probably thinking “Duh, of course not.” But a new study shows that a large number of consumers are not discerning between conditional “up to” promises and unconditional performance statements.

The Federal Trade Commission recently commissioned a study that looked out how consumers perceive and comprehend the “up to” conditional in advertisements.

The researchers used different versions of an ad for windows — one that stated that the windows were “proven to save up to 47% on heating and cooling bills,” and one that simply stated, “proven to save 47%.”

Of those who looked at the “up to” version, 45.6% mistakenly said the ad promised to save 47%. Meanwhile, only 58.3% of consumers who saw the unconditional version said the ad promised to deliver 47% savings. According to the FTC, the small difference between the two results indicates that the use of “up to” did little-to-nothing to change consumers’ perception that the ad was promising the maximum level of performance.

Consumers were also asked a question about whether the ads promised to deliver savings to “all,” “almost all,” or “most” customers. 28.1% of those who had looked at the “up to” ad answered “all” or “almost all,” while nearly the same exact number (27%) of those who saw the unqualified ad responded similarly.

The FTC believes that the results of the study show that too many consumers are misinterpreting or just not glossing over the “up to” qualification when they see it in an ad.

As last year’s Federal Communications Commission broadband study showed, several Internet service providers are not consistently delivering on their “up to” download speeds, though many of them tout these maximum speeds in their ads and marketing materials.

“These figures indicate that a substantial percentage of consumers interpreted this ‘up to’ claim to say that a majority of users would receive the maximum promised results,” writes the FTC staff attorney Serena Viswanathan in a statement to Consumerist. “This data supports the FTC’s view that advertisers making similar claims should be able to prove that consumers are likely to get the maximum results promised under normal circumstances.”

You can check out a PDF of the entire report HERE.


Edit Your Comment

  1. superml says:

    “Save Up to %/$” and “From $/$ & Up” are two of the worst sentences for consumers.

    However, “$ and under” is good.

  2. DrLumen says:

    Oh no, AT&T claims of bandwidth up to X Mbps may be in danger (still waiting on the class action to be resolved in that one),

    • HogwartsProfessor says:

      They’ll just change the language; they won’t give you more speed. I had an issue that is related to speed and was told by their top tier tech support that the nodes are crowded, they would switch me to another node but that it would probably get crowded eventually too (and it’s starting up again), and that there were no plans to upgrade the infrastructure he knew of. I’d go to another provider, but I just can’t afford it right now.

      • DemosCat says:

        Yep. The communications companies love to brag about how fiber optic has unlimited capacity. And yes, it’s true – the fiber cable itself does, in fact, have virtually unlimited capacity. Plus there’s plenty of “dark” fiber laid all over the place to ensure capacity in the future.

        What goes unsaid is, it’s the DSLAMs, servers, and other switching equipment in the central office that’s the bottleneck. That’s the part that isn’t keeping up with demand.

        • clarkis117 says:

          Fiberoptic networking equipment doesn’t have an Unlimited capacity, though the cables remain the same when the networking equipment is updated. Right now 10 Gibit/s WAN is the Gold Standard for Large are fiber based networks, and 40 Gibit/s and 100 Gibit/s being tested. There are other systems that have higher bit rates that are fiber based but none the residential service companies like Verizon, AT&T, or Comcast own them and ususally they are large internet backbone systems like under-sea cable bundles.

          • Southern says:

            He’s got a point, though – the cable itself does have virtually unlimited capacity; it’s the emitter/receiver equipment that’s limited.

            NEC has already successfully exceeded 100 Terabits Per Second using a single optical fiber.

            Yes, 100Tb/sec. :-)

            How would you like to have THAT line running to your house. :)

            • PunditGuy says:

              Awesome. I’d be able to reach my Kabletown cap in significantly less than the blink of an eye.

  3. [censored] says:

    Up to 100% of consumers should do a little research before they buy a product.

    • tbax929 says:

      My thoughts exactly. Why would anyone fall for that?

      • RvLeshrac says:

        Because most of them are told not be cynical and to trust in the goodness of people.

        So they fall for shit like this, then get mad when the rest of us go “I told you so!”

        • George4478 says:

          It’s not cynical to believe what advertisers tell you; quite the opposite.

          In this case, people ignored what advertisers told them and made up their own limitations.

    • Lyn Torden says:

      Up to 100% of school systems should educate their students in Consumerism 101 class.

  4. Sorta Kinda Lucky Soul says:

    No way, people aren’t that stupid. I mean, look at the politician – er, I mean business integrity would never let them do — oh. Crap. Nevermind, yes, they are that dumb.

  5. VeryFroid says:

    “up to 10 Mbps” combined with “from just 14.99 per month” lead to almost useless non-commitment of anything.

    • sagodjur1 says:

      “Only” and “just” are always interesting modifiers in advertisements. “Buy this HDMI cable for only $100, a savings of $50!” “You can have this iPhone for free with ten year contract and just one of your kidneys!”

      • I look at both sides of the story says:

        “Buy this HDMI cable for only $100, a savings of $50!”

        Have you noticed that when they’re trying to make the savings seem large, the figures are always rounded up, as in the above example of “$50”, but when they’re selling something, then the figure becomes $49.99? You’ll never see “Save up to $49.99”.

        I went into a store that had a big advertisement in the window: “Savings up to 95%”. I look around and can’t find anything on sale that discounted that much so I ask which items are 95% off. The guy tells me that they’re around the store. Nothing in the store is actually 95% off. I tell him his ad is deceptive. He throws me a random item and tells me it’s 95% off.

        While I’m warming up to the subject… because of my science background, I tend to mentally round out numbers for quick approximations (I can add up the total cost of groceries in a cart within a few dollars using large approximations). So when I say (as an example) that the item is $500, I’m corrected and told no, it’s $499.99. I say, same thing. They argue. I’ve learned to stop; it’s not worth it.

        • nugatory says:

          “So when I say (as an example) that the item is $500, I’m corrected and told no, it’s $499.99. I say, same thing. They argue. I’ve learned to stop; it’s not worth it.”

          ohhh yes, I also learned that its just easier to not say it.

    • doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

      I always wanted to pay them a percentage, based on the actual speeds.
      You provide ‘up to’ 10MBps, I’ll pay ‘up to’ $14.99 a month!

  6. VeryFroid says:

    At what point does marketing strategy devolve into lies, deceit and trickery ?

    • sagodjur1 says:

      “At what point do lies, deceit, and trickery devolve into lies, deceit, and trickery?”


      Joking aside, my line is drawn between informing consumers of product offerings and blatant attempts at trying to create consumer demand.

      If consumers want or need a product, the demand is already there, so the products should sell themselves if their features and fair price points are demonstrated.

      Having to show fancy 3d animations that will not actually pop out of your smart phone to advertise what your smart phone can do is not necessary deceptive unless your customers are gullible, but its still unnecessary and unrealistic. Also, I’d actually buy the product if 3d animation popped out of the smart phone, so they’re just setting customers up for disappointment when it doesn’t do that, even if they know it won’t do that.

      If you have to imply that women will flock to you if you wear this deodorant or drink this particular beer in order to sell it, it’s crap.

      If you have to get a celebrity to endorse your product, it’s crap. Doubly so if it’s a sports-related product endorsed by an athlete who has been playing their sport for longer than the product has been offered or the advertisements imply you’ll be as good as the athlete at their sport if you use that product.

      • RvLeshrac says:

        Did you just say “unless your customers are gullible,” as though that’s not a generally accepted condition?

        If businesses didn’t believe their customers were gullible, they wouldn’t run those ads.

      • nybiker says:

        I agree with everything you said and doubly so regarding celebrities; so much so, that if a ‘celebrity’ is shilling for it, I just don’t buy the product or service. That also means no cross-pollination with cars & movies or food & movies too. If you can’t sell your food or car or watch or widget without blatant product placement in a tv show or movie, then don’t make it; but if you do attempt that type of marketing, well, count me out as a consumer of it. Same goes for the naming rights folks.

        I don’t know if it my parents teaching me or just being born and raised in NYC, but I’m a cynic about everything when it comes to advertising. I always look for the asterisk to tell me the gotchas. Or as this story mentions the get-out-jail-for-misleading-consumers words as “up to” and “as low as”.

        • sagodjur1 says:

          There are more issues in advertising as well. For instance, if it’s apparent that a company (or even a non-profit looking for donations) has spent a lot of money on ad campaigns, such as a Super Bowl commercial or expensive gimmick mailers, I lose faith in their products or services because its apparent they’re making enough to waste money on extravagant advertising. So either their quality is low or their prices are too high and that’s what allows them to waste money on expensive advertising.

          Another thing, that I admit is petty on my part, is that I’m much less inclined to buy a product or service that is advertised with a catchy song that gets repeated often enough to get stuck in my head. This seems to happen more often with local advertising in my experience.

  7. who? says:

    When I had AT&T, they were very clear (with me at least) that the plan below the one I was on determined the minimum for my plan. At the time, they had 768kbps, 1.5Mbps, 3.0Mbps, and 6.0Mbps. If you had the 6.0 plan, that meant that what you really got was somewhere in between 3.0 and 6.0, and if you had the 3.0Mbps plan, that meant that you got at least 1.5Mbps. If speeds dropped below those minimums, then they’d start trying to figure out what was wrong.

    In their defense, though, I pretty much always got speeds that were near the top of what I was paying for. The only time I had a problem was because of equipment failure, which got sorted out pretty quickly. Unlike Cox, where I pay for “up to” 12, and get 7.

    • Southern says:

      Just the opposite with me when I had Comcast – I paid for “up to 18Mb/sec”, and I actually got close to 30Mb/sec. :)

      Only thing I miss about Cabletown.

  8. Rebecca K-S says:

    My favorite is “Up to [x] or more!”

  9. italianbaby says:

    how about:
    going out of business- meaning store to close doors forever
    and then going ALL OUT For business- meaning nothing to the consumer. but can be deceiving.

  10. dicobalt says:

    Reading comprehension fail. Why are people so willing to believe advertisers? Don’t they know these adverts are made by professional liars?

  11. StatusfriedCrustomer says:

    “up to” is actually a mathematical constant, like “pi”. I think it’s value is 0.4833. “From” is another constant, equal to about 1.8 in my experience.

    • StatusfriedCrustomer says:

      ARGH pls cancel the apostrophe in its

      • tbax929 says:

        You’re (notice the apostrophe) missing some punctuation, and a couple of vowels.

      • I look at both sides of the story says:

        how about “seperate”, they’re their there, your, you’re.

        On Quora, you’re (as in “you are”) encourage to correct other people’s (belonging to) mistakes in their (not they’re or there) questions or answers. I’ve corrected a large number of errors from Ph.D.s, professors and editors. But that’s (that is) Quora.

        I also go blind from Etc, Eg, IE or Ie; it’s (as in “it is”) etc., e.g., i.e., Note that there’s (there is) typically a trailing comma after i.e. and e.g. but that usage varies by country so know your audience.

        Nothing is more amusing that someone sanctimoniously pointing out a grammatical error while introducing a hysterically egregious error.

        • I look at both sides of the story says:

          “encouraged to correct” sheesh.

        • I look at both sides of the story says:

          I love it:

          “Nothing is more amusing that someone”
          “Nothing is more amusing then someone”

          I’m going to stop reading my own post. I dont want to no how many more mistakes I made.

    • incident_man says:

      Judging by most of those type of promotions, I think I have the answer:

      Say if it’s “Up To 50%,” you move the decimal point over to the left one spot (5.0%), THEN you multiply by pi.

      From what I’ve seen, that gives you a more realistic savings.

  12. Buckus says:

    I think you mean “Up to” half of consumers fooled….

  13. MickeyG says:

    My favourite is “Lose up to 20 lbs in 8 weeks!” … I could do that with or without the program I’m sure…

  14. Telekinesis123 says:

    Up to could literally mean one person out of 10,000 or even 100,000 saved that much or one person out of 10,000 actually gets the, say, advertized download speeds. For all practical purposes generally, depending on what is being sold, they are usually extremely optimistic if not down right misleading.

    Sometimes they also use a special perfect scenario that most customers can not ever hope to achieve or be relevant to them to use as a pretext to justify that claim.

  15. RvLeshrac says:

    What? Seriously? I’m the first one to post ?

  16. Cerne says:

    Cool the government thinks we’re all stupid and is going to infringe freedom of speech to protect us. Good times. I love how aggressive these bureaucratic agencies have gotten in the last 3+ years.

    • DemosCat says:

      It only seems “aggressive” because most of these agencies have been increasingly slacking off for the last 20 or so years due to terminal underfunding, etc.

      • Cerne says:

        No it seems aggressive because these agencies are expanding their power by passing regulation instead of legislation. It’s aggressive because it is an unwanted expansion of government power perverting democracy.

  17. DemosCat says:

    I read up to 50% of this article before posting this comment.

    How much reading do you think I actually did? :)

  18. MFfan310 says:

    The lone Hyundai dealer here states in many an ad that a 2012 Elantra gets “up to 47 mpg”, cherry-picking the highest number from the fine print of the EPA mileage test range. They even doctor the window stickers of the used Hyundais with the higher numbers. (The EPA’s normal numbers for the Elantra: 29 mpg city/40 highway.) Aside from hypermilers, I don’t think anyone has gotten 47 in an Elantra.

    Interestingly enough, the same dealer owner also owns Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Ram and Mercedes dealerships (and soon, a Fiat studio) in the same city… and they use the actual EPA numbers.

    • kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

      47 mpg downhill? :)

      I’ve generally been able to exceed EPA estimates for my vehicles by 10-15%. I’m certainly not a hypermiler by any stretch, and much of my driving is at 70 mph. I don’t have any “crazy” driving habits, though, and the terrain is pretty flat.

      But in order to compare apples to apples, people should definitely look at the EPA estimates rather than cherry picked numbers.

  19. YouDidWhatNow? says:

    Most people are dumb.

    However, even though this is pretty much the buyer’s fault for being linguistically lazy, I think there should be regulations in place for some stuff. Internet service being the big one – there’s utterly no point in buying an internet service that’s “up to 10Mb” or whatever – the number stated at the end of that phrase may as well be randomly generated.

    I’d like to see a regulation requiring ALL internet services to be advertised and sold based on their *minimum* speed. And then the provider can be held accountable if that minimum speed isn’t delivered. Right now, there’s no way to hold them accountable for anything – and the consumer really has no idea what the quality of the product he’s buying will be.

    • Draw2much says:

      I think it’s more gullibility than stupidity. The advertising industry knows how our minds work better than we do. (They’ve got it down to a science.) They know the kind of phrases, images, and numbers to show us to get us to buy things. They *know* phrases like “up to” will be misunderstood, that’s why they use them.

      It’d be nice if internet providers were required to show the actual speeds they can provide in their service area. In fact, I’d like to see something like “Low Speed to High Speed, with the Average of Such-in-Such a Speed for this Area”… it’s hard to shop around for internet services when they don’t tell me what their speeds actually are, ya know? >:(

  20. Robert Nagel says:

    What really chaps me is when they say “Save up to x% or more!”. What the heck does that mean? If you can save more why not use that for the upper limit.

  21. incident_man says:

    Retailers do this kind of stuff deliberately, even going so far as to put the “up to” part in fine print and the percentage in really large bold type, in order to try to fool the public into thinking they’re getting great deals. Apparently, the research shows they’re succeeding nearly half the time. When I worked for a broadline retailer as a signing/pricing associate, I protested their policy of doing this with clearance merchandise because it was being disingenuous with their customer base. They had signs that could be used instead that would give a range, say 20-50% off, rather than “Up To 50% Off” (with the “50%” part in really large bold numbers), but they didn’t use the ranged signs precisely because it was all just a marketing gimmick. When I pressed the matter with my manager I was told, frankly, that the company expected customers to gloss over the “Up To” part and just pay the amount shown at the register, rather than make a fuss over the signage. I put the ranged (20-50% off) signs up anyway, they’d replace them with the “approved” ones, and I’d silently replace them with the ranged ones again, etc. Most of the workers in my department were doing this, so it was quite humourous as management was trying to single-out who the guilty party was.

    A year and a half after I left the job for a better one, their store closed down. I wonder why……….

  22. Ducatisti says:

    So, what the study shows is that 45.6% of Americans have poor reading comprehension.

    • Dave on bass says:

      Hell, I’m surprised THAT number isn’t even higher. Here in America, “English” class magically transforms into “Literature” class about 7th grade or so, and actual usage of the language isn’t really taught at all beyond that. (…In my experience, anyway)

  23. Nobby says:

    I hate things that are marketed as “100% Free”.

    1. Nothing is free.
    2. 100% free as opposed to what? 90% free? 16% free?

  24. muzzleme says:

    Fine print strikes again. Or those quick talking advertisers racing through disclaimers. Or the old hidden in plain site area where the advertiser knows no one pays attention to. They are giving someone what they WANT to hear.

    If not the contract or actual literature it pays to read the fine print and/or entire print of an ad. That way time is not wasted reading official paperwork.

    • econobiker says:

      Remember to fear the asterisk *

      * Additional terms and conditions may apply, not all customers will qualify for the discount, additional fees and taxes may apply, not available in all areas, etc, etc, etc

  25. Galium says:

    This comment has nothing to do with this article. I just wanted to post on the tasteless tomato article that will surely (don’t call me Shirley) be in Monday’s Consumerist article lineup. I know I will not be able to do any commenting Monday so. I make my own tomato’s at home and they taste great.

    I also make my own corn, onions, leeks, beans, watermelon, apples, raspberries, strawberries, lettuce and some Asian eggplant, zucchini, pears, and cucumbers. Along with a few other Asian vegetables that I do not know how to spell the names of correctly as they have no counterpart in western veggies. So for a few months I do not have to eat cardboard food from the super market. I just wish I had a bigger back yard, and then I could have a few more vegies and some fresh chickens and eggs. Fresh eggs, emmmm ecstasy.,0,4449608.story

  26. Fafaflunkie Plays His World's Smallest Violin For You says:

    Of course, there’s the other question in that lingo. “Save up to 50%!” blares the ad. 50% of what, a good Consumerist reader would ask? 50% of your regular price, or 50% of some trumped up “MSRP” which no retailer in their right mind would charge? Hence the reason why I never fall for that and just compare prices whenever “sales” appear.

  27. RenegadePlatypus says:

    This story made Fark, whose commenters then share their feelings regarding Consumeristas.

    • Telekinesis123 says:

      Wow that site is populated with what seems a high proportion of butthurt yokels it seems and are – somehow – trying to turn this story into a reason to attack all consumerist readers, some saying we don’t understand what up to so and so % off means? Bizarre. Maybe they got banned, devowled or something else and now are expressing their rage through 5 year old memes.

      Note: Some seem to be reasonable and are correcting the submitter, so obviously not all are like that.

  28. Lyn Torden says:

    “Up to” means a cap. It means you can’t go more. Read the ads like this:

    You cannot save more than 47%

    You cannot get more than 8 megabits bandwidth.

    You cannot get more than 36 miles per gallon.

    But people don’t like reading it as a negative and marketers don’t like it either. Get your market spin going.

  29. elkosteve says:

    The ISP I use has 3 different service levels, according to their website:

    Up to 7Mbps
    Up to 10Mbps
    Up to 12Mbps

    I was on the highest tier and since I’ve never seen anything over 5Mpbs, why shouldn’t I just switch to the cheaper plan? Had to pry the information from them. The plans are actually 1,2,3 Mbps, respectively, with “bursting” up to the higher speed.

    So why not just SAY that?

  30. mmmmna says:

    I came to understand the lack of clarity years ago and figured everyone else knew this was just worthless hype, spin doctoring.

    This isssue is not limited to any one segment of commerce: weight loss, storage capacity, processor speed, various discounts, aircraft seating, membership incentives, you name it. There is never a “minimum”, nobody offers “at least”, you will probably never hear “not less than”. Well, ‘our DSL is 10x faster than 56k’ is probably not going to get questioned.

    Just flat out ask the sales person: “ok, so what is the minumum?”. Blank stares or maybe smiles.