Thursday, January 26, 2012

Mistruth In Alcoholic Beverage Marketing.

Mistruth, if it’s even a word, is an interesting one.

You won’t find it at Merriam-Webster Online. It’s not in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged) either. MS Word is okay with it but Blogger's spell checker is not.

Scrabblefinder and similar sources say it is a legitimate Scrabble word, but they don’t provide a definition for it. defines it as “a lie” and offers examples of its use dating back to 1823. Wiktionary defines it as “untruth, falsehood.” You can find many examples of its use and, from context, that is how most writers seem to mean it, as synonymous with lie.

Only Urban Dictionary defines it differently, as “a statement that is true yet misleading.” They give as an example of its use, “Our web site is dedicated to dispel the mistruths propagated in their campaign.” That’s a pretty lousy sentence and it could easily be taken either way.

Still, we need a word like mistruth, the way Urban Dictionary defines it. Statements that are technically true but misleading are mainstays of political rhetoric and all forms of marketing, for whiskey and pretty much everything else. Marketers can be punished for untruths but mistruths (again, as Urban Dictionary defines them) get a lot more slack.

Advertising regulation in the USA, such as it is, is done nationally by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). As a practical matter, someone has to complain before the FTC will investigate and act. The law says advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive; advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims; and advertisements cannot be unfair.

Usually it is competitors who bring the complaints.

Advertisers do not have to submit their advertising for review and approval. Enforcement is strictly after-the-fact. FTC actions usually result in the marketer voluntarily changing the offending message. The FTC can impose penalties if marketers refuse to abide by its findings.

The FTC is very lax about enforcing its own rules. One of the best examples is the word ‘free.’ It is supposed to mean “devoid of cost or obligation,” but you constantly see it used (with impunity) to mean “included at no extra cost with purchase.”

When this column takes a whiskey producer to task it’s usually over a mistruth, not a clear untruth. Whiskey marketers usually won’t lie outright, but they can be misleading as hell. Everybody does it, large and small, distillers and non-distiller producers.

Alcoholic beverage marketers have to clear a higher hurdle than most marketers. They have to submit all product labels for approval by the Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), which is part of the Treasury Department. The ‘label’ is everything attached to or printed on the container (i.e., bottle, can, wine box). Alcoholic beverage marketers do not have to submit other marketing materials for approval, such as advertising, just the labels.

Alcoholic beverage marketers, both large and small, complain that TTB is inconsistent, even capricious. The big guys usually have the resources to work the system until they get a favorable outcome. The little guys usually don’t.

It would be a shame if TTB’s reputation declines to a point where people can’t trust the labels. That will be a victory for mistruth.

1 comment:

todd clingman said...

Whether mistruth or untruth, David Nicholson BIB "DSP-KY-16" comes to mind.