My name is Phony

Phony Baloney

I’m a little bit lonely cause I’ve lost Holly Holy

While pretending

That I’m a stoney

Just trying to get good in a bad neighborhood

Where slicky grifters

Loot all the people

And street tuffs survive I’m just staying alive…

– Phony Baloney, by Johnny Punish


Maybe I just watch too much danged TV, at least when I’m not writing a new book or walking my little dogs, and often sit glued to the news lately. My preferred outlet is CNN, which supplements a daily intake of online media from all over the world. The New York Times, Bloomberg, Washington Post, NPR, Politico, CBS, NBC, ABC, USA Today, the Houston Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC, Reuters, you name it.  If ignorance is bliss, and that’s a big if, I sometimes don’t feel so blissful.  But what often catches my eye are the incessant ridiculous commercials.  You know, where they have to say “actor portrayal.”  As if they couldn’t find any “real” people with arthritis, eczema, joint pain, or lacking life insurance.  I don’t get it.  What’s wrong with using regular folks? (Ok, actors have to earn a living too, I get it.)

Let’s stick with current television advertising for a moment.  It’s easy to catch kids pretending to play instruments that they may never have even handled before. Or adults pretending to chew delightedly what appears to be air. Here’s another one I love, “lose up to 18 pounds in your first two weeks!”  You don’t need to be a statistician to realize that that is just phony baloney. Up to eighteen pounds? How about telling us the average.  Preferably the median.  Apparently that’s just too much to ask, though I keep pleading anyway. Such a dreamer.

Ratcheting up a few notches into the potential criminal liabilities for phony advertising, some fascinating cases have bubbled up in recent years.  Shall we take a peek at some of them?  (I knew I could count on y’all.)


These are my, gulp, favorite incidents as documented by

  1. “Volkswagen falsely advertised environmentally friendly diesel cars.”

VW makes pretty good cars, right?  My family owned a beetle when I was a kid and we loved it. Reliable, efficient, not bad on comfort if a tad cramped.  Well, this March the FTC filed a lawsuit against VW which claimed that Volswagen had been lying to customers through its advertising, which touted “clean diesel” vehicles.  Turned out that the company had been deceiving its customers with bogus emisions test data for years.  German engineering?  Great reputation.  It’s clean diesel cars?  You be the judge.

While you’re thinking about it, in addition to facing huge potential fines for false advertising, the company could be liable for $61 billion for violating the Clean Air Act.

  1. “Kellogg said Rice Krispies could boost your immune system.”

Who hasn’t enjoyed a bowl of Rice Krispies, despite the bogus spelling?  Well, good ole Kellogg’s popular Rice Krispies cereal ran into a cereal killer wall in 2010 when the brand got itself accused of misleading consumers about the product’s immunity-boosting properties, according to CNN.

The Federal Trade Commission ordered Kellogg to halt all advertising that claimed that the cereal improved a child’s immunity with “25 percent Daily Value of Antioxidants and Nutrients — Vitamins A, B, C and E,” stating the claims were “dubious.”

Guess what, cereal fans (and that includes me).  The case was squared away in a 2011 settlement, Kellogg agreeing to spoon over $2.5 million to “affected consumers, as well as donating $2.5 million worth of Kellogg products to charity.”

Hey kids, would you like orange juice and a vitamin pill with that stuff?

  1. “Airborne claimed it could help ward off harmful germs.”

Airborne has been sold as an herbal supplement.  It soared in sales in the 90’s. The company claimed claimed that it helped fight off deleterious germs and bacteria.  And that, get this, it could prevent the common cold and far more deadly flu. Unfortunately, no studies meeting scientific standards supported Airborne’s claims.  And thus the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) leaped into action.

In a gigantic settlement, Airborne had to shell out $23.3 million in a class-action lawsuit.  Plus… an extra $7 million settlement later.  Nice work, guys.  Maybe you’d like to buy some aerosol perfume I’ve been making in my basement.  Hey it actually does kill germs!

  1. “Splenda said it was made from sugar.”

An organization called the Sugar Association requested an investigation into swap-for-for-fewer problems sweetener Splenda’s “Made from Sugar” claim, actually its slogan. SA complained that the slogan was misleading, and that “the sweetener is nothing more than a highly processed chemical compound made in a factory.”  Yum.  This was on CBS, in case you missed it (as I did initially, preferring actual sugar).

In 2007, rival sweetener Equal filed a resulting lawsuit for (gulp) $200 million from Splenda based on unfair profits. We’re still waiting to hear the exact amount of the settlement.  I’m sure it was a sweet deal for somebody.

Ah well, nobody ever said humans were perfect beings.  For every wonderful, kind, enlightened soul with an open heart and charitable nature, there are countless crooks, thieves, tax and marital cheats, child and animal abusers, rapists, murderers, fraudsters (and fraudsterettes); well, you get the idea.

Maybe humans should just come with a product disclaimer: “handle with care.”  And get vaccinated first!