Puffery is very interesting to me, and particularly the kind used in advertising. Here is a definition from Wikipedia.

In law, puffery is a promotional statement or claim that expresses subjective rather than objective views, which no ‘reasonable person’ would take literally. Puffery serves to ‘puff up’ an exaggerated image of what is being described and is especially featured in testimonials.

Wikipedia. s.v puffery.

“The Greatest Show on Earth,” might sound a tad familiar. And of course, we have all seen innumerable examples of such exaggeration in everyday life. The dealership stating that “We have the PERFECT car for you.” Or, for dog owners, in particular, there is dog food said to be “Smart food for a smarter dog.” Laundry detergents especially can make some dubious claims–“the WHITEST wash.” If you are hungry, why not buy a hamburger that promises “Double the taste, double the enjoyment.

The basic reason such puffery is allowed in advertising and is not normally considered false advertising is that no reasonable person would take such claims literally.On the other hand, there are many cases of false advertising, advertising meant to deliberately mislead the consumer. This is illegal, and there are many examples to be found online of companies that have been found guilty of false advertising. For example,

Activia yogurt – Dannon stated that its yogurt had nutritional benefits other yogurts didn’t. They had to pay $45 million in a class action settlement.


What, though, of the gray area in between? And what about dishonest uses of language in everyday discourse? It is hard to draw a line, but things can certainly get irritating. When someone says they will be with you in a minute, and it takes ten minutes, perhaps their use of “a minute” was not meant completely literally, but it might have been nice to say that it might be a while. Once, at the movies, the announcement was made that the main feature would begin “momentarily.” I actually timed what was meant by “momentarily.” Thirteen minutes, if I remember correctly.

The other day I got a voicemail from my health insurance company and was told it was very important to phone them back. I was tired, and really did not feel like phoning back. It was important, though, so I called. Apparently, they wanted me to take advantage of their free annual in-home health assessment. How irritating! I had already decided earlier I did not need or want one of those, given that I have good doctors. I complained about this to the poor agent at the other end of the line. She simply said that it depends on the individual. What is unimportant to one person might be important to another. She had a point, but I do think the original phone call was misleading. Or perhaps it was a form of voicemail puffery?

Leave a Comment