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What's the FTC up to? Shedding light on false window claims

Consumer Reports News: July 02, 2012 04:18 PM

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Consumers are an optimistic bunch, according to the results of a new study conducted for the Federal Trade Commission. So optimistic in fact, that when an ad for replacement windows promises energy savings of "up to" 47 percent, shoppers believe they will save the entire amount even when the ad carries a disclaimer stating otherwise. In other words, shoppers read right over those two little words, just as the FTC suspected.

The study (PDF), conducted by Synovate by intercepting 360 mall shoppers in five diverse markets, used a fictional ad for Bristol Windows that claimed the windows are "proven to save up to 47% on your heating and cooling bills!" It used three versions of the ad. The first included the above claim as worded; the second was identical to the first but excluded the words "up to"—claiming that the product delivered exactly 47-percent savings. The third was identical to the first but added a disclaimer at the bottom of the ad that read: "The average Bristol Windows owner saves about 25% on heating and cooling bills."

You might think it reasonable that respondents who viewed one of those ads would come away with the understanding that the windows could save up to 47 percent on heating and cooling bills but that the savings would probably be less. But that's not what happened. Of the respondents who viewed the first ad, with the "up to 47%," only one in four shoppers reported that the ad indicated savings of up to 47 percent. A larger group, one in three shoppers, said the ad stated or implied savings of 47 percent. For the ad with the disclaimer, fewer than 16 percent of those asked understood that any savings would probably be 25 percent.

While the findings may apply to other marketing campaigns, the FTC had windows in mind when it commissioned the study. This past February the agency settled charges with five replacement-window sellers it said were making exaggerated and unsupported claims about the energy efficiency of their windows. The study, the agency hopes, will help guide marketers to avoid deceptive wording in claims about their products. "Up to," apparently, is on the list—never mind what it means.

If you're looking for replacement windows, check out Consumer Reports' Ratings of wood-clad, vinyl, and fiberglass double-hung windows, along with our buying advice. And keep in mind that potential savings are just that, potential, and depend on many variables.

Ed Perratore

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