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Businesses' communication is a constant stream of lies:

  • on the phone:

    • our menu options have changed
    • we're experiencing a higher than normal call volume
    • your call is important to us
  • when advertising:

    • the best pizza in town
    • scientifically proven
    • lose x pounds in y hours
    • all natural
  • when talking to you:

    • I'll get on it right away
    • we'll call you right back
    • we charged you this fee for your convenience
    • we take x very seriously

on the internet it's also endless...

My question is not about the dangerous lies that can have consequences (eat a lemon and you won't get covid), but rather the continuous stream of lies that have been accepted as business as usual.

I can see them used to either:

  • steer a customer in a direction and / or state of mind. For example buy this, be patient with us, etc

  • or to make interactions smoother and avoid confrontation by pretending to care for example.

So what would be the threshold for a lie to be actionable where you could claim a damage? Does it always have to be material damage? or would a waste of time also be valid for example?

3 Answers 3

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what would be the threshold for a lie to be actionable where you could claim a damage?

There is no award for "lies" which clearly are inconsequential.

A customer will never make decisions based on whether "menu options have changed" or whether the business is honest on the statement "your call is important to us". The impact that the duration of these statements have on the customer is negligible at best, since omitting these statements does not improve the company's response time anyway.

The statement "your call is important to us" might not even be a lie. Many companies know that it is in their best interest to gather information from their customers on what to improve, lest customers switch to a competitor or file suit.

The lack of objective standards renders statements such as "best pizza in town" unascertainable. Accordingly, it would be unreasonable for a customer to rely on criteria that are subjective, undefined, unclear, and/or palpably fictitious.

Only statements like "scientifically proven" and "lose x pounds in y hours" might be within scope of consumer protection laws (see also unfair and misleading practices). The assessment of those scenarios requires more detail, including disclaimers and other "small letters" that are --or ought to be-- disclosed no later than the formation of the contract.

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Welcome to the world of bullshit.

what would be the threshold for a lie to be actionable where you could claim a damage? Does it always have to be material damage? or would a waste of time also be valid for example?

So long as you can quantify your damage in dollars/pounds/goats, you can potentially have a case.

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Deceptive or misleading conduct in trade or commerce illegal

This has been interpreted by the courts as conduct that would deceive or mislead a reasonable consumer. It’s also the case that if you are not in “trade or commerce” )e.g. politics) you can say whatever the f#@k you like.

  • our menu options have changed: is neither deceptive nor misleading if their menu options have changed.
  • we're experiencing a higher than normal call volume: is also ok providing that they don’t say this more than 50% of the time. More than that a d there are legitimate issues to be raised about what a reasonable person thinks “normal” means.
  • your call is important to us: self-evidently true. Especially if you attach the adjective “not-very”.
  • the best pizza in town: advertising “puff” and allowed under the law. A reasonable person does not expect “best X in Y” to be an objectively verifiable claim.
  • scientifically proven: now we’re getting into the weeds - you better have your studies and they better be published in peer-reviewed journals. Bullshit won’t wash.
  • lose x pounds in y hours: ditto.
  • all natural: no problem there. So long as your product is free on man-made additives.
  • I'll get on it right away: a reasonable person equates “right away” with “soon” not “immediately”.
  • we'll call you right back: ditto.
  • we charged you this fee for your convenience: I have literally never heard this.
  • we take x very seriously: sure, why wouldn’t they?

You can’t take action for a breach of this aspect of the Australian Consumer Law but the Australian Competition an Consumer Commission has and does. As do their state and territory counterparts.

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  • "we charged you this fee for your convenience", Bank of America had the nerves to tell me that they charged me for some service I didn't want, which had a fee, for my own convenience. When they hit the bottom, they start to dig :)
    – Thomas
    Commented Aug 1, 2021 at 18:35
  • Misrepresentations must also be material. "our menu options have changed" is not actionable even if it is a bald faced mistruth.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 20:58
  • @ohwilleke not in Australia - misleading and deceptive conduct does not have to be about anything material.
    – Dale M
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 21:38
  • @DaleM I would be shocked if there wasn't some doctrine that had the effect of weeding out immaterial statements.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 21:39
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    @ohwilleke remember they are only actionable by the ACCC or state equivalents so prosecutorial discretion is available.
    – Dale M
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 21:42

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