Online advertising was expected to surpass television advertising by 2017. But that doesn't mean TV is unimportant. Look at the number of companies that have built major business through television ads, whether 30-second spots or infomercials. One example is MyPillow, which claims to offer "the most comfortable pillow you'll ever own."

But MyPillow has found itself in a brouhaha over its marketing practices, as the Better Business Bureau has completely revoked the company's rating. The BBB announced new advertising standards in 2015 and is apparently ready to enforce them.

The revocation stems from several problems. One is what has become a perpetual "buy one, get one free" (BOGO is the slang for it) offer. Others resulted from consumer complaints that the retail version, marketed as "as seen on TV" in stores, didn't match what was sold online, as well as what seems to be misrepresentations of whether people received a "full" warranty. Here's what the BBB published online:

Specifically, BBB noted the offer while advertised in limited locations, with promotional codes specific to the advertising, consumers were able to find the promotional codes easily on the internet or if consumers called the business, they were also able to purchase the pillows at the Buy-One Get-One Free pricing. BBB also expressed concerns about advertising which did not clearly disclose the differences between the pillows sold in stores (the 'classic' pillow) and the pillows sold online (the 'premium' pillow). While MyPillow responded to the BBB's advertising inquiry and made changes to the advertising and packaging for the 'classic' and 'premium' pillows; the business declined to discontinue the Buy-One Get-One Free offer until the end of 2016.

When I emailed the PR person for the company, here is, in part, the statement MyPillow offered:

MyPillow was built on our dedication to our customers' satisfaction. We run sales and specials for our customers, so that we can give as many people as possible the chance to have a great night's sleep. Naturally, I am terribly disappointed by the BBB's decision. When I started MyPillow more than 11 years ago, I handled each and every customer call personally. To this day, I train all of our customer service representatives with one thing in mind, we take care of our customers because we owe them our success. We have sold more than 25 million MyPillows, but we will continue to treat each and every customer like they are our only one.

The rest of the statement talked about the care the company exerted toward customers, how many units it had sold, and offered a statement of thanks for "our loyal customers." In other words, it was itself a marketing message.

Let's notice a few things in how the company is handling the problem. First, it effectively refused to address the substantive issues. Running an offer without end is considered a questionable practice because a company pretends that a customer is getting a special deal rather than acknowledging that everyone gets the same deal, no matter when they buy. Here's what the applicable section of the Code of Federal Regulations for the Federal Trade Commission says:

(h) Frequency of offers. So that a "Free" offer will be special and meaningful, a single size of a product or a single kind of service should not be advertised with a "Free" offer in a trade area for more than 6 months in any 12-month period. At least 30 days should elapse before another such offer is promoted in the same trade area. No more than three such offers should be made in the same area in any 12-month period. In such period, the offeror's sale in that area of the product in the size promoted with a "Free" offer should not exceed 50 percent of the total volume of his sales of the product, in the same size, in the area.

The regulation is to ensure that people aren't being pulled in by a marketing gimmick that is ultimately a version of pretense. This is similar to the old trope about the local store that perpetually has a "going out of business" sign on display. It's a disingenuous practice. Ignoring the regulation not only flies in the face of BBB expectations, but potentially invites attention from federal regulators.

Next, the MyPillow statement completely ignored that what was offered at retail stores wasn't the same product as available through the website. Also, at least some people who thought they were getting a "full" warranty apparently were told they had to pay a fee to return their purchase.

This is just the latest problem MyPillow has with its advertising. It reportedly was fined $1 million in November 2016 over its advertising practices. A group of lawyers had sued over claims that the pillow could improve such conditions as migraines, snoring, or fibromyalgia, according to KARE-TV in Minnesota, MyPillow's home state.

Marketing is important, but so is branding, which is far more than the advertising messages a company purchases and projects. If you're making claims you can't substantiate, or you make offers in a way that fly in the face of regulations, you're hurting your long-term reputation. And that's not a way to sleep peacefully at night.

Published on: Jan 3, 2017