We've all seen those ads on TV or in our e-mail in-boxes that make unbelievable promises, such as "Double your income with this risk-free business opportunity," or "Join millions of other customers who have already experienced the amazing overnight results." Those ads are guilty of making a fundamental copywriting mistake--using misleading claims.

The objective of copywriting is to communicate the benefits of your product or service to existing and prospective customers. While copywriting can be used to persuade people to make a purchase and increase your profits in the short term, using misleading copy will only end up hurting your business in the long term. If you can't deliver the claims made in your copy to customers every time, then those claims are false and could be considered a bait-and-switch tactic.

Using bait-and-switch tactics in which a specific offer is advertised then not honored when a customer tries to take advantage of it is illegal. It's all too easy for business owners to fall into the trap of using misleading copy to drive sales in the present, but the repercussions of that strategy could reach well beyond dissatisfied customers, resulting in negative publicity for your business, lawsuits or monetary penalties. Following are some of the most common examples of misleading copy and recommendations for how to avoid using those words and phrases in your advertising and marketing.

The Top 5 Culprits
If any of these words or phrases made your list of favorite copywriting tactics, read on to learn the error of your ways.

1. Free: The word "free" is one of the most overused words in copywriting along with similar phrases, such as "no cost," "no investment," "no obligation" and "no purchase necessary." Using "free" is one of the easiest traps to fall into because it's a word that's often associated with grabbing people's attention.
2. Guarantee: A key component of copywriting is appealing to consumers' emotional triggers, such as security and trust. So it's understandable that many entrepreneurs use the word "guarantee" liberally--"satisfaction guaranteed," "money-back guarantee," "results guaranteed," and variations such as "or your money back" and "results promised."
3. Lowest price: What consumer isn't concerned about price? In fact, pricing is one of the easiest ways for businesses to differentiate their products and services from the competition, but pricing claims need to be clarified and quantified to make them believable. In fact, pricing claims have lost much of their power and impact simply because the tactic is overused.
4. Risk-free or no risk: This is another example of a phrase that has lost its effectiveness because it is used so often. In today's society, many people, unfortunately, expect to be taken advantage of, so consumers find it hard to believe that a purchase doesn't have some risk associated with it.
5. Up to or at least: Alone these two phrases are fairly benign, but when they are coupled with an offer or claim, they can be dangerous. For example, "up to 75 percent off" means only some items are available at 75 percent off, but the majority may be offered at a far lower discount or no discount at all. Consumers see "75 percent off" and act, but they could be disappointed when they arrive for the advertised sale and find just one unpopular item available at that rate. Another example might state "delivery in at least 24 hours." When consumers purchase the item with the special delivery offer, they learn that 24 hours is the best-case scenario but is not available for all purchases. Customers are left dissatisfied and unlikely to make a repeat purchase.

It's All In the Way You Say It
Before you use any of the above words or phrases in your marketing copy, it's essential to evaluate the risks vs. the rewards. If you advertise using words such as "guarantee" or "up to," do so with caution and make sure you can prove your claims.

Keep in mind, using these words can be misleading, but it doesn't have to be. You can use words such as "free" and "lowest prices" and still appear honest and forthright. In fact, today's consumer is often highly influenced by the integrity a business displays. That can lead to customer retention and loyalty, which translates to more profits.

Make sure you clarify any claims that could appear misleading. For example, rather than saying, "We have the lowest prices," your copy could be more compelling as "Shop by September 30 to get the lowest prices of the year." In this example, not only does the revised copy clarify the offer, but it is also a more effective call to action, creating a sense of urgency.

If you prefer, you can use a more subtle approach to protect yourself from potential bait-and-switch accusations. Instead of saying, "delivery in at least 24 hours," include a disclaimer that says, "deliveries outside a 10-mile radius of the store require more than 24 hours." A disclaimer helps relieve the business owner of liability if a customer doesn't receive the offer as stated in the copy.

However you advertise your business and special offers, clarify your statements and make sure you can prove the claims in your copy. In today's world of excessive lawsuits, it's critical you ensure your business is protected.