Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University







Truth in Advertising Laws Do Not Apply to Insects

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was established in 1914 to prevent unfair competition in commerce. In 1938 the commission began enforcing newly enacted consumer protection laws. Such truth-in-advertising laws were established partially in response to sales of so-called snake-oil products. These cure-all medicinal concoctions were primarily marketed through early 20th-century traveling medicine shows.

The medicine show featured stage acts and fast-talking salesmen who dispensed the magical potions to anyone willing to part with a few of their hard-earned dollars. The old saying "There's a sucker born every minute" applies to the success of the snake-oil salesmen.

People aren't any less prone to marketing scams today. Instead of a traveling medicine show, we have the Internet over which to hawk useless products. Millions of dollars are spent purchasing products to improve our health, our looks, and our love life or to safely transfer money from a Nigerian bank into the United States.

So why doesn't the FTC do something about these fraudulent products and schemes? Well, the FTC considers the ad in the context of a reasonable consumer. That roughly translates to mean that we should be smart enough to recognize a scam when we see it. Based on sales success of such products, that apparently is not true. What was that about a sucker being born every minute?

Deceptive advertising is not just a human activity. Other animals, and even plants, are guilty of advertising scams. Insects are very proficient at providing false information in order to benefit themselves. Generally, that benefit is to avoid becoming a meal for some other animal.

One of the most common insect scams is to look like something that is harmful to the potential predator. For instance, most animals have learned through experience that bees and wasps can be hazardous to your health. Getting stung by a bee is no fun. So an insect that looks like a bee is generally avoided, and that is where the scam comes in.

A lot of insects resemble bees in coloration and marking patterns. A number of flies are bee mimics. One group of flies, called drone flies, frequently are colored and marked like bees. So convincing is this scam that ancient people thought honey bees emerged from rotting animal carcasses where larvae of the flies were feeding. Other flies are known as bee flies because they are fuzzy like bees, colored like bees and feed at flowers like bees.

A beetle called a green June beetle is sometimes mistakenly perceived as a bee by some animals. This beetle is bright green, so it really doesn't look like a bee. But the insect flies around like a bee and buzzes like a bee. Most animals included people really don't want to find out if it is a bee or not!

Some insects, primarily butterflies and moths, have eyespots on their wings, which look like the eyes of vertebrate predators, such as birds or snakes. In the case of moths, the eyespots are on the hind wings, which are covered by the forewings when the moth is at rest. The moth will expose the eyespots when disturbed, creating a startle response on the part of the potential predator. This is a classic case of using a scam to convince the predator that the insect is dangerous.

Another example of insects using a scam to avoid becoming a meal is where a good-tasting insect mimics an insect that is tastes bad to a predator. For instance, some swallowtail butterflies are bad-tasting insects. Other swallowtails are good tasting to insect predators like birds. Birds avoid making a meal of the good-tasting swallowtails because they resemble the bad-tasting swallowtails. This is a classic case of false advertising if there ever was one.

Of course, in nature there is no such thing as the Federal Trade Commission to define what is or is not false advertising. It is probably just as well, if a bird can't figure it out, it probably deserves what it gets. Anyone want to buy a "Make you look 10 years younger" product off the Internet?


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox