Famous Sayings #171 — ‘Bait and Switch’

December 1, 2019

When I made my reservation at the hotel, I was told that I could take advantage of a rate of $71 dollars a night. However, after I checked in, I was paying double that rate and hit with numerous other fees. That’s the old bait and switch.

Many people run into a bait and switch situation when it comes to dealing with hotel rates. Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay.

Since Christmas shopping is in full swing, why not look at a common phrase that has to do with shopping? Honestly, when I picked this saying, I wasn’t really thinking about the holiday shopping season, but it somehow worked out. Anyway, chances are you have encountered a bait and switch situation yourself while shopping. You know what this phrase means, but have you thought about how easy it is to apply to various non-shopping situations?


What Is a Bait and Switch?

The term “bait and switch” describes a situation where people are deceived into believing that they are buying or one thing or getting a certain outcome but end up getting something else entirely. Usually, when someone talks about a bait and switch, they are referring is a deceptive practice in sales in which a company attracts customers to a store by advertising low-priced items then failing to have enough of the item. Part of this practice involves salespersons trying to persuade the customers to purchase higher-priced items (“legal definition”). This practice is called switch-selling in Great Britain (“Idioms”).

The Bait and Switch is a type of fraud that it can be applied in other contexts, as well. No matter the context, when someone does a bait and switch, they are guilty of false advertising.


When Did the Phrase ‘Bait and Switch’ Originate?

According the Merriam-Webster, the use of bait in switch to refer to deceptive mercantile practices began in 1962. However, a few other sources trace the saying to the 1920s.

According to Douglas Harper at the Online Etymology Dictionary, the first recorded use of the word “switch” to mean “a change from one to another, a reversal, an exchange, a substitution” was in 1920, although the verb forms meaning “to shift, divert” or “to change one thing for another” were recorded in 1860 and 1919, respectively. The word “switcheroo,” which is an extended form of switch, was recorded circa 1933.


When Is a Bait and Switch Illegal?

In an article that originally appeared on the Consumerist, Meg Marco explained what the concept of “bait and switch” was, in terms established by the Federal Trade Commission. According to the FTC, a seller is guilty of pulling a(n illegal) bait and switch when they do the following:

  • Disparage the advertised commodity or its warranty, credit terms, availability, repairs, or parts.
  • Use compensation policies that discourage salespersons from selling the advertised commodity or punish those salespeople for selling the commodity.
  • Refuse to take orders for the advertised product or service.
  • Refuse to deliver the advertised product or service in a reasonable time period (offer a rain check).
  • Show customers a broken or defective product.
  • Fail to meet the anticipated demand for the desired product without disclosing the product, limited availability in advertisements.

In short, a seller that is guilty of pulling a(n illegal) “bait and switch” does not intend to sell customers the item or service shown in advertisements but would rather push customers toward a high-priced commodity. This type of practice is illegal in many states and may lead to class-action lawsuits if enough customers were harmed and there is proof of damage (“legal definition”). Sellers might also be sued for copyright infringement by other sellers and manufacturers (Various).


When Is the Bait and Switch Legal?

Now, the FTC also outlines two situations where the seller would not be guilty of pulling a(n illegal) bait and switch. The first scenario is when the seller can sell the advertised commodity but upsells the customer. The other scenario is when the seller only has limited quantities of a product and discloses that in advertisements (Marco).


Who Is Usually Guilty of Pulling a Bait and Switch?

The types of businesses the use bait and switch tactics include travel agencies, airlines, car dealerships, and retail stores (“Bait and Switch Definition”). Investopedia offered a few specific examples, including:

  • Mortgage Financing— Sometimes, real estate agents or companies will post low mortgage rates to attract people who would never qualify for those rates. Agents will then push customers to higher rates that those customers qualify for and thus earn higher commissions.
  • Auto Purchase Financing — This is like mortgage financing, but often, customers will be lured by the possibility of paying a 0.0% rate on a car loan. However, few people if any will qualify for that rate.
  • Real Estate — Brokers lure potential buyers by offering great properties for low prices but tell buyers that the properties are no longer available once buyers inquire about the properties.
  • Restaurants and Supermarkets — About a third of the fish sold are not of the species they are said to be. The species of the fish affects the pricing, so when the supermarkets and restaurants lie about the species of the fish, they are overcharging customers.
  • Hotels — Often, customers are roped into staying at hotels that offer low daily rates. When customers stay there, they usually find that they are hit with hidden resort fees or other undisclosed fees.

On one of the articles I visited for this post, a user made a comment about hotel rates. I believe I have even been the victim of this practice, too.


What Are Some Other Situations Where a Bait and Switch Can Occur?

Like retailers and manufacturers make so many efforts to sell their products, politicians take pains to advertise themselves and to sell legislation. As Laws.com points out, the most common political application of the tactic involves caption bills. Lawmakers use caption bills to raise support for certain legislation, but the bills’ language tends to be very broad and there is an understanding that the finer details will be worked out later. When a caption bill is finally passed, its language will become clearer and the real intent behind the bill is drastically different than the promised idea (“Political Adaptation”). These bills would have never gained passage otherwise.

There can be a bait and switch in interpersonal relationships. For example, say a man is very polite, easygoing, and gentle to the woman he eventually marries, only to turn out to be an inattentive, selfish husband. You can say he pulled a bait a switch. This can also happen on the job market, where employers promise job seekers a certain level of pay only to stiff them after the job is done.

I think I have seen another type of bait and switch in my life, too. One year, I was in the third or fourth grade, and this woman was a guest at my school. She was there to convince students to take up violin or cello lessons. She was talented, and she as part of her demonstration, she beautifully played the violin. Some of us signed up. However, when the lessons took place, the woman’s fraternal twin sister was the instructor. I thought the first woman was going to be the instructor, but that is not who we got.


Why Does the Bait and Switch Work So Well?

Bait and switch tactics are prevalent in the world of commerce and often, people do not realize that they are being defrauded or tricked by the seller. Bait and switch tactics work not only because of how subtle they may be (or how desensitized consumers have become to these tactics), but because of the simple psychology of it. Buyers are more likely to buy the higher-priced item out of disappointment. They want to leave a store with something, anything, that they will accept that the item they purchase is similar yet better than the advertised item (Laws.com).

Another reason why sellers get away with illegal bait and switch practices is that it is hard to prove that an illegal selling practice occurred. One must present advertisements that prove that the seller was dishonest, for one thing. And again, if the seller had the ability to provide the advertised product, they might still be within the law.

Additionally, it might not be worth it to bring a lawsuit against a seller that engages in illegal selling practices. Lawsuits are expensive and they can take years to conclude. Even if consumers when a settlement, they still have to worry about court and legal fees, all of which may dwarf the cost of the purchase they made.


Works Cited

“Bait and Switch – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc., https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/bait+and+switch. Accessed 1 December 2019.

“Bait and Switch Definition.” Laws.com, https://fraud.laws.com/bait-and-switch/bait-and-switch-definition. Accessed 1 December 2019.

“Bait and Switch legal definition of Bait and Switch.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc., https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Bait+and+Switch. Accessed 1 December 2019.

“Bait and Switch.” Laws.com, https://fraud.laws.com/bait-and-switch/bait-and-switch. Accessed 1 December 2019.

“Bait and Switch.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bait%20and%20switch. Accessed 1 December 2019.

Harper, Douglas. “switch | Origin and meaning of switch by Online Etymology Dictionary.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/switch#etymonline_v_22498. Accessed 1 December 2019.

Marco, Meg. “What Is The ‘Bait and Switch’ And When Is It Illegal?” Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports, Inc., 11 April 2007, https://www.consumerreports.org/consumerist/what-is-the-bait-and-switch-and-when-is-it-illegal/.

Political Adaptation of Bait and Switch Tactics. Laws.com, https://fraud.laws.com/bait-and-switch/political-adaptation-of-bait-and-switch-tactics. Accessed 1 December 2019.

Reviewed by Kenton, Will. “The Bait and Switch Sales Tactic.” Investopedia. Dotdash, Updated 15 February 2018, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/bait-switch.asp. Retrieved 1 December 2019.

Various Authors. “Bait-and-switch.” Wikipedia, Updated 20 November 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bait-and-switch. Accessed 1 December 2019.

“What Makes Bait and Switch Fraud?” Laws.com. https://fraud.laws.com/bait-and-switch/what-makes-bait-and-switch-fraud. Accessed 1 December 2019.

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