Snake Oil for Sale: The True Cost of Inaccurate Hotel Photos

The 19th century was arguably the zenith of con-artistry. A traveling salesman would set up a public demonstration to convince the townspeople that snake oil had miraculous properties, or that certain investment opportunities simply could not fail. Often times there would be a shill or stooge — a planted audience member who lent “objective credibility” to the scheme. Using these and other tactics, the mysterious visitors would fill their pockets and leave town.

It would be difficult to operate that kind of swindle these days. There’s too much information out there, and people are always skeptical.

And yet, the spirit of the snake oil salesman is alive and well. It’s not just diet pills and libido-enhancing nose sprays that are in on the game, either. There’s a whole spectrum of deceptiveness in play, in almost every industry — including hotels.

Specifically, I’m talking about hotel photos. Since a majority of bookings are now made online (and the percentage will continue to grow), it stands to reason that photography is among the most important aspects of brand representation in the hospitality industry. But if you take a look at the scathing reviews that haunt so many properties, inaccurate photos are a frequent talking point. Why don’t more hotels “get real” with their photography?

In some cases the artwork is blatantly deceptive. More often, photos were snapped when a hotel was newly built or freshly remodeled, and time has taken a toll. There are even cases where photos depict a hotel before it was remodeled — and guests still dock points.

The point is that people want hotels to represent themselves accurately online. The presentation of imagery, whether on a proprietary web site or an OTA, is a defining moment. If the dream is too far away from reality, no amount of smiles or service will bring the experience back.

An old study on consumer perceptions of advertising, prepared by the British Advertising Standards Authority in 2002, discusses a phenomenon it calls “untruthful truthful advertising” wherein the advertiser “does not communicate the true or whole picture” and “highlights substantial benefits but is vague in its communication of the implications or downsides.”

Most inaccuracies in hotel photography fit this description. The photos are of actual rooms and amenities, yes — but clever cropping or fishbowl effects lead the potential guest into a dream world. In many cases, the variation in rooms is not properly addressed. Rather than updating photography to accurately reflect current realities and various rooms, hotels play a dangerous game of untruthful truthful advertising.

Oyster, a competitor of TripAdvisor, seeks to address these problems by billing itself the “hotel tell-all” and laying claim to internet’s largest collection of honest hotel photos. The reviews are curated by “professional investigators,” and every listing is given a frank comparison of pros and cons. Oyster’s collection of “photo fakeouts” is quite entertaining, and a good illustration of the type of snake-oil shenanigans hotels get up to.

The kicker is that snake oil actually works. It’s an old remedy for arthritis and bursitis that was used by Chinese immigrant workers during the construction of the American Transcontinental Railroad. It only became synonymous with fraud when certain individuals with questionable ethics saw an opportunity to play fast and loose with the hopes, dreams and expectations of ordinary folks and claimed it would fix almost anything. Likewise, hotel photography actually works to draw in and sustain business — but only when its claims are backed by reality.

 Clark Stanley, the “rattlesnake king” who built a business empire on snake oil in the 19th century, was only fined $20 by the U.S. government when testing revealed his product to be worthless and devoid of snake oil. Those were different times. In today’s world of highly informed and skeptical guests, hotels that blatantly set up false expectations pay a higher price.

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