Do you want the long answer, or the short one?
The simple reason that you should never treat your customers like they’re stupid is that Why You Should Never, Ever Treat Your Customers like they’re Stupid.
What do I mean when I say not to treat your customers like they’re stupid? Well, for one, I recommend you take a good hard look at your advertising, and ask yourself whether or not a preschooler would easily recognize anything you say there as being patently untrue. For example, you can still find some discount leftover Easter chocolate in grocery and drug stores, and I noticed a tagline on a generic Russel Stover bunny the other day. There’s a small banner on all of their packaging declaring that Russel Stover chocolates are “handcrafted in small batches!”
Russell Stover. The third largest chocolate company in the country. The company responsible for just about every heart-shaped box of Valentine’s candy you’ve ever seen. The brand of boxed chocolate that you can find at any time in any grocery or drugstore nationwide. They claim, on their own product, to utilize “copper kettles and kitchen mixers”. Come on. If you took any seven-year-old into the seasonal candy aisle and asked if they thought the dozens of chocolate boxes were made in factories or by hand, I think they would guess right nine times out of ten.
Of course, it seems clear that we are asked to receive the tagline with a very broad and generous definition of “handcrafted”, and a very relative understanding of “small”. A huge market segment obviously does just that with no qualms. Taking notice of their disingenuous slogan certainly won’t cause me to boycott Russell Stover products in the future—it was more of an ironic observance than an outrage. In fact, I personally believe that the reason they get away with such an obvious exaggeration is because the lie benefits the buyer. Russell Stover boxed candy is normally purchased to be given as a gift, not eaten by the consumer themselves. That’s likely why I’ve never even noticed it before now. What recipient of a box of chocolates would stop to criticize the claims of quality on the package? But just because consumers tend to just go with it in this instance, don’t think for a moment that any of them are fooled, and that they won’t be vocal about it. Go read this forum post about it if you want a laugh.
And that’s just over an innocuous lie. Look at what happens when a company tries to play their audience for fools and misrepresent something with more serious consequences—like the environmental effects of oil drilling. After the BP Spill, competing oil companies tried to combat the bad press spreading around like—well, an oil slick—by launching their own “greenwashing” campaigns to try to downplay or turn around new batch of environmental complaints. The best of them were pretty obviously insincere, and the worst proved catastrophic to the companies that put them on. Take a look at the fake BP Twitter account that boasted twice as many followers as the real one. In fact, here’s a whole list of real ad campaigns hijacked by spoofers or protesters.
The point is this: even if you aren’t trying to cover up something as big as the environmental disaster of the century, your customers will notice if you try to treat them as anything less than informed, proactive, intelligent, and discerning.
Information travels fast, nothing stays erased, and the internet never forgets. People like to be right, and they like to be more right than everyone else. If you give your customers a chance to make you look foolish by insulting their intelligence, they will take it. And if you’re trying to pull a fast one on them—you just might even deserve it.