Dec. 11, 2009— -- Travel Web sites have taken the place of a trusted travel agent when it comes to shopping for a vacation. But a "20/20" investigation found that when it comes to the Web, what you see is oftentimes not what you get.
Visiting Washington, D.C.? The Hyatt Capitol Hill Web site claims it's "just steps away from the U.S. Capitol." Online photos appear to confirm this. But when you look at a map -- and a more realistic image -- you see it's a lot farther away. Actually, it's about a third of a mile away.
Elie Seidman, the founder of the hotel review Web site Oyster.com, sees it time and time again: hotels using tricks to make their properties look as desirable as possible. The discrepancy between a hotel's Internet image and reality is all too widespread, according to Seidman and his staff. "We found that it's, unfortunately, all too typical," he said.
Oyster.com is trying to expose marketing tricks that spin reality.
A photograph of the MGM Grand hotel pool on its Web site shows a huge pool with hardly any sunbathers. It looks like a great place to get some alone time, but cropped out of the shot are endless rows of lounges filled with people.
Perhaps an even more dramatic example is a romantic scene on Hotel Riu's Punta Cana resort homepage is real when it reflects a private wedding at its seaside gazebo? Unfortunately, a little wider shot on the Oyster.com site reveals that it's not so private after all -- it's smack in the middle of the resort's beach with dozens of uninvited guests in attendance!
Another is the Web site photos of the fitness center at the Nash Hotel in Miami. After seeing a spacious fully stocked gym in online photos, what Oyster reviewers found was a rude awakening: a closet-size space with one treadmill.
"You show up and it's not reality ... it backfires," Seidman remarked. "But you know ... you don't travel that often on vacation." Hotels don't have to sweat the concern of complaining with repeat customers.
Real or Fake? New York City Hotel Accommodations Fall Flat
Oyster's Seidman warned that the accommodations one encounters when they arrive at the hotel may look completely different from what the hotel's slick Web site shows.
That was the case at the Manhattan Broadway Hotel in New York City. The guest rooms on its Web site look sleek and modern -- filled with chic furniture and big flat-screen TVs. However, one expert told us those room pictures are likely not real photos, but computer simulations. When our reporter went to the actual room, it was quite a shock.
The television was the size of a hand. There was no closet -- just four hooks in a wall. The green drapes in the photo were nowhere to be found. It was just a bare, ragged window. As for the modern furniture revealed in the online photos, there was dilapidated mismatched furniture of an unknown period that was missing most of its handles.
We found some unadvertised amenities: cracks in the walls, an old dirt-encrusted air conditioner, a plywood box spring and something that can only be described as a generally grungy feel to the room. And what did we pay for this down-and-out room? The decidedly nonbargain rate of $220 a night.
We found other who shared our reaction. A Michigan tourist who gave us this assessment.
"I would probably rate this room a 10 (pointing to the Internet image), and I'd rate my room a 4," the tourist said.
An older German couple who had stayed in a wide range of hotels over their 40-plus years of travel, said, "It's very small ... no windows. The bed is ... you don't even want to take your clothes off, it's bad, it's bad."
But perhaps we have saved the worst for last. The ultimate in trick photography comes from a cozy little hostelry in Poland, Hotel Alicia. The hotel's Web site features a peaceful flower-covered inn pictured against a sunny blue sky. When we sent our video camera there, we found nothing cozy about it.
On a noisy street, looming over the real Hotel Alicia is a cooling tower and smokestacks of a huge power plant.
"20/20" showed the two disparate images to Bill Hilson, professor at the Pratt Institute Department of Graduate Communications Design, who demonstrated how easy it was for the hotel marketers to erase an ugly backdrop and replace it with a blue sky in minutes. He added a sunset, then easily switched it out for a scenic mountain backdrop. According to Hilson, you don't have to be a computer expert to make these magical transformations.
"I wish I could tell you it was incredibly sophisticated and difficult to do, but today it is not," he said. "I know for a fact that virtually every single image used in advertising and marketing today has been adjusted to some degree."
Before-and-After Weight Loss Photos Too Good to Be True
Photoshop adjustments and other misleading tactics can go too far -- particularly in the diet business. Brook Barth learned that lesson after she lost 65 pounds -- but it wasn't thanks to some miracle diet.
"They are lying. It's false advertisement, and it's sad that people are getting sucked into it," she told "20/20." Barth did it the hard way -- eight grueling months of intense exercise and calorie counting. "It was a lot of hard work," she said. "I had to completely change my lifestyle."
To inspire others with her success, Barth posted her story and impressive before-and-after photos on her own blog site. Somehow they ended up on boxes of a product she had never heard of, let alone used, called Wu-Yi Diet Tea.
"My grandmother's friend calls my grandma, and she was like, 'Hey, did you know your granddaughter is on this tea box?' And she was like, 'No, that's not how she lost the weight.' What the heck?" Barth recalled.
Barth complained to Wu-Yi. She told "20/20" that the compnay had offered to pay her $1,000 for the rights to the photos they had already used. In need of cash, she signed the deal. After that her pictures started appearing on all kinds of diet ads online. She did a Google search for her name and came up with 1,320 results.
Another woman's photos also appear in diet ad after diet ad -- sometimes her name is Jenna Patterson or Daniella Conrad. Other times it'f Katie Carson or Lisa Adams or Sarah Hansen. But who is she really? A smiling, affable looking model who didn't lose a pound. Her "before" photos are for sale online to anyone willing to pay. The after photos, marketers create themselves.
Hilson showed us how it's done, using an electronic tool called Liquify to melt away fat. Once chubby arms become svelte and toned.
"Was it P.T. Barnum who said there is a sucker born every minute?" Hilson said. "And there are going to be those people that look at those before and after pictures and say, 'Heck that can be me in just six weeks.'"
Deceptive Diet Ads
Many of these diet ads are deceptive in other ways as well. Some feature fake endorsements by trusted celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Rachel Ray and Barbara Walters.
Oz told "20/20" that his problems started when he discussed a powerful anti-oxidant called acai berry on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Soon after that, pill makers started making outrageous weight loss claims for their acai berry pills, and started posting the bogus endorsements.
"If my name or picture is next to a product being sold," Oz said, "you can guarantee it's a scam because I don't endorse any products, and I would never let anyone use my name or my face to sell a product."
Oz recently joined up with Oprah in a lawsuit against 40 of these diet pill companies.
The bottom line, though, is that deceptive ads like these do sell products. While the supplement names vary, these questionable products often have one thing in common: a "14 day free trial" that isn't exactly free. First, you pay several dollars for shipping. Then, if you don't return the pills within 14 days from the order date, you'll be charged about $80 a month, every month, until you cancel. Anyone who doesn't read the fine print closely on these offers may find themselves regretting it.