Bill Cutshall’s Weblog

September 9, 2008

Living Between Worlds

Filed under: Advertising — billcutshall @ 5:00 am

I work in advertising primarily as a writer. Uncommonly I write both software code and advertising copy and have noticed a distinct schism between the disciplines regarding the desirability of bugs. Writing code is an art that requires accurate descriptions of environmental variables and clear instructions in order to elicit a desired behavior from your reader; in this case the computer. Inaccuracy and incomplete attention to detail almost always results in unintended behavior, known in this environment as a bug. When writing ad copy, the focus is still on eliciting a desired behavior from your audience but unlike when writing code, inaccuracy is a tool to elicit the desired behavior.  The bug is the goal.

Wait, what?

I’m talking about lies here.  Lies can motivate and motivation is the goal of advertising.  Lies can also get advertisers into a lot of trouble and thus most active advertisers have legions of lawyers acting as watchdogs for liability created from untrue advertising claims but there is still money in misleading people so the lies have to get more sophisticated.  Listen carefully to ad copy, especially television copy and you will begin to detect the pattern of deliberate inaccuracy designed to create impressions and behaviors in its audience. Inaccuracy is even still a bit of a stretch since false claims carry liability, especially across an audience potentially of millions of viewers.   Precision imprecision is probably a better term for the practice.

They Couldn’t Say It if it Wasn’t True.

Basically the above statement is accurate.  Deliberate statement of untruths, what we know as lying, can cause problems for companies in both the financial and legal sense.  Deliberate statement of truths which are likely to be misinterpreted, however, can be covered by plausible deniability.   We’ve all heard car ads extolling the virtues of the new XYZ 9000 and if we believed what was implied in all these ads, every car on the planet would be the best ever.  Through careful manipulation of copy, advertisers can give even the worst product claims to seemingly unique value.  We’ve all heard statements like “no other car in it’s class has a higher safety rating” and we rarely give statements like that a second thought.  The implication is that the car being discussed is safer than all other similar vehicles but the truth is a less interesting.  Upon examination we find that nearly all cars in a given class have the same governmental safety rating and that the statement “no other car has a higher rating” while true, doesn’t really mean anything.

So Why Say It?

Tactics like this are used precisely because people don’t always hear the strict meaning of the words presented to them.  Rather, they hear what they expect to hear even if the advertiser never actually said it.

“4 out of 5 Doctors Surveyed…”

We as an audience assume a trusting posture regarding simple advertising communications even though we have every reason to distrust them.  Nowhere in nature do the easily manipulated nature of statistics combine with the time constraints of a 30 second format to create an economic profit potential so prone to producing grey truth.  The implication in something as straightforward as “4 out of 5 doctors surveyed would recommend…” is that if you were to ask your medical professional a question regarding the advertised product he would be 80% likely to agree with his colleagues or else he would hold a fringe opinion shared by only 20% of the medical profession.  The time constraints of the 30 second format allow omissions of often material facts such as how many doctors were surveyed, how the list of doctors was obtained, or even what constitutes a doctor.  If the surveyed list came from the advertiser’s client base we would expect to see high numbers, possibly higher than 80%.  If the survey consisted of 5 doctors, the results aren’t in any way statistically meaningful.  The term “doctor” is accurately applied to anyone that has completed doctoral level education in one of many disciplines.  A doctorate degree can be obtained in philosophy, economics, art history, or any number of non-medical areas.  The likelihood of an advertiser taking as great a risk as using doctors of philosophy in a survey for a medical (or dental) product is pretty slim but it does illustrate the fact that the audience has an innate trust of the message despite the advertiser’s obvious bias.

My favorite example of this tactic is employed in chewing gum ads.  The statement is made that “4 out of 5 dentists surveyed would recommend” Such-and-Such brand of gum for their patients that chew gum.  The implication is that gum, like brushing and flossing, is an activity that is healthy for your teeth and approved by all but one dentist. They statement “for their patients that chew gum” sheds a lot of light on the likely actual truth.  Dentists don’t recommend gum chewing.  If a cigarette company claimed that “4 out of 5 doctors surveyed would recommend Marlboro Lights for their patents that smoke” the connection being made would seem obvious.  Doctors don’t recommend smoking but in the face of an inevitable smoker, might recommend they smoke the least damaging brand possible (there is no “least damaging cigarette”, by the way.  They all kill you).

“Anal Leakage” Really Does Mean That You Will Probably Shit Yourself.

I tremble at the thought of being the writer tasked with disclosing the uncomfortable truth of one of the probable side-effects of Olestra.  Consumers of products cooked in this synthetic fat were likely to experience oily discharge from their anus.  Why a company would release a product that would require it’s consumers to wear diapers to prevent a social catastrophe of epic proportions is beyond me.  Chosing to disclose this issue the same way that pharmaceutical companies use, however, was brilliant.  The message is undiluted but by presenting it in the same style as an FDA mandated disclosure statement, the manufacturers of this cooking oil allocated “anal leakage” into the realm of “unlikely but serious possible side-effects”, at least until people tried the product and realized that “impending” was a far more accurate term than “unlikely”.

You have to admire the makers of Alli, a dietary aid, for the manner in which they confronted the same issue.  Unlike Olestra, which was an oil that passed undigested into the lower intestinal tract effectively greasing the bowels, Alli is a drug which binds to consumed fats making them indigestible.  Consumers of Olestra products experienced the side-effect limited by the amount of the product they consumed.  Alli can turn nearly all consumed fat into a personal time bomb.  Their approach to dealing with this issue was brave and seems to be effective.  They essentially opted for an honest stance stating this is how their product works, the unpleasant side effect is proof that it is working, and consumers may want to be cautious in their use of the product until they fully understand how it will affect them.  Time will tell but Alli is currently still a viable brand where Olestra has been hidden away under the stairs.

So what?

Snake-oil salesmen and con-men have been making a living off of deceptive product claims for hundreds of years.  This style of considered communication is merely the evolution of the snake-oil salesman’s soapbox pitch modified for a broader audience, formatted to fit popular media, and meticulously crafted in consideration of the litigious world of today.  Is it a lie?  Not strictly as the copy is technically accurate and not by itself misleading.  The fact that the audience is likely to draw more meaning from it than the words actually carry isn’t lost on the copywriters, though, and thus this style of communication, while not lying, is still deceptive.    Proving it is another matter entirely, however, and therein lies the guarantee that the practice will continue.

And that’s what I do for a living.

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