Saturday, November 27, 2010

'BREAKING NEWS: American advertising is one steaming pile of bull! (Film at 11.)'

As if the deck weren't stacked enough against the American consumer, we now have nonsense like this or this or this:* promotions for acai berry weight-loss products that masquerade as news reports. (On my computer, one such ad was locally "datelined," and in another the volunteer dieter just happened to be from my tiny little hometown of 4,000 people here in PA. Amazing what today's marketing software will do.) Here's more detailed background on the scam, which apparently has been ongoing for a while now. Some of the ads include a helpful quote attributed to "Clarissa Garner" of the "American Diet and Fitness Association." A quick Google check yielded no references to Ms. Garner other than those appearing in the acai ads themselves. Nor can I find a listing for any such association under that name.

This level of over-the-top b.s. constitutes a perfect rebuttal to the arguments from those who believe in unfettered caveat emptor and a basically hands-off government policy toward the free market. Should an advertiser be permitted to launch a campaign that's clearly desi
gned to hoodwink consumers into thinking they're reading honest journalism? Should an advertiser be permitted to invent phony spokespeople and the organizations for which those spokespeople allegedly speak? Should it be permissible for the same exact "investigative report" to appear under Julia Miller's byline on one site and under Beverly Williams' byline on another?

This is also why the emotive cinema verite testimonials that anchor even many of today's "respectable" ads make me so uncomfortable: It's dirty pool for an advertiser to conjure up a composite character who purports to be an actual satisfied customer voicing actual, heartfelt sentiments; this is all the more the case when we're talking about the likes of, say, cancer treatment. A viewer who's a cancer patient or a family member of one is apt to be in a highly suggestible state of mind; therefore, t
he emotional/visceral impact of such ads on that target consumer is way out of proportion to the testimonial's actual probative value, if you will. (In a court of law, such testimony would be banned as "prejudicial.")

The only difference here is that the acai berry ads are just a few yards farther down that same slippery slope.

* the second one, at least, says "advertorial" at the top. And by the way, where does the "torial" come in? How 'bout just advertisement?


catalyst123 said...

Hi! I enjoy reading your blog, and I especially liked this post. I was thinking about a question you asked,
"Should an advertiser be permitted to launch a campaign that's clearly designed to hoodwink consumers into thinking they're reading honest journalism?"
I agree with the laws that try and ensure that advertisers make no false claims about their product and it's capabilities. However, I would not like laws that would restrict an advertisers presentation of their product or service. This would prohibit too greatly the production of honest advertisements, and open the door to lawsuits. For me, advertisers should not make false claims about their product; beyond that they are free to present their product however they want.

But should these 'news reports' be permitted? No. But who should be the ones who are not permitting these advertisements to work? We should. Being aware of the tricks and schemes of advertisers makes it less likely that ads, like the ones you presented, will work. If an ad isn't working, companies will stop using that ad.

These ads were indeed over the top. What I found fun about it was how easy they were to debunk. Merely trying to leave the page without buying anything results in endless dialog boxes. Only those who read it, believe it, and buy it right then wouldn't realize that they were being scammed until it was way too late. So the simplest of verifications to try, clicking the home button on the links bar for example, will make it obvious that this isn't a news report. It's a scam trying to bilk you out of money.

Unfortunately, most advertisements aren't quite so overt about things as these examples are. But the same principles that allows us to determine the honesty of these advertisements will work on others as well. Don't immediately buy into something, especially if it's too good to be true. Be slightly skeptical. Research the product or company.

I'm not anti-government. Their are times when Big Brother has to step in and take care of stuff. But I also think that there is some stuff that ordinary people can take care of on their own. Like malicious advertising.

Steve Salerno said...

Cat123: Thanks for stopping by. I don't recall you joining the discussion before.

Look, I agree with you in a sense that the gov't can't be in the business of micromanaging the content of every ad. The problem is that the line between "making false claims" and "allowing advertisers to present their products in whatever way they wish" can be very blurry indeed. These are difficult calls, so difficult that I'm reminded of Justice Potter Stewart's famous line about porn: I can't define it but I know it when I see it. In the same way, I can't give you an all-purpose definition of when I think an advertiser is being, well, scummy, but I think the ads from Cancer Treatment Centers of America have to be placed in that category--as "ad porn." Using dubious testimonials to imply that (a) all other cancer doctors are unfeeling elitist money-grabbers (when they're not), (b) treatment at CTCA is so radically different from treatment elsewhere (when it isn't), and (c) typical cancer patients will survive after treatment by CTCA when they would have died elsewhere (where are the facts and figures?)...and when you then add the fact that the testimonials are actually scripted by an ad agency in the first place...

If that's not scummy, I don't know what is. It should not be allowed unless the quotes are from actual live people, saying the things they actually think and feel, and if it can also be proven that those thoughts and feelings are valid for the majority of people treated at CTCA.

roger o'keefe said...

I agree with Catalyst. It's unfortunate that some advertisers are going to lie and cheat, but you can't penalize an entire industry for that. In a nation of free speech and free commerce, you just have to accept that there's going to be a percentage of crap that slips through. Sad but unavoidable. The alternative is totally unmanageable and undemocratic besides.

Anonymous said...

Another good post Steve. I side with you.

catalyst123 said...

@ Steve: Yup, first time joining in. Thanks for putting up your journal. I like the topics and I like the style!

There is definitely a blurry line between blatantly false advertising and scrupulously exact and honest advertising. I don't think that we see much of either extreme. Most things lie somewhere in between. Your points about CTCA are on target. I haven't seen one of their commercials for a bit, so I don't know if they do this, but I've seen commercials that tell you that it's actors or a dramatized re-enactment so that you know they're spinning. False and misleading statements are bad, but not-entirely false and only slightly misleading advertisements that tell you they're making up their own dialog is not as bad. Not necessarily good, simply not quite as bad.

That's where critical analysis comes in, and why I like reading blogs like yours. No matter how much we regulate, people will find loopholes. No matter how much we de-regulate, their will always be people who want some form of government to step in. So any regulation put forth must strike a delicate balance. And that's where we come in. A consumer can research products and decide for themselves what is underhanded and what is not (provided that some regulation forces at least a minimum of honesty). The government can't oversee every thing, that's impossible. If we see advertisers doing something crummy, that isn't really against the law, we can decide how we're going to react. Do we buy the product, knowing that we may get screwed? Do we refuse, and miss out on something really great? Like Roger O'Keefe said, "In a nation of free speech and free commerce, you just have to accept that there's going to be a percentage of crap that slips through. Sad but unavoidable."

(In very general terms) A modicum of regulation to enforce accuracy in advertisements (You can't say the car you're selling gets 65 MPG when it really gets 22 MPG) and spotting the sly tricks that marketers will try and pull on you (like boosting prices before a big sale day, then returning them to their original price with a big 'Roll Back' sticker) is the best way to consistently avoid being scammed by advertising.

By pointing out things like this, or any of the other myriad tricks and illusions that we see every day, it becomes easier to avoid being scammed in the first place.

Steve Salerno said...

Cat et al: Lately Blogger doesn't seem to do very well at handling longer comments (i.e. longer than a few short graphs). Don't get me wrong: I welcome such comments--but Blogger apparently doesn't. So, when you try to publish it, you'll get some kind of error message. Don't be misled by that; the comment is coming through to me for approval. It just doesn't look like it is on the screen you see. So what I'd recommend is, if you get such an error message, try to publish it a second time--just to be safe--and then even if you get the same error message again, assume it went through anyway. Because it almost certainly did. For example, with your most recent comment (11:57), I got six identical versions of it in my inbox for approval. So, I don't know how many attempts you made, but I think it's safe to say they all got through. ;)

Sorry for the inconvenience. This has been a "known issue" for a while know, and clearly it is still with us...

catalyst123 said...

Thanks for the tip! I wasn't sure if it was my browser or blogger or whatnot. Now I know.