Of Belly-Button Lint and Bogus Ads PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Steve Cuno   

Perhaps you have seen TV commercials for a product called 5-Hour Energy. In one version, video and monolog imply that for pepping up sleepy office workers, the product beats a cup of coffee. But bring your nose to the screen, and you’ll see that the small type says the opposite: “Contains caffeine comparable to a cup of the leading coffee.” Then, as the video segues to people enjoying improved physical performance, dexterity and endurance, a new batch of small type says: “Not proven to improve physical performance, dexterity or endurance.” And, you’ll read that the product “does not provide caloric energy.” Interesting, since the energy that runs bodies is measured in calories.

Like many advertisers, the makers of 5-Hour Energy know they can safely and legally imply the bogus in large type as long as they properly disclaim it in small. My own term for such tactics is Clintonian advertising: messaging that is technically accurate but designed to mislead. Legislation can only do so much. While the ideal behind truth-in-advertising rules may be consumer protection, often the reality is a kind of arms race wherein marketers respond to new rules with an escalation of circumventive ingenuity.

Not that all marketers play that way. Abundant products and services are sold in a forthright manner and perform as promised. But this isn’t an article about good advertising practices. It’s about the other kind, and what we can do about them.

As a marketer who happens to be a skeptic and to have been cursed with a conscience, I have encountered and declined my share of earning opportunities with said other kind.

There was, for instance, the video producer who wanted me to script a direct response TV commercial for a mineral which, when placed in a refrigerator, allegedly made food last longer. Intrigued, I asked if the product worked. “No,” he said, “but that’s what we’re claiming.” I sent him on his way.

There was the New Age enthusiast who alleged that her so-called subliminal CDs helped people quit smoking, lose weight, save relationships, succeed-succeed-succeed and, for all I know, make gravy without lumps. I explained that I could not advertise the CDs in good conscience. Telling her wasn’t easy, not just because she seemed to believe in her product and not just because my shop could have used the work. You see, she happened to be about my age, single and distractingly attractive. Damn.

There was the software that claims to but doesn’t predict stock prices. The dial-an-astrologer company. The not-for-profit organization whose mission is the disenfranchisement of all who are not white, middle-aged, male, straight, ultra-conservative and, of course, right-wing Christian. The weight-loss hypnotherapist. The company whose business model is a pyramid scheme with a token product to keep it legal. The neutraceuticals company whose products are neither nutritious nor ceutical. (OK, I made up “ceutical.” It should be a word.)

My favorite decline? Hermetically sealed belly-button lint. In fairness, this was not a flimflam product. After all, though I hadn’t verified whether it truly was harvested from belly-buttons, I could at least see that it was lint. The “inventor” fancied it a novelty product in the tradition of the Pet Rock. I declined helping her market it for two reasons. One, I believed it would not catch on, and she would lose her money. Bad enough. Two, she wanted me to share in the cost, meaning that I would lose my money. Even worse.

None of this is to imply that I am any sort of paragon. I have allowed myself to be duped, and have even duped myself, more than once.

Years ago, before I knew better, I helped market a complement of antioxidant products, trumpeting the manufacturer’s myriad bogus health claims which I had accepted at face value.

I once produced ads for a high-tech device in an established, legitimate category. Two years later, I learned that the manufacturer’s PhD-level engineers had lied to me about their device’s alleged technical superiority. In good faith, I had included their claims in the ads. I’m still mad.

And now I must come clean about the stock market software. It purported to predict prices by use of Technical Analysis, the silly process of imposing scientific-looking mumbo-jumbo on a stock’s past in hopes of revealing its future. The truth is, I didn’t exactly decline them. I resigned them. Prior to that, they had been my client. During that time, did I believe in Technical Analysis? Hell no. But I rationalized. I told myself that as long as I didn’t recruit new believers, it was OK to sell the software to existing ones. But the time came when I could no longer sell a product that didn’t -- couldn’t -- do as claimed, period. Worse, I realized that people who actually used the software risked more than the not insignificant purchase price. They risked gambling away everything they owned or had saved. So, I resigned the account. (When I later discovered skepticism, I was gratified to see that Technical Analysis had not escaped scrutiny and condemnation.)

I would love to tell you that by declining or resigning work, I have changed the world. Not so. The video producer found another writer, the CDs went to market, the Technical Analysis software is still selling, you can still dial an astrologer, the right-wing public policy group still opposes rights for anyone not created in its own image, the weight-loss hypnotherapist is making a great living, legal pyramid schemes are flourishing, and neutraceuticals are big. And, last I heard, the belly-button lint magnate-hopeful has yet to give up.

But at least I know I’m not helping. That’s something.

Meanwhile, I do what I can. I write articles decrying false and Clintonian advertising. To date, three respected marketing industry publications have run them. (They even paid for them. Doubly sweet.) These publishers deserve credit for their courage, as scolding one’s own readers and advertisers is at best a risky proposition.

But you needn’t be a columnist for a marketing journal to make a difference. Individuals wield more power over marketers than many people realize. This power resides largely in a secret weapon known as “the wallet.” Marketers engage in tactics to make money. When enough people quit giving them money, they must change tactics or go out of business. Consider that no legislature forced the Coca-Cola company to replace New Coke with Coke Classic. Good old-fashioned pressure from ordinary, wallet-wielding, impassioned people took care of that.

So when you observe an objectionable marketing tactic, I would suggest for starters avoiding rewarding the marketer. You do this by not buying the damned product.

To go one better, tell your friends you’re refusing to buy, and why. Post on Facebook. Start a Facebook group. Tweet. If you have a blog, blog. Marketers have great respect for The Power of Word of Mouth, as well they should. Generate enough public snark, and they will take note. And, on occasion, action.

If you like to write, research your case and then compose letters stating it well. Send them to editors. Letters that present a well-defended case stand a good chance of publication. While you’re at it, send them to the managers of publications, networks and stations that run the offending ads, as well as to the producers of programs the ads sponsor.

Emails are good and are gaining in power. But do not overlook the power of snail mail. Right or wrong, businesspeople tend to think you’re more serious -- and more statistically significant -- when you go to the trouble of signing a letter, placing it in an envelope, affixing a stamp, and dropping it in a mailbox.

You might also send a letter to the person ultimately responsible for creating the marketing in the first place. It’s a long shot, but who knows? Early in my career, I received an angry letter from a reader who had taken offense at an inadvertent stereotype in ad I’d approved. Theretofore oblivious, I saw the unintended slight the moment she pointed it out, pulled the ad, and sent her a letter of apology and thanks.

My glasses aren’t so rose-colored as for me to suggest, much less believe, that by these actions we will stop unsavory marketing practices cold. But let’s not sell short the cumulative power of individual efforts. Marketing history brims with cases where a tidal wave of individual efforts forced mighty companies to change course. An accumulation of individual efforts pushed Capitol Records to change the cover of a Beatles LP, McDonald’s to stop cooking fries in animal fat (the second time around, that is), Chrysler to stop resetting odometers to zero after test drives, Cadbury New Zealand to stop adding palm oil to milk chocolate, the Direct Marketing Association to create a Do-Not-Mail registry, food manufacturers to cut back on sugars, Apple to make good on iPhone antenna problems, and more. I might even go so far as to suggest that, in addition to efforts by the JREF and other organizations, the sheer volume of outcry from individuals has had much to do with the promise of libel reform in the UK.

Meanwhile, short of such dramatic results, there is something to be said for the satisfaction of knowing one is doing what one can.

The whole idea behind a market-driven economy is that the market does the driving. We are the market. Let’s retake the wheel.