Caveat Lector!

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You probably know that advertisements are carefully crafted to influence how you think, feel, or act. But the subtlety of the deception used in ads is often easy to overlook.

For instance, ads for therapeutic products that claim their product ‘may’ prevent, reduce, or slow the signs of a condition are really signalling that they can’t prove any effect (because products that claim healing properties are obliged to
demonstrate those effects scientifically).

But you also need to be on your guard whenever you hear an ad that makes reference to a product being ‘recommended’ by professionals. The problem for consumers here is that ‘recommend’ and ‘prefer’ sound like synonyms, while for advertisers they remain distinct (and, presumably, their assumption is that most people will not notice the difference).

Colgate ran into trouble in the UK for using precisely this technique. They ran ads claiming that “80 per cent of dentists recommend” their toothpaste, but failed to mention that dentists recommended more than one brand of toothpaste. So while it was true that ’80 percent of dentists recommend Colgate’ it was certainly not the case that they prefer Colgate. In fact, it turned out that those dentists were just as likely to recommend a competitor’s product.

In cases like this, it is as important to think about what the ad is not saying as what it does. Jeffrey Schrank’s The Language of Advertising Claims remains one of the best things written about this topic, and is particularly good at identifying the ‘weasel words’ advertisers often use. These include “helps,” “virtually,” “acts,” “can be,” “up to,” “refreshes,” “comforts,” “fights,” “the feel of,” “the look of,” “fortified,” “enriched,” and “strengthened.” The whole point of these is to modify the claim that follows (and, indeed, to empty that claim of any real meaning) but to be subtle enough that most consumers won’t notice them.

Interestingly, we are all familiar with the caution ‘caveat emptor’ (‘let the ‘buyer beware’) but the work of Schrank and others reminds us that we also need ‘caveat lector’ (‘let the reader beware’). Because as H G Wells warned us long before colour television, advertising is a form of legalised lying.

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Caveat Lector!

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