Revealed at last: ads that lie

The trick is to overstate the merits of a product while avoiding a claim that might later be proven false. That is, to mislead you without seeming to lie to your face.

Tiptoeing along the shoreline of the untrue without getting one’s feet wet — also known as weasel-wording — is a highly regarded skill among an evil minority in advertising, and a job that attracts many a rascally wordsmith. The chaste advertising reader, listener or viewer is hardly a match for these purveyors of guile. All the more reason that we must not abandon the innocents, but rather sound the alarm, in the hope that some may be forewarned, and saved.

A catalog of all the half-truths, misrepresentations, overstatements and fairy tales that abound in the shadow world of advertising would be the work of a lifetime. But just to provide a sense of how this all works, here’s a sampling, which, while exhausting, is hardly exhaustive. There are plenty more where these came from.

“. . .and much more!” This phrase, usually punctuated with an exclamation point to make it seem exciting, is placed at the end of a list of appealing product features. The objective is to flummox the prospect into believing that the product has more features just as good as the ones described. This is always — always — a lie. The advertiser inevitably identifies every product feature that might appeal to anyone. All the rubbish nobody gives a hoot about is gathered into the catch-all “. . .and much more!” because the advertiser is too smart to reveal just how trivial it is. The prospect should be doubly cautious if the advertiser employs the variation “. . .and much, MUCH more!” – -which confirms that this stuff is truly hopeless.

“Limited time offer.” This is an attempt to persuade the prospect to respond quickly, because the advertiser understands the basic appeal of the offer is so shaky that the prospect will forget it quickly unless he or she acts upon it promptly. The advertiser knows: if we don’t make the sale fast, we’ll never make it. This time limit (unspecified) will never be invoked. Unless a firm date is specified, the prospective buyer need never fear time will run out.

“Limited quantity.” Another attempt to goose the prospect into buying right now. Not, strictly speaking, a lie, because any quantity — even millions — may be said to be limited. The implication here is that the quantity is somehow insufficient to meet the demand, but of course that is nonsense. If you were the advertiser, would you commit precious advertising dollars to a product if you knew you were about to run out of it?

“Nothing is better (stronger, faster-acting, more effective, or whatever).” This implies that the advertised product is superior to its competitors. Ah, but look closely, gentle reader. Even if no competitor is better, any one of them, or all of them, might be equally as good. The advertising of parity products is infested with this claim, or variations of it.

“The ultimate (whatever).” Meaningless purple prose. An esteemed client in the television business once revealed to me his belief that mere mortals were unlikely to experience the ultimate anything. (It’s interesting to note that he nevertheless approved this copy-line from my ad agency for a made-for-television movie: “To find the ultimate thrill, you must take the ultimate risk.” I look back with some embarrassment on that bit of hyperbole, though I take comfort that our ad was better than the movie.) You may be assured, when you see “ultimate” in advertising copy, that the maker of the ad had serious reservations about the product.

“The Number 1 Movie in America.” This has for some time been popular among the movie folk. At any instant, it’s likely that ads for one or another of the big movies in theatrical release are trumpeting this claim. What is never explained is exactly how a movie qualifies for this designation. Is it a matter of most tickets sold this week? Since release? Best reviews? Most publicity? Most award nominations? All of the above? None? What? Nobody knows. I used to believe an advertising claim was used over and over again because experience proved that it worked. I’ve since learned that it is not necessarily so. Often it’s a matter of the same people recycling the same weary old ideas because they’re simply unable to hatch any new ones. I suspect that’s the case here.

“In-depth.” This is another meaningless claim apt to be found in promotion for television programming — probably news. Special reports are regularly touted as being “in-depth” no matter how shallow they may be. Only rarely do television reports plumb meaningful depths, as television’s decision makers tend to opt for sound bites and quick summaries, believing that longer treatments bore audiences and drive them away. If it’s in-depth reporting you’re after, try The New York Times or another of the intelligent newspapers.

“Free.” This is almost always a lie. Usually what it means is that an item may be had without additional cost, provided you pay for some other item. Or pay some vastly inflated shipping and handling cost. Or pay for something. So if you have to pay, it’s not really free, is it? I always remember what my daddy said: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Alas.

“American’s Biggest Ford (Dodge, Chevrolet, Toyota, or whatever) Dealer.” An easy lie to make, because how can it be disproved? But come now, are we really expected to believe that America’s biggest Ford dealer is located in, say, Altoona, Pennsylvania? This is one of those advertising lies that’s so transparent, most people simply tune it out. But it gives the auto dealer a nice warm feeling.

On and on they go. But this is America, fellow citizens. And the occasional weasel-word ad is a small price to pay for the protection of the First Amendment.


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