Find the trick!: Developing a healthy skepticism toward advertising

Growing up, I have to credit my mom with instilling in me a skeptical attitude toward advertising. I think this is one of the most valuable lessons you can teach to a child growing up in the U.S., where it's shockingly still legal to advertise heavily to young kids.

Mom taught me that, while ads have to be technically true, they find every possible way to trick you. It became kind of a game to find the special way (or ways) that the ad was trying to mislead you. Here are some of my favorites, simple enough for a kid to understand.

Fake Statistics
Any time numbers are mentioned, be on alert. "Four out of five dentists recommend" implies that 80% of all dentists would recommend the product, but technically, that wording is also true if the company only polled five (selectively chosen) dentists.

Correlations Implying Causation
This is related to numeric claims, but it's so common and tricky that it deserves to be considered separately. The one concept from statistics I'd want to teach every middle schooler is this: "Correlation does not imply causation." That is, two factors can occur together without one causing the other. For example, there exists a correlation between ice cream sales and death by drowning. Does this mean ice cream causes drowning? Of course not. Both are caused by a third variable: summer.

Ads often try to imply causation by stating what may be valid correlation claims. I remember being particularly annoyed by a well-meaning public service announcement that I saw on a bus shortly after learning about correlation and causation. The claim was something like, "Kids who eat dinner with their families get better grades." The ad was trying to convince parents to set aside a family dinner hour. While I'm sure this intervention would not have don harm, it seemed to me that it also wouldn't magically raise kids' grades. Instead I did (and do) suspect that "family dinner hour" is a luxury of well-off families who work white-collar, 9-to-5 jobs. Telling families that don't or can't do family dinner hour because of their work schedules or general life hecticness that the dinner thing is the reason their kids are doing badly in school seemed unwarranted and somewhat victim-blamey.

Meaningless Claims
Most taglines are simply not meaningful enough to be challenged: "It's magically delicious!"

Spotting this does sometimes require some background knowledge. It's important to know which terms have a specific legal meaning (e.g., "organic"), and which terms are legally meaningless (e.g., "wholesome", "natural", "good").

Trivial Claims
In the first episode of Mad Men, Don Draper asks the Lucky Strike cigarette execs to describe the typical tobacco curing process. When they get to the step about toasting the leaves, he suggests the tagline, "It's toasted." The execs point out that this hardly separates them from the competion: all cigarettes feature toasted leaves. Don insists that doesn't matter. It's true, it sounds good, and it will force the other brands to scramble to assure customers that they are also toasted, allowing them to dominate the terms of the conversation.

A great sketch from Mr. Show with Bob & David, "The Fairsley Difference," more starkly demonstrates trivial claims and their ability to set the tone of the conversation. Fairsley Foods sends its competition scrambling by making promises such as, "Good prices… no rats!" and "Come with your kids, leave with your kids!"

Pleasant Associations
Brands try to inspire positive feelings about their product by associating them with things that everyone loves: fun, friends, love, home. It's easy to create these associations with imagery alone, no need to say anything.

Taglines can find subtle ways to exploit these associations, too. I recently dug up a blog post where I complained about an ad for children's Tylenol which showed a mom caring for a sick child while a soothing voice purred, "For everything we do, you do so much more." On its face, it's an obvious and inoffensive claim--of course parents do more for their children than the Tylenol company does--but simply by making the comparison, even to conclude that parents are better, the company boldly puts themselves on the same level. It makes it seem like Tylenol is, say, 10% less important than a parent.

Irrelevant Statements
One of the boldest and most effective methods is to simply say something unrelated to the product and simply allow the implication to be created by juxtaposition of the statement to the product. The very fact that the statement is in an ad becomes the argument. Why would Nike say "Just do it" if their sneakers didn't help you "do it" in some way? It would be crazy.

There are many, many more tricks, which you can find as you play the game. "Find the trick" has gotten me through many a dull commercial break. It's also a lifelong habit that is a great way to develop a healthy skepticism toward advertising claims. That's not to say I never fall for these things--I do, even though I know about them, and that's what makes advertising so insidious! But at least I come to the game somewhat armed. Thanks, Mom. (See that pleasant association I created? Tell your mom about this blog!!)


  1. I do the same thing with ads, especially television ads. I like that you took the time to detail some of the tactics you've observed. Do you ever feel so good at it that you feel you could be making them yourself?


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