November Daily Blog 22: Advertising, pseudo science and manipulation

More than half a century ago our forward looking English teacher in school included in the curriculum a series of lessons on advertising techniques.  I have forgotten much about grammatical construction and the poems of Alfred Lord Tennyson but I have ever since been very aware of cynical manipulation by the advertising industry:  “Buy this, it will make you irresistible to the female/male of the species”; “Eat this, it’s better than sliced bread”, Buy from us, we are cheaper than our competitors”; “use this toothpaste and you’ll have teeth like a sabre toothed tiger”;  “our pharmaceuticals/health products are  scientifically proven to keep you running around like a spring chicken”  ………..  Anyone who believes even 10% of that guff must be running around like a headless chicken.

Nevertheless, few of us are immune to advertising.  True, if we have done the research we may well have concluded that the global brand is costing more and is no better quality or efficacy than the less glitzy alternative. However, whether we like it or not, when faced with a choice of similar products we know nothing about there is some little weasel inside our brains which tells us that the branded, smartly logoed product we have seen on TV or in magazines will be better than the one we haven’t heard of in a plain wrapper.  It’s difficult to resist and advertisers know this, which is why their aim in many cases is simply to put their brand names in front of us at every conceivable opportunity: on TV; in newspapers and magazines; on street hoardings; in store; through the letterbox as flyers or personally addressed junk mail. The more you see the name the more likely you are to prefer it to the brand you have barely heard of.

Some adverts are irritating but the advertiser continues with them ad nauseam.  A TV advert for a price comparison web site starring a Welsh opera singer Wynn Evans launched as part of its marketing campaign in 2009 was soon voted the most annoying advert and now, 3 years later, is widely considered to be the most annoying advert of all time.  Yet the jingle became an ear-worm and was very successful in driving the company’s rapid business growth.  The opera singer is now reported to be approaching the finale.  We wait to see.

However, though that and other adverts may be irritating, they do not arouse my contempt, unlike adverts recently appearing for pet food.  I’ll nail my colours to the mast straight away and say that I regard the pet industry in the UK as immoral to the point of obscenity.  It seems we spend more than 3 billion a year on our pets, £1.5 billion of that on food.  I temper my prejudice by admitting that there is good aetiological evidence that having a dog or a cat in the house when children are very young (up to 18 months is optimum) helps to reduce the likelihood of asthma.

But the pet industry goes far beyond that.  It is common to see one side of an aisle in supermarkets given over to pet food.  In the last year or so manufacturers looking to maintain or increase market share have started marketing pet foods on the basis of ‘healthy eating’, meat which is grilled to reduce the amount of fat.  Two recent adverts have gone even further, and to my mind, have gone beyond the pale.  One claims that their food gives a dog its necessary ‘4-a-day’, blatantly cashing in on the (human) health slogan ‘eat your 5-a-day’.  That campaign was sponsored by Government to promote good health outcomes.  Though now shown to have been based on wrong interpretation of the science it still persists because encouraging the eating fruit and veg helps achieve a balanced, healthy diet.  It has entered the language as a catch-phrase and is generally reckoned to be A Good Thing To Do.  But the 4-a-day for your dog has no scientific basis, it’s merely a cynical marketing ploy.  You can almost hear the discussion in the meeting when it was agreed: “If we pitch it at 5 a day it will look too much like the fruit and veg thing and people will see through it.  We can’t go for 6 because that’s looks like too many.  So let’s go for 4.  All agreed?”

The other advert which grates with me is marketing food specifically for cats which have been neutered in order to reduce weight gain and to protect the urinary tract.  What!?!?! For years cats have been fed on food which did not distinguish between those which had had the snip and those which hadn’t.  Were they overweight with diseased bodies?  I think not.

I fully agree that we should all be free to spend our money on what we want.  It just saddens me that so many choose to spend it on animals when there is so much need among people.

For years products have been marketed on the basis of pseudo-science.  The first one I remember was an advert in 1960 for toothpaste with ‘hexachlorophene in the stripes’.  That was about the time our English teacher was opening our eyes to the lies and manipulation behind advertising and marketing.  One of the most valuable life-lessons we could have had.  More than ever relevant today when the pseudo science is common-place.

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