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26 February 2007
Advertising: The Greatest Placebo Of All
by Serena Mackesy

I've gone on about lactobacillus drinks and the dubious claims made for their efficacy before, but they're really asking for it. One of the leading brands has a global advertising campaign that drives me to TV screen-smashing distraction. You know the ad. "You, too, can beat that bloated feeling!" Followed by a bunch of "real" women prattling to a perky, plinky soundtrack about their overtight jeans and their favorite fruity yoghurt-based drink.

The dialogue will be a bit different depending on what country you're in of course, but it's roughly along the lines of "My stomach's like a football," "I feel really sluggish," "Just one day, that's all it takes!" and "Mmm, it tastes just like dessert!" It's a classic of advertising sleight-of-hand. Seriously, next time it comes on, grab the remote and record it. Play it back a couple of times. You'll find that: a) though you're supposed to infer that they are, there is never any claim that any of the statements are related either to each other or to the product in question and b) though some of the women in question definitely say they feel better, not one of them says it's because she's been drinking the drink. Why? Because evidence indicates that few, if any, of the live bacteria in the bottle will survive the acidic environment of your stomach and make it down to where they might do some good.

We're all pretty literate in the world of advertising these days, but the sad thing is that this doesn't actually make us any less gullible. The fact that we largely treat ads as either background noise or entertainment in their own right makes us more vulnerable to allowing messages to seep through. Clever, isn't it? And the other problem seems to be that we are far more likely to believe that Advertising Standards rules are somehow more stringent, or more stringently applied, when it comes to pharmaceuticals and things we put in our bodies than they are to, say, light bulbs. Not so. The consumer and advertising rules are pretty clear: you're not allowed to sell things that are poisonous or dangerous without a lot of rules and warnings (Drain cleaner: do not drink!) attached, and you're not allowed to tell lies about what your product does. But the difference between not telling lies and telling the unadulterated truth is a yawning chasm into which pretty much all advertising falls.

I'm not saying that everything on the market is inherently bad. There are thousands of things you can buy which will enhance your wellbeing, kill your pain, smooth your wrinkles. It's just that, for every heavily-advertised, expensive version, there is probably a generic version, or just a cheaper one, that's just as effective, and any enhancement in performance is entirely down to the placebo effect inherent in the ads. So, next time you find yourself convinced by an ad, look out for some of the sucker-phrases in the following list and think about comparing the label with that of the plain-boxed product right next to it.

Sucker Phrases Used In Health Advertising

  • Best...
    Amazingly enough, "best", in legal terms, is not a comparative claim. All it means is that, in a market of identical "best" products, it is no worse than any of the other "best" ones. "Better" is, legally, a comparative, and claims that there is a comparison to be drawn. So, a manufacturer that claims its product is "better" will damn well have to have the scientific evidence to back it up.

  • Twice as powerful...
    Doesn't necessarily mean it's twice as good for you. The product may well contain twice as much of an active ingredient as an unnamed brand, but if you pee out what your body doesn't use, then it's not actually going to do you any more good, is it? Especially as it'll probably be three times the price. Remember, too, that active ingredients aren't necessarily the most expensive constituent of any given product.

  • Vague claims such as "33% more" or simply "more"...
    Unless they're actually naming another product, this means nothing. Could be 33% more than Haribo Tangfastics, for all you know. "Another leading brand" is another comparative not to be trusted. Could be any old leading brand you care to name.

  • Helps control (e.g.) dandruff with regular use...
    Two things here. "Helps" is actually pretty vague: even the most marginal improvement, lessening of inflammation, easier combing-out of scurf when the hair's wet is a help; it doesn't actually mean it'll stop your dandruff. And when it says "with regular use" you'd damn well better make sure you can prove you used it regularly, as specified, every time, before you start complaining.

  • Fights...
    As in fights bad breath, fights the signs of ageing, fights digestive discomfort. Yeah, and I "fight the government" by sitting about bitching in bars. Note, too, that it only "fights" things: it doesn't say it "wins".

  • "Can be", "up to" and "or more"...
    Keep an eye out for these words. "Up to five times stronger" can mean "up to five times stronger than lying down with a cold flannel on your forehead". "Lasts up to eight hours": that's anything from 3 seconds to eight hours covered, then. "Or more" is slightly trickier, and slightly more honest, as at least you've got to set the standard at the lower end to make the claim.

  • Even better...
    Another vague claim, rarely actually finished with a named comparative. Even better than what? Than everyone else's product? Than it was before? Even better than doing nothing?

  • Fortified, enriched, strengthened...
    Sounds comforting, but what do they actually mean?

  • It won't let you down...
    Nor will a dog, in normal circumstances.

  • Contains...
    Methanol, kryptonite, Uncle Marvin's Magic Dust. It doesn't really matter what it contains; unless it contains it in therapeutic quantities, it's not going to actually do you any good.

  • Like no other/ there's nothing else like it...
    Again, this isn't actually saying it's better, just that it has a unique ingredient. Which for all you know could be the colorant. Or 0.005% a gallon more or less than anyone else uses.

  • Trusted everywhere/millions trust it...
    This doesn't necessarily mean they're right. There was an ad a while ago that said "Millions of Chinese can't be wrong." Too right they can. They trusted Mao, for heaven's sake.

  • We asked these real women...
    Actresses are real women, too.

  • Kills all known germs...
    That's as may be. But does it kill all of all known germs?

  • Low fat...
    High sugar.

  • Energy...
    Sugar, calories.

  • You know when something's right...
    Flatters you into thinking that you'll know that their product is.

  • Blinding you with science...
    "Lactobacillus"; "H2O"; "glucose"; "fructose"; "Omega3". Mmm, and it does what, exactly?

  • Feel better or your money back...
    A neat one, this. The vast majority of the minor complaints you would trust to your corner shop rather than your doctor will, in fact, clear up by themselves in the course of time anyway. And if you want to make a claim, you'd better have medical evidence of how you felt before you started.

  • Natural...
    Yes. So is arsenic. And if it's being produced in the sort of quantities that merit television advertising, it's probably still made in a factory.

Related articles:
Bacterial Bloat
Unhealthy Ads Target Black and Hispanic Women
Breast Feeding: Does Mother Nature Know Best?

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