Nov. 22, 2012, 10:31 p.m.
You cannot really lie in an advertisement. The FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection guards against using fraudulent techniques in advertising. I'm not sure whether it ever protected me. Seeing how ads work nowadays, I'm pretty sure the advertisers are always a step ahead of the bureau. You cannot lie but you can exaggerate about the desirable characteristics of your product and be silent about those less welcome. Selling is the art of manipulating the truth in a way that makes the product appear to satisfy the customers' requirements. Manipulation is the keyword here.
A legalised lie
This is all obvious these days. You can spend days just giving examples... Washing powders that make clothes whiter than they originally were. Whiter teeth in just seven days with the new whitening toothpaste. Anti-ageing creams that boost skin's radiance. Shampoo that leaves up to 100% flake-free hair or repairs split ends. The $199/month SUV. Buy one, get one free.
Listening to all this always makes me appreciate the advertisers' skill to mislead without downright lying. If an average Joe catches the bait, it's all on him. Game over. Can't you see the fine print? Get a magnifying glass and hurry, otherwise it's all your fault.
Helping the average Joe
There is an idea I've had for quite some time now. I would create a website. Something like 9gag, cheezburger or the Oatmeal. There would be a list of content for people to scroll through. But there wouldn't be any funny cats nor pretentious sayings. Each entry would rather openly, outrightly and unhesitantly expose the fraud behind a TV, radio or printed ad.
I would call it frads.com.
No advert could feel safe from then on. For every dishwashing liquid there would be someone testing it against real grease or baked-on food. Some of the entries would even start their own series like "Grand Print" where the fine print would be photoshopped to natural size so the advert starts to inform rather than disinform. Just imagine a poster saying: 35% lemon juice high fructose corn syrup drink! (and the fine print: called 100% lemon juice drink by the vendor). Doesn't that scream "Healthy!" to you? Other examples would include unlimited data plans which are in fact limited, strawberry sweets with no strawberries in them, free trials (plus shipping and handling), etc.
If it got real, I could even start an online video channel with recurring shows like "Adbusters" (inspired by "Mythbusters") which would touch mind-boggling biochemical issues like the difference between the l. casei immunitas and l. casei prophylactis bacteria or the chemical content of the Norwegian formula or other revitol. The authors would measure the amount of active ingredients in homeopatic sweets or present the effects of taking push-up tablets. But there's more than biochemistry! Tests of intelligent winter tyres or neverending toilet paper rolls would be a treat for the casual physics fan.
People bored by Discovery-like documentaries would on the other hand choose the "For me, there's nothing better" series where fearless truthseekers would check whether Brad Pitt really prefers No 5, George Clooney drives a Fiat Idea and Liv Tyler plays on a Nintendo DS.
Why would it work?
I'm sure that the website would get popular real quick. It would work because people like scandals. We are here and they are there. We expose how they cheat plain people! Using simple language we destroy commercials that costed advertisers lots of money! I feel this would get massive amounts of traffic.
It would work also because frustrated customers after buying a product that is clearly subpar would have a tube to warn others or simply complain about it.
Lastly, I think it would work because lately it's trendy to speak badly of advertising. It's hip to say "I don't own a TV", "I don't believe the advertising", "I use adblock" or complain about "another movie star selling out in TV commercials". All in all, I think people would like to be up-to-date on how advertisers try to trick them into buying stuff they don't need.
Why it wouldn't work
Well, it all looks fine and dandy but a regular Joe feels uneasy about the idea. Isn't telling the truth about a specific commercial risky? Especially if the name and the logo of the product is clearly presented? Youth spent in court followed by prison or working to pay off a financial penalty imposed for public image losses? No, thank you. Maybe you'd find heroes willing to sacrifice themselves in the name of a greater good. Yet, to pass up seems to be the reasonable thing to do. And that's because we come to a sad conclusion.
Joe risks even when he rightfully points out an inaccuracy. A corporation on the other hand may use any form of manipulation as long as there is enough money to defend it. Who can stop the rich?