Monday, March 30, 2015

More on Words

A few times in the past I've commented on the words people use to sell us things or to sound more impressive.

Just a few weeks ago in Tell It Like It Is, I mentioned a few business terms, like associates and team members instead of employees.  They say guests instead of customers.  Actions often don't live out the promise of the new terminology.

Back in January 2014 in Words, Words, Words, I explained the distinction between:  eager and anxious, less and fewer.  I complained about the loose usage of literally and how awesome has become the adjective for everyone who doesn't want to spend any time or effort to describe an experience accurately. The message was that thoughtful people choose the right word.

Likewise, way back in October 2011 in Words People Use, I warned about the use of words to make us think in a particular way, sort of propaganda-lite, used in advertising.  One example was how the word "home" has replaced the word "house" allowing realtors to sell something warm and inviting instead of just a structure to store your furniture and spend the evening in.  It has caught on to the point where even abandoned buildings (of the right size and location) are referred to as homes.

By now it should be clear that I think words are important to communications and that I am sensitive to the words chosen by politicians, the media and advertisers.  Imagine my surprise when I heard on a newscast the comment of the local sheriff when he learned about a new state law requiring more criminals to be housed in county facilities rather than in state prisons: "We don't have enough staff to increase the number of clients at the jail."  Clients?!  At least they're not calling them guests - yet.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Is It Just Me?

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me or is the whole world crazy?  Somewhere I’ve come up with the strange idea that bedtime for children was about going to bed and going to sleep.  Sure there will be fussing, but that’s what parents are for – to make sure they get to bed on time and get up on time so they develop the right habits and don’t end up part of the “teen sleep deprivation epidemic” or run into serious problems later in life.  According to the CDC, “Sleep is increasingly recognized as important to public health, with sleep insufficiency linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors.”  (See the chart for possible problems that may result from insufficient sleep.)

As these teen and adult situations have gained attention – bringing us yet another set of societal crises – any number of sources have come forward to emphasize the importance of getting a good night’s sleep.  Tips on how to do it include sticking to a regular sleep schedule, getting enough exercise during the day, having a comfortable mattress, having a relaxing routine before bed time and powering down – that is, turning off the television and other devices.  To reinforce this last point the National Sleep Foundation reminds us:  “careful studies have shown that even our small electronic devices emit sufficient light to miscue the brain and promote wakefulness.  As adults we are subject to these influences and our children are particularly susceptible.”  They go on to say, “Children using electronic media as a sleep aid to relax at night have been shown to have later weekday bedtimes, experience fewer hours of sleep per week and report more daytime sleepiness.”

How does the business community respond to this situation?  Struggling with the kids at bedtime?  - There’s an app for that!  USA Today put it this way:  “Kids who put up a fight to go to bed might change their tune thanks to Wildlandia, an innovative line of bedding that doesn't only feature cartoon jungle wildlife on its sheets and bed cover – animals come to life when seen through the lens of a mobile device.”  So the kids go to bed and the sheets come alive with wild animals that need attention.  To play the full game parents must download the app plus buy either a $70 comforter set or a $40 throw blanket.  Also available are the optional animal pillows with a giraffe or elephant, for $25 each.  That’s cheap compared to the cost of a baby sitter; and if it keeps the kids out of sight and out of mind at bedtime, where’s the harm?

There seems to be a disconnect.  If I am out of touch expecting parents to take these facts into consideration and assume their responsibility as parents, then this company will be wildly successful in selling American parents another easy answer.  Let's hope the opposite is true, where parents will do the right thing for their children’s long term wellbeing leaving wild animal bedding to gather dust on the store shelves.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Perspective and Driving

Perspective is about gratitude, being satisfied with what you have and not constantly yearning for more.  This is consistent with the ancient wisdom of moderation.  People strong in perspective understand that some things are very important and some are trivial, and they are able to put their purchases and other decisions in a proper order.  Without this ability to rank the things in our lives we may use up our resources such as money, spending on low-value items before critical needs are met, or time, deciding to spend our lives in some pursuits while we forego more rewarding ones.  Does this understanding also apply to driving?

This thought occurred to me as I drove on a 4-lane, 55mph county road on the way to yoga class.  Coming toward a freshly turned green traffic light, I was in the right lane gaining on a large truck in the left lane that had slowed for traffic ahead and was now slowly accelerating.  The rate of acceleration and overall speed of the truck was apparently not satisfactory to the car coming up from behind.  As he neared the back of the truck he sped up and cut over in front of me and pulled ahead.  Naturally, having been driving for over 50 years, I anticipated this potentially dangerous move and slowed enough to allow room to let him in.  Had I not been paying attention and not done so, who knows what would have happened?

I wondered if it was so important that he get where he was going so quickly as to put us both in danger.  Was arriving immediately on time or perhaps not any later than he already was worth the grief and inconvenience that he and his family may have been subject to between the medical attention and car repair?  Even if he had no regard for me, this should have been a consideration.

Of course as we drive on a daily commute or run errands, it is obvious that many drivers don’t have this kind of perspective.  They take driving for granted.  They have forgotten how dangerous a moving vehicle can be.  They make no mental trade off between on one hand, tailgating, cutting in and out of traffic, speeding excessively or texting and other distractions, and on the other hand, the potential serious disruption to their normal routines and, more important, the possible impact on their lives and those they care for.  Their behavior shows a clear a lack of perspective.

As is usually the case, at the next traffic light I made a left hand turn on the arrow, while he who was in such a hurry waited for the light to turn green –no perspective and no real progress either.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cute Puppies and Kittens

Is this stuff getting a little out of hand?  Not too long ago I wrote about some folks who were upset that pet pharmaceuticals are not held to the same testing and safety standards as human drugs; and I pointed out that if those people got their wishes, they and all the other pet owners would be paying far more for drugs that take longer to get approval.  That’s just critical thinking and economic understanding.

Since then the pet lovers keep coming up with more ways to surprise me.  As I walked out of the grocery store I saw a poster advertising all natural pet food.  I saw this as another way to use trigger words to lure shoppers into spending more than necessary for a false sense of making a big difference.  I went on line to research it and found more examples: all natural treats, shampoo, odor remover and toys for pets.  It seems the marketing game has gone far beyond food and supplies for humans.

Sticking with the food category, though, I found an ad suggesting: “Feed your furry family member” a dry dog food formula featuring “tasty, healthy ingredients in fun shapes and sizes to interest and delight your dog.”  It contains “complete and balanced nutrition” with “wholesome grains and vitamin-rich vegetables” to support “your dog’s health and lifestyle in a variety of ways.”  Apparently dogs have “lifestyles” that needs to be supported, and they need to be amused while eating.  See how they appeal to our nurturing instincts in order to charge us more for fancier sounding products by rebranding pets as furry family members.

Unfortunately this is the same brand of pet food that is being sued for allegedly poisoning thousands of dogs.  In addition to those healthy grains and vitamins, litigators claim that it also contains “an ingredient toxic to animals, propylene glycol,” which is blamed for the deaths of many dogs and sickness of others.

But this is only the beginning.  I easily found an item on pet plastic surgery.  One procedure described is called Neuticles:  “silicone implants are slipped in during the time of neutering and replace the testicles that the veterinarians are removing.”  The dog looks like he’s still ready for action, and the company claims “more than 500,000 pets have had them implanted since they were put on the market in 1995.”  (Is this another product to support the dog’s lifestyle or just a way to keep the pooch from getting low self-esteem?)  Other examples of plastic surgery include nose jobs and facelifts, but these are mostly for health rather than cosmetic purposes and are often the result of people not doing proper research before adopting a particular breed.  But even the writer seems to be surprised that pet owners would “shell out the $4,000 to $5,000 needed for these surgeries” not for champion show dogs but for average household pets.

Cats and dogs can also develop dental problems.  Eighty-five percent of dogs have serious periodontal disease that needs treatment.  Some need braces to correct biting problems.  And 72 percent of cats get cavities known as tooth resorptions.  This too can get expensive.  Again it is done for health, not cosmetic reasons; and animals have high pain threshold meaning that by the time the owner becomes aware of the problem more drastic measures may be called for.

People are drawn to the pictures of cute puppies and kittens on the Internet.  Replaying these pictures and videos on the morning “news” programs is bound to elicit an “aw” from the entire panel of presenters.  It seems like few people really recognize how much care these pets require and how easily they can be lured into spending even more by clever advertising reinforcing the part-of-the-family notion.  How many times does “cute” trump common sense decisions?

I don’t have pets myself – although I do have a couple of “grandcats” – but I can understand the love people have for their pets.  They are good companions and sometimes treat you better than your human friends and family members, but from a perspective point of view, this seems a little bit over the top.  Fifty or sixty years ago pet owners were just as fond of their dogs and cats, but seemed to be a little more down to earth about how much they would be willing to spend on food, treats, toys, Christmas presents and medical attention.  

Under normal circumstances, having a pet is a luxury.  By making them members of the family we have volunteered for even more expense and maintenance without fully realizing it.  It always brings me back to the reality that millions of people have pets, but fewer have emergency savings or enough saved for their retirement.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Road to Hell...

Has anyone else noticed that the 21st Century has apparently brought a new order for making life decisions?  It used to be: 1) get a job, 2) get married, 3) start a family.  Many recent articles, often appearing as front-page news, show us a new order has emerged:  1) start a family (marriage optional), 2) get a job, 3) realize the income is not sufficient to raise a family, 4) get a second job or get help from the government or both, 5) complain about it.  This is not the prescription for a happy life, but no one seems to care enough about the situation or the people involved to look for a change.

Stories of people struggling to make ends meet are popular in the press and filled with anecdotes.  The news provides a forum for those complaints and endorses the common idea that society is failing these people.  The press is eager to report the situation, but refuses to investigate or especially challenge the decisions that led up to that bad situation.  (These are prime examples that behavior has consequences.)

This story about local teachers having to work a second job is typical.  “In his first year of teaching, [the teacher] made $34,000 annually. But with three children and a wife in school full time, he took a job waiting tables.”  Another teacher with one child and a wife is in nursing school full time, “found he needed to work a few nights each week to make some extra money.”  The same people who get themselves into theses financial situations are teaching our children!

The SNAP (food stamp) challenge is another common stunt for politicians and reporters to raise awareness.  I call it a stunt because it is usually done individually and only for a week, which precludes the purchase of anything in bulk (even a gallon of milk or a full box of breakfast cereal).  Furthermore, it is done with a preordained outcome in the interest of “educating the public.”  One recent example to supplement the reporter's experience tells the story of a single mother with “four children to feed — all of whom soon will be teenagers. She gets $184 in SNAP benefits each month for herself and close to $1,000 for her children. (Do they also get free school lunches?) Still she struggles.”  No mention is made of the father and why he is not responsible enough to contribute to feeding his children.  There is no interest in what decisions led to these circumstances and how others could avoid them.  That could be very useful educationally, raising the awareness of others about how to avoid this difficulty.

The concept of behavior having consequences is undermined daily when we, as a society, favor bailing out our fellow citizens while failing to question the decisions that set up the situation in the first place.  This leads to no learning, either by the decision makers or by those about to follow in their footsteps.  We are so compassionate and so concerned with people’s self-esteem that we support laws and programs to minimize consequences, and we are afraid to confront or criticize self-destructive behavior for fear of being labeled insensitive, prejudiced or as bullies.  Instead of telling them not to touch the hot stove, we anesthetize them and buy them gloves so they can continue making unwise decisions with no opportunity to learn.

We hear about fast food workers struggling to raise a family.  We hear of single mothers with multiple children, sometimes from multiple fathers; fathers who manage to disappear without meeting their financial obligations, and who likely can’t be forced to meet those financial obligations, because they don’t have the resources to do so.  The children suffer and society is at a loss about what to do, so the government becomes the surrogate father through programs and legislation.  We will readily prosecute parents who leave a child in a hot car, but give benefits and sympathy to parents who continue to have children without the ability to feed the ones they already have!

Everyone is afraid to point out that their problems are a direct result of their own irresponsible behavior.  That is seen as uncaring and unfeeling, but if we really cared about these people and our country, we would work seriously to change these dynamics instead of finding ways to indirectly condone them.

Behavior has consequences for a reason.  It’s not because the world is basically cruel or unfeeling.  It is how anyone learns from experience.  To endorse (by our silence) and reward (with benefits) this behavior is only to ask for more of it.

Friday, March 13, 2015

RTFP - Read the Fine Print

This is just another reminder of how advertisers try to put one over on us, another reminder to read the fine print and footnotes.

This example comes from one of those popular ads that appear in newspapers and magazines and inserts.  They look like news stories with the same print style and pictures, but in the corner in smaller print is the note “paid advertisement.”  They then go on to tell how a remarkable pill or other health device leads to amazing relief.  The example I found is very instructive.

The headline announces that more than “100M” have been sold – presumably they mean 100 million, but since it’s an ad, I’m not sure if they mean million or thousand or if it is even true.  The smaller headline says “Natural product promotes health*”.  Two things are interesting here.  First, they use what I refer to as a trigger word, “Natural,” to appeal to instincts rather than logic.  Some people see that word or others like it and automatically feel favorably toward whatever is being described.  Second, the * is there to refer to the fine print at the bottom.

The ad continues with many short paragraphs and bold headings.  It is filled with endorsements from presumably satisfied customers.  Four of the headings and four of the endorsements are also decorated with a * referring us again to the bottom of the page.  Critical thinkers know from my previous postings that endorsements are not evidence whether they be from unknown satisfied customers as is the case here, from social media connections, from athletes or other celebrities, from television doctors or even from experts in the field.  They can praise all they want, but it proves nothing.

So what does * say?  “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.  This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  Results are atypical.  Results will vary.  Always consult your healthcare provider before taking any supplement.”  So if the product does not diagnose, treat, cure or prevent, what exactly does it do?  It probably makes you feel confident about taking it even though you have spent your money on something that implies throughout the entire half page that it will result in some physical improvements, but says in the footnote that’s not what it’s intended to do.  We also find out that the glowing endorsements are not typical of the product’s results, results that will vary, likely based on the strength of the placebo (sugar pill) effect.

The most thorough and glowing endorsement comes from a guy whose name is followed by **, another footnote.  More information below shows that the person who speaks so highly of the product “is reimbursed for his service.”  That’s good work if you can get it.

Of course this is not just a sugar pill.  A couple of the short paragraphs in the middle point out how it contains many nutrients and 26 kinds of Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins and many other ingredients with scientific-sounding names.  (Isn’t it strange how some people see weird-looking chemical names on a package and reject the product out of hand, whereas in a presentation like this one the weird-looking chemical names are positively promoted as secret ingredients.)

This example is not an isolated one.  There is likely at least one in every other magazine or newspaper in circulation.  Maybe they have sold over 100 million of this particular pill, a pill that by their own admission is not intended to do anything, but may perhaps make you feel as good as the people endorsing it provided your results are, like theirs, atypical.  Isn’t this just one more, strong example of the daily challenges to our critical thinking?