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?

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