Saturday, April 14, 2001

Results Not Typical

Ever since advertising began, claims have been made that aren't exactly 100% on the level. From snake oil salesmen to Charles Atlas to Fen-Phen, listeners have been told that by using a given product they can live longer, weigh less, grow hair, have better sex and get more gas. We've been told that it slices and it dices. That there's a money back guarantee. That it's new and improved. In the last election, we were even told that all the votes would count. Is it any wonder we're a bunch of cynics?

To combat this perceived lack of truth, laws have been written which basically say that if you can't back it up, you can't say it. Or if there are extenuating circumstances, they have to be disclosed. To most of us, this means that you can't swear to it if it isn't true. But if that were your response, it would merely point out that there is no future for you on Madison Avenue. For on that fabled thoroughfare, they've interpreted the statutes to mean that you can say anything you want, as long as you add a disclaimer.

Disclaimers are why God created 6-point type. Generically, they are the fine print that appears in the lower corner of the commercial, ad or billboard, and says it ain't necessarily so. Conceptually, they're not much different from their distant cousins, the warnings printed on the back of medicine containers. These FDA mandated legends offer cautions that say, "don't operate heavy equipment while taking" or "may cause diarrhea or vomiting" or "report promptly to your doctor any incidences of hives, male pattern baldness or an inability to turn off Barry Manilow recordings." But while those statements describe exceptional negative experiences to the rule, disclaimers do the opposite. They point out that the exceptional positive experiences described shouldn't be taken as gospel in the normal course of events.

For instance, take ads for weight loss products and programs such as Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig. Their commercials show lots of happy, thin people... happy presumably because the product helped them shed their excess flab. They generally focus on one individual, with a "before" picture showing him or her occupying two or more time zones, and the "after" picture displaying a body that would make Ally McBeal look obese. But what's that tiny line of type hovering at the edge of the screen? If you stillframe your VCR and get out a magnifying glass, you'll see the legend, "results not typical." In other words, even with a sample of tens of thousands of people giving it their all, statistics show that the odds of taking off substantial poundage is about the same as Jennifer Lopez becoming the spokesperson for Junior's Cheesecake.

And even if weight loss isn't the issue, other claims are. Slim Fast shows people having fun, losing weight and engaging in all kinds of vigorous physical activities. The implication is that the drink helps you shed bulk and lead an active lifestyle. But again, that ignominious line of type makes its appearance, in this case proclaiming, "energy from carbohydrates, not from drink." So you might fit into your new summer suit if you can stick stomach a mocharific shake three times a day, but the only way you'll have enough energy to go swimming is to down a plate of pasta. Kind of counterproductive, wouldn't you say?

And it's not just weight loss products that make boasts that are hard to back up. You routinely see automotive ads touting and demonstrating the exceptional handing ability of a vehicle, with the tiny legend, "Professional driver on closed course." Of course, they don't mention that the professional driver has an equally professional team of mechanics and engineers with him who have tuned the suspension to be on a par with a Formula 1 racer. Should you try the same demonstrated maneuvers in your off-the-floor Chevy Malibu, you better have you will up to date.

Likewise, claims about gas mileage with the note, "Results not typical, your mileage may vary" can bare little semblance to reality. That's because the numbers in the commercial weren't achieved with a tank of regular bought from the corner service station in stop-and-go rush hour traffic, but rather with a super high octane mix, a following wind and a guy pushing.

There're lots more where those came from. An ad for a condominium says, "Oral representations cannot be relied upon." In other words, the salesperson that answers the phone can't be trusted. Or an offer for a free month of health club visits points out that the offer is "subject to change without notice." Translation? We can start to charge you whenever we want. That cheap long distance rate whispers at the bottom of the page that "surcharges may apply." The meaning is clear: we're not as cheap as we look. And, of course, there's that all purpose favorite," Offer void where prohibited by law." In other words, we'll suck you in with something we know is illegal, but we'll tell you that little fact after we've had a chance to sell you something else.

My current favorite is an ad running for the Subway chain of sandwich shops. They focus on losing weight by eating their product. On the surface, there's nothing wrong with the concept; the sandwiches are fresh and tasty, and if you select the turkey and some veggies with a little vinegar dressing, it's far better than a Big Mac. But you can also lose weight at McDonald's if you stick with a McGrilled chicken sandwich, or at Joe's Pizza if you have a salad pie with no cheese. Of course, the disclaimer points all this out, in a "don't have the tuna salad with chips and cookies and expect to look like Jennifer Love-Hewitt" statement. But with that proviso, they feel comfortable promoting their sandwiches as an alternative to liposuction.

You can pick your favorite cliché. Caveat emptor. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. A fool and his money are soon parted. Regardless of the maxim, the bottom line still holds. There are suckers born every minute, and they're the ones that don't read to the bottom of the page.


Marc Wollin of Bedford notes that this column is not guaranteed to be funny. With that qualifier, it appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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