Truth in Advertising

I’m a big fan of OTC medication, mainly because the idea of going to a doctor for a headache or cold irritates me. OTCs are on my mind due to a minor illness that’s kept me preoccupied for the last 24 hours. I have less patience for the prescription drug regulations, but that’s a post for another day.

Today, I’m actually more curious about the OTCs or, more accurately, supplements that don’t necessarily line store shelves and market themselves through mini infomercials. You know the ones I’m talking about—weight loss and male “enhancement” are two categories that frequently fall in this category. They’re the modern-day descendants of patent medicines originally sold by traveling salesmen making claims about the healing power of their concoctions. I was interested to discover that “the rise of advertising in America, not coincidentally, paralleled the rise of nostrums.” (link)

The narrator in Jerome K. Jerome’s famous book, Three Men in a Boat, pointed out that,

“It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form.”

Granted, the main characters in this story are a group of hypochondriacs, but doesn’t the point hold true? We’re more susceptible to believing something when we want to believe, regardless of the reality. So, here we are in the 21st century, with more information at our fingertips than ever, and we’re still willing to be seduced by the notion that something “cures.”

You won’t see many claims for formulas curing cancer or other major diseases. The FDA closely regulates/monitors such claims. However, others slip under the radar. Key words to “soften” the claims on these products include: helping, looks, appears, and reduces to name a few. By including these words, marketers can say they aren’t making a hard claim, requiring proof; they’re merely suggesting potential results. To further protect themselves, marketers also include the familiar, “Individual results may vary.”

From my viewpoint, the most seductive aspect of marketing these products is the unsaid portion. Usually, this part comes in the form of images. Before and after pictures are particularly useful when marketing weight loss products. We tend to skip over the other details like “sensible diet and exercise” and jump to the end result, believing, “I can look like that, too.” If marketers actual told the truth*, I wonder how many would chase after these quick fixes? I appreciate that advertisers do not always stand to gain by telling the truth*. However, if it became the standard instead of the exception, wouldn’t we be exposed to more quality products and experiences?

*Likely reality versus hoped-for reality.



3 Responses to “Truth in Advertising”

  1. October 8, 2007 at 11:21 pm

    This interests and relates to me on so many levels. My family has a history with Watkins Products, which is known as the “original” traveling salesman company, getting its start in 1868. My current employment is with a company that manufactures nutritional supplements and cosmetic ingredients from Chinese herbs. Like you, I’m suspicious of some of these “made for TV” products.

    I’m a research chemist with a company that manufactures dietary supplements based on tonic herbs from China. Tonic herbs are not “sexy”, from a marketing perspective. I can tell you that our little business is not nearly as lucrative as it could be if we sold, say, diet pills.

    Instead, our focus is on providing nutrients and compounds that are typically lacking in a fast-food, frozen dinner, overstressed, double espresso, hyper-caffeinated lifestyle.

    We do laboratory testing to verify that certain of our ingredients possess properties such as antioxidant, polyphenolics, etc. These are common lab tests and are broadly accepted in the scientific community. But conveying the importance and relevance of these results to non-technical people is a challenge.

    Communicating benefits is fairly difficult for us because our product doesn’t typically provide an “overnight effect”, meaning that it takes several weeks to several months of use before a noticeable difference presents itself. As a result, our marketing is mainly by word of mouth among our user base, and is particularly strong among people wise to the ways of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

    It’s strange, but there are basically two opposite forces (the “evil” hucksters selling often fraudulent and sometimes dangerous products, and the “good” guys selling the genuine article which at best is beneficial and at worst is harmless).

    Sorry, a bit verbose, but your topic is one close to my heart and mind!

  2. 2 Britt
    October 10, 2007 at 9:52 pm

    One of the things underlying your comment is the question of patience. People want quick fixes, and, going back to my post, they want to believe the “overnight” results can happen for them. Otherwise, they might have to make some long-term changes.

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