What advertisers are really try to tell you…

Science and Technology
PHOTO/kristin ladstrom

You may not have thought about Christmas yet – but advertisers certainly have. Over the next few weeks you will be bombarded with adverts claiming that products are cheaper, better, prettier and faster. But can you trust these claims? Part of the answer to this question relies on whether you can trust your brain to interpret and recall the precise claims made.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is a body that monitors the content promoted to consumers and holds the power to ban adverts which make false claims – a job which is made much more difficult by the advertiser’s subtle use of language to imply claims which are never explicitly given.

For example, consider the TV script for a Sanex bath gel advert broadcasted this year: [let’s put this in a big quote box: “We put so many different chemical ingredients onto our skin. New Sanex Zero% contains just the ingredients you need for clean, healthy skin. Sanex Zero%. Keep skin healthy.”] The ASA banned this ad in March on the basis that it falsely implied the bath gel contained only natural ingredients, which Sanex denied.

Perhaps the ASA acted a little harshly. Surely, we’re smart enough to deduce that firstly, the advert made no association between the bath gel’s name and chemicals, and secondly, at no point were the words ‘natural’ or ‘man-made’ mentioned. The problem is that when you’re slumped on the sofa watching the adverts half-way through X factor, your logical brain isn’t in operation. In fact, according to Richard Harris (Professor of Psychology at Kansas State University), our brains are rarely logical enough to distinguish between the facts presented in TV adverts and the inferences we draw from them.

In his research, participants were told to carefully rate a list of claims as being true, false or unknown on the basis of radio advert scripts worded to imply claims not explicitly stated, as in the Sanex bath gel advert referred to above. Despite the fact that participants were able to refer back to the radio scripts as many times as they wished whilst judging the claims, a shocking average of 8.17 implied (but never explicitly stated) claims were rated as true out of a possible 10. In other words, this means that around eight times out of ten, we cannot definitively distinguish between fact and inference.

So, armed with this knowledge, advertisers can plant claims into our minds which, if stated explicitly, would be false and so deemed illegal by the ASA. In the context of advertising medical tablets, below are four examples of language-based techniques used to mislead viewers according to researchers; in Italics is what advertisers prefer not to tell you: [might put these claims in a text box to catch people’s attention]

  1. These pills may relieve headaches – or they may not
  2. These pills are better at relieving headaches – better than what – than not taking anything?
  3. In a recent survey, 30 doctors recommended these pills – whereas the other 70 doctors in the sample of 100 recommended the rival brand instead
  4. Isn’t speed of relief the most important thing when buying pills? – we assume this means these pills are especially fast at relieving headaches but this isn’t necessarily true

The good news is that participants in Harris’ study showed a slightly improved ability to differentiate assertions from inferences after being explicitly warned to look out for them. So perhaps something positive has come from this article: you are now a little more resistant to the cunning tricks of advertisers – one of the few jobs in which the ability to unknowingly deceive is an asset.