Saturday, 19 April 2008

Marketing... "Not really... the power of suggestion!"

Excuse me while I blither a little... Having failed to get a good night's sleep yet again, I find myself sat in front of my keyboard and bored waiting for the missus to wake up. Hmm... let's see, Brain not quite engaged? Check. Bored, but with nothing much to say? Check. Internet? Check. OK, must be blog time.

I had a rather nice bagel for breakfast. It was a healthy bagel too, with "less calories than 2 slices of bread*". I have a couple of gripes with that claim, actually.

Let's start with the word "less". Why do people use "less" and "fewer" as though they are the same? It really, really grates on me when the wrong one crops up in a sentence (or, more likely, an advert). Is it really that hard to grok that "less" is appropriate for continuous values whereas "fewer" is appropriate for discrete values? Nobody would say "There was fewer water in the bathtub due to the leak.", so why do they not feel the same dissonance over something like "I had less ten pound notes than I expected." ? Is it because people are thinking of the money instead of the notes? But then again, "calories" is a continuous value... is the problem here actually that common usage typically refers to whole numbers of kcals, thus rendering calories discrete? Is it that we're referring to "calories" the unit (which is basically the same thing).


I don't really care - "fewer calories", "less bagel". Hmm... Actually, there's a much better example: "less bagel for the money" vs. "fewer bagels for the money".

Where was I? Oh yes, bagels. With "fewer calories than 2 slices of bread*". Hmm, let's check that * out, shall we... Ah, here we go: two 60g slices of thick white bread. So that's 120g of bottom-end-of-the-scale bread. OK, I can believe that - especially since the bagel itself only weighs 95g. I guess that marketing didn't think that "Less food than two slices of bread*", or "More calories by weight than 2 slices of bread*" would get the package off the shelf and into your basket. And why stop there? "Fewer calories than a bucket of lard*!"

Actually, the claim has more to do with the subjective nature of the whole food/calorie thing. The point, apparently, is that a single bagel is as satisfying, if not more so, than two slices of bread* due to the more chewy texture... and all with fewer calories.

That's one of the things I hate about advertising, actually - it's manipulative. It doesn't matter how much we require advertising to be truthful, as long as it can be technically honest in a suggestive way, we're just as lied to as we were before. At least when adverts could get away with lying we knew not to trust them... nowadays people seem to think that "they couldn't say it if it wasn't true!" which sort of misses the whole gap between what the advertisers are saying and what their audience is hearing.

Of course, if one is aware of the difference then the ads can sometimes make for interesting viewing. Take a recent-ish ad I saw for (hair) conditioner, for example. This is a product that is very relevant to me, what with the long flowing locks and all. Now then, do you sometimes worry that your conditioner is actually stopping your anti-dandruff shampoo from working? No, of course you don't, and neither do I. But that's the question the ad poses as it opens, and by asking the question it tells me all I need to know...

First of all, if there was any evidence that conditioner could impair the performance of anti-dandruff shampoo, wouldn't they be leading with that? Or at least mentioning it? I rather think that they would. I mean, let's not forget that the "hair care" industry loves to present evidence of its claims, for example that shampoo/conditioner that can reduce breakage by up to -100% (they actually said that at one point - "up to -100% less breakage"... so that's, what, twice as much?! These days they seem to have caught on to the double negative). Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, that incredible anti-breakage shampoo/conditioner (which I do actually use and like, FWIW). That claim? Based on something like seven hair samples washed, etc. in a laboratory environment. Junk science, in other words, but necessary for the claim to be "meaningful".

OK, but what about my anti-dandruff shampoo? I mean, how am I going to get women to stroke my hair if my damn conditioner is conspiring against it? Argh! If only there was a conditioner that didn't do that... like, say, oooooh, most (all?) of them. And thanks to Head & Shoulders' advertising I now know that I don't need to bother with their conditioner, which I might otherwise have given a whirl.

Hmm, come to think of it, the first shampoo/conditioner I really liked (now long since defunct), back when my hair was first getting long, was "Finesse". A brand that claimed that their shampoo was "activated by dirt", like, oh I dunno, let's say: any detergent. Also, the conditioner worked more the longer you left it on. No, really. That's what the ads were pushing.

Anyway, in other news, wifey is now awake and enjoying fewer calories than two slices of bread*, so I guess it's time to make the internet-to-real-life transition...

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