Thursday, September 15, 2011

More "Truth" in Advertising

Among the many writing assignments my students do every summer, a pair of my favorites involve advertising.

In the first, we create the "Ultimatoy," the world's greatest toy and come up with a list of all the things it can do -- anything from doing homework, making snacks and cleaning up the room to flying them anywhere in the world. Once we have all the fabulous features, I reveal that the price tag is almost $7 million. Their assignment is to create an advertisement which will prompt consumers to come down to the store to buy one and it doesn't take them long to figure out that they have to hide the price (or leave it out completely).

In the second, they come up with uses for the "Weebil," a fabulous toy that costs only 99c. Once they've come up with the list, they design the packaging; this time they play up the price and hide the fact that the "Weebil" is actually the lid to a cole slaw container.

The primary goal of these assignments is, of course, to tap their creativity, but my secondary one is to alert them to the concept that advertising is very often deceptive. Sometimes it's the way the information is presented, sometimes it's what is left out and sometimes there's just a misstatement to make the product sound better.


Among a number of recent radio ads that have had me saying, "Hey, wait a minute," is one for Verizon FiOS. The announcer tells us that users of the competing Optimum service should know that the top download speed advertised is rarely reached, except at 4:30 in the morning, and that Optimum's speeds vary widely during the day. FiOS, on the other hand, has been cited (in a J.D. Power & Associates study, I believe) as having the "most consistent download speed." At no time does the announcer claim that FiOS' download speed is faster than Optimum's, just that it is more consistent. It would seem likely that's because he can't make that claim and that Optimum at its slowest is stil faster than FiOS.

An ad for an auto dealer promises to beat any competitor's price by at least $500 or "the car is free!" Wow! What a great deal! I better run on down there and maybe I can get a free car! But stop and think about this one for a moment. Let's say you find a car at another dealer for $20,000. You go to the dealer making this incredible guarantee with this price. Is he going to sell you the same car for $19,500 or give it to you for free?

Finally, there's a commercial for a "friendly mortgage broker." He says that mortgage rates are so low right now that many people with thirty-year mortgages can refinance for fifteen-year mortgages and end up making the same monthly payment. This might well be the case if your current mortgage rate is particularly high. But where this advertiser loses me is when he claims that refinancing from a 30-year to a 15-year mortgage can save you "hundreds of thousands of dollars in principal and interest." Well, you can save a big chunk of interest for sure by doing this, but since the principal is the amount you have actually borrowed, that's not going to change no matter how many (or few) years you take to pay it back.  (By the way, current rates on a 30-year mortgage are about half what they were a decade ago; if you bought your home then and haven't looked into refinancing, you should.)

Anyone want to buy a Weebil?

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Survey Says...

For the past few years, I've been participating in online surveys for a couple of different organizations. One of them focuses more on business-related decisions and purchases, while the other is more consumer-centric. Some of the surveys are short and some are long; many are interesting but some are tediously boring; most of them relate to me, but a few are way off the mark. (Since I work for a construction company, I tend to get surveys asking about the purchase of tools I use in my job. I may have to hammer out a business letter when someone tries to screw us out of a payment, but it doesn't require actual hand tools.)

Why bother with them? They give rewards. I've gotten magazine subscriptions, Amazon gift certificates, and free DVD rentals (when Blockbuster was still thriving), among other things. Even so, there have been a few surveys that have had me shaking my head and wondering who is thinking up the questions.

I recently responded to a quite long one on the topic of "bathroom tissue." There were lots of questions about a wide variety of brands, most of which I have neither used or even heard of. One series of questions involved this variety of brands and asked which ones would make me want to seek out other users. Now, I'm sure that if I go to Google, I can find a chat group of "Fluffy-and-Puffy Cottony-Soft Bathroom Tissue" enthusiasts, but, really, would you want to know people who are willing to admit they are fans of some brand of toilet paper?

Another survey was about "beverages" and gave a long list of brands and varieties, asking which, if any, I had enjoyed in the past month. As it turned out, there were only coffee and a couple of brands of soda on the list that I'd had. For each variety, they presented a long list of reasons I might have for drinking that beverage. I wonder how many people responded that they drank a glass of Fresca because they wanted "to feel sexy." Or had a cup of coffee ("home-brewed, caffeinated, with milk and an artificial sweetener") so that they could feel "enlightened."

Virtually all of the surveys start out with general questions -- age, gender, location -- presumably so that they can filter out people in their sampling who do not fit the topic being covered. Every now and then, that screening seems to go haywire, as was the case recently when, after establishing that I was a 60-year-old male, I was asked a series of questions about birth control and pregnancy. It's a pretty safe bet that they were able to state from their collected data that no men in my age group are or are planning to become pregnant.

A few of the surveys end with questions about the survey itself. Was it enjoyable? Was it too long? Was it repititious? Unfortunately, the ones that I would really like to respond "This is the most idiotic collection of questions ever assembled" rarely allow for feedback. I suspect they already know.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Fact Is...

"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." -- Mark Twain
"Just the facts, ma'am..." -- Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, on Dragnet

Not so long ago, an article appeared in the newspaper about the trend in writing and grading essay papers, saying that there was more attention being paid to style and far less to the actual facts cited. For example, a student writing about the Civil War who wrote in complete sentences but with the history incorrect would score higher than one whose command of the facts was greater than his ability to compose an organized essay.

I suppose that, in the abstract, if the only goal of a writing class is to teach structure, grammar and usage, then the facts really don't matter at all. The student might as well be writing about the history of the Republic of Warewebee or the plant life in the Shuriscary Jungle. But if the purpose is also to teach them how to do research, gather and organize information, and present it in a logical way, you might expect a bit more emphasis on getting the facts correct.

Just yesterday, Laurie was grading a first round of papers from one of her classes, and more than one contained historical "facts" that weren't. One student stated that the United States had been the first nation in outer space. Not so; the Russians beat us with the first satellite (Sputnik on October 4, 1957) and the first man (Yuri Gargarin on April 12, 1961). We did, however, beat the Russians to the moon, with the first landing on July 20, 1969; in fact, they have never gotten there with a manned spacecraft.

Another student claimed that the U.S. was involved in the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975 and that involvement prevented us from having any money to help the people who were "trapped inside the Berlin Wall." I'm pretty sure Wikipedia gets the credit/blame for the first part of that, presuming that the student read only the first sentence of the Wiki article about the Vietnam War, ignoring the rest of it that included the information about our first combat troops being deployed in 1965. As far as the Berlin Wall, most people would probably agree that it was the East Germans who were outside the Wall who were trapped. [As a side note, I highly recommend Berlin 1961 by Frederick Kempe as a very readable history of the power plays and politics surrounding the erection of the Wall.]

Those of you of the Baby Boomer Generation probably read the above paragraphs and thought, "I knew that!" Unfortunately, history and geography are among the subjects that are apparently no longer important in school.  Each summer, I am startled by how "geographically challenged" and "historically deprived" my CTY students -- kids who have completed fifth or sixth grade and are ranked as the top 1% of their age group -- are. Rounds of "Think Fast" in which they are asked to name states west of the Mississippi River, countries in Europe, or rivers result in off-the-wall responses ("Paris?") or blank stares. One student insisted that Benjamin Franklin had been a President of the United States; when I suggested that perhaps he was confusing him with FDR, he replied, "That's him! Benjamin Franklin Roosevelt!"

Unfortunately, thanks to the internet, more and more of this misinformation gets posted somewhere, then gets picked up and repeated until it is quoted as fact, no matter how incorrect it actually is. So, as my part in an effort to prevent this, I'll leave you with the following facts:
* Paris is not a state. There is a city named Paris in Texas; Texas is a state, and one that is west of the Mississippi.
* Paris is also not a country. It is a city in France, which is a country located in Europe.
* There is no Paris River in Paris, France (nor in Paris, Texas, for that matter). The name of the river in France is the Seine.
* Benjamin Franklin was never the President of the United States.
* Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 32nd President of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. He is the only President ever elected to the office four times.
* Franklin Pierce was the 14th President of the United States, in office from 1853 to 1857.
* Benjamin Franklin Pierce is the full name of the character "Hawkeye" in M*A*S*H. (Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye in the TV series, later played a presidential candidate in The West Wing.)