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?