Deep, Dark Secrets From Advertising Land

In one of my life’s previous incarnations, I worked for many long years in the field of advertising or, as news people like to refer to it, “the dark side.”

Unlike news, which is supposed to be factual, balanced and neutral, advertising is often pretty much the exact opposite. In general, marketing is frequently built on a foundation of hyperbole, half-truths, exaggeration, dubious claims and a host of other not particularly savoury building blocks.

Need proof? Do what I do every month and check out the ‘Selling It’ section of Consumer Reports. You’ll find a showcase of the most devious and deceptive advertisements submitted by readers. Nothing brings a smile to my face like the blatantly absurd marketing methods used by some businesses.

Of course, the smile fades when you realize those same ads are also directed at you, me and hundreds of millions of other North American consumers and that, no doubt, some of us have already been wooed by their outrageous ploys.

After originally being trained as a journalist, I crossed over to the dark side almost three decades ago and discovered, instantly, the fine line that exists being truth and whatever the heck you call some forms of advertising.

Early in my career, I remember talking to a client who sold major appliances. He showed me two refrigerators, a bland white one and another one that was some kind of off-white colour. The price tags on both were the same, but the off-white model had a large sign indicating it was $100 off. Wow!

The retailer asked me which one I’d buy and, being the rookie advertising clown that I was, I pointed to the model that was “on sale.” He laughed at my ignorance, saying they were the same model, but that no one would buy the off-white version, so he had slapped the $100 enticement on it and, voila, naïve consumers were jumping at the chance to pick up the “sale” model. Ka-ching.

Oh, the lessons I learned over the next several decades. Although the idea of “bait and switch” was outlawed years ago in Canada, it still exists to this day. The idea is to advertise a low-priced model of – let’s say – electric cat polishers. Kitty lovers will swamp your store looking for the bargain polisher, only to be told that the retailer is sold out, but that he’ll give you a sweet deal on the “super deluxe” cat polisher. You know, the one that has the bonus bottle of fur enhancer or three extra speeds (fluffy, super fluffy and ultra meow). Ka-ching.

When the government tried to clamp down on the practice by saying you had to have at least one working model of something in stock in order to advertise it, one of my clients actually put locks and chains on their “working models” and, when customers asked for one, they’d claim it would take them at least an hour to find the key to unlock it.

In the meantime, Sammy Sleazeball, their top salesman, would spend the intervening time trying to upsell the customer on the features of the top-of-the-line – let’s say – cordless sandwich assembler. Ka-ching.

And it’s not just local retailers who try pulling the industrial-sized ball of wool over your eyes. It’s the national manufacturers, as well. Recently, I was in a grocery store looking at the tempting selection of bacon (mmmmmm, bacon).

At the same time, another intrepid shopper was loading his cart with $4.00 packages of smoked pork fat (aka bacon), which were “on sale.” Awesome. And not a bad price, right?

So wrong. In case you haven’t noticed, two of the major manufacturers of sizzling breakfast meat (aka bacon) have recently reduced the size of their products from 500 grams to a mere 375, roughly one third less than the original portion. I believe it’s called the ‘new convenient size’ or some such bogusness. I guess it’s convenient because everyone likes to go to the store more often to stock up on stuff, right?

Anyway, do the math. A $4.00 price on the smaller size was exactly the same as the $6.00 price on the standard size sitting next to it in the cooler. So, my bargain-hunting fellow shopper saved himself exactly – let me figure this out – nothing (didn’t even need a calculator to do the math). Ka-ching.

On the bright side, he now has a freezer full of very convenient sized packages of strips-o-piggy (aka bacon), so there’s that.

I could go on all day with dozens and dozens of similar examples. Marketing experts have a million ways to extract hard-earned dollars from your wallet and, at the same time, make you think you just acquired the bargain of the century.

Back in 1958, a fellow by the name of Sy Syms (born Seymour Merinsky) started a discount clothing chain called SYMS Corp in the United States and coined the brilliant phrase, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” Although Syms passed away in 2009, that time-tested piece of advice lives on today.

Along with the phrase, “If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is,” it shows that you really need to work hard, be skeptical, educate yourself, comparison shop and don’t believe everything you hear before you blindly purchase your next – let’s say – automatic lint baller.

Buyer beware. The dark side awaits.

Dazed By Days

My wife asked me the other week whether I planned to cover the Big Apple Crunch Day at our area schools. My initial reaction was that she’d made that event up. Au contraire. She informed me that not only was it a real day, but that thousands of students had been celebrating it for the past seven years. Apple Crunch Day? Really? Hey, I like a red, tasty crunchy apple as much as the next guy, but do we really need a special day to celebrate it? If so, why aren’t we celebrating Grape Day, Nectarine Day and, especially, Kumquat Day?

When you’re in the business of reporting events, you’re expected to be out on Canada Day, Remembrance Day, Easter Sunday, Halloween and most other widely recognized celebrations, along with providing coverage for all the various days, weeks and months that honour both the big and small things in our lives.

There are plenty of very important recognitions – Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), Heart Month (February), Fire Prevention Week (October 6-12), World Diabetes Day (November 14), International Women’s Day (March 8), Aboriginal Solidarity Day (June 21), etc.

Then, there are the ones that, although important to some, make you wonder if they really need their own special day, week or month: International Child-Centred Divorce Awareness Month, Bath Safety Month, Be Kind To Food Servers Month, International Hoof Care Week, Copyright Law Day, Return Shopping Carts To The Supermarket Month and International Sword Swallowers Day.

And, of course, there are the celebrations that fall under the “You’re Kidding Me?” category: California Dried Plum Digestive Month, Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day, National Mail Order Gardening Month, National Tempura Day, Women In Blue Jeans Day, National Hot Tea Month, National Cowboy Poetry Gathering Week, Tubers & Dried Fruit Month, Camcorder Day, Squirrel Appreciation Day (which is January 21st and shouldn’t be confused with Squirrel Awareness Month in October), and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day. And that’s just in January. There are 11 more months of the same inanity. Thankfully, National Gin Day is coming right up on November 7th to help us all drown our sorrows. Cheers!

All of which leaves me to believe that either a) people are running out of things to celebrate or b) we need to add more days to the year or c) people have too much time on their hands. Personally, I’m going with option c. I appreciate the fact that those who come up with these goofy celebrations are just trying to have fun, but I wonder if all the joke festivities are taking away from the legitimate ones.

Or maybe we just have too many illnesses and ailments that need more awareness? In November alone, the following diseases and conditions are being recognized: Epilepsy Awareness Month, Diabetic Eye Disease Month, Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month, Lung Cancer Awareness, AIDS Awareness Month, National COPD Month, National Alzheimer’s Disease Month, National Home Care & Hospice Month, National Impotency Month, National Marrow Awareness Month, Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, Prematurity Awareness Month, National Patient Accessibility Week, X-Ray Day and World Diabetes Day.

My point? Enough is enough. As of this very moment, I’m calling for a complete moratorium on any and all additional days of celebration, awareness, recognition, appreciation, enlightenment or remembrance. If there’s not already a day, week or month for your pet cause, you’re out of luck. Sorry about that, Transsexual Spotted Gerbil Anti-Discrimination Week. My apologies, Orphan Sock Reunification Month. You’re out of luck, International Broccolini With Limburger Cheese & A Touch Of Nutmeg Casserole Day.

If we don’t stop this insanity, before you know it we’ll be lighting candles to commemorate World Kanye West & Kim Kardashian Awareness Week – and I’ll be slitting my wrists. So, to honour my moratorium, I’m breaking my own rule and officially naming November 5th as International Day Of No More Special Days For The Celebration, Awareness, Recognition, Appreciation, Enlightenment Or Remembrance Of Anything That’s Not Already Being Honoured. Raise your glasses and let the partying begin!