By Remar Sutton
Advertising covers us like skin from day one. The whole business of advertising is one of the great engines of the free enterprise system, and that's a good thing.
But your money, your health, and your general welfare could be at risk if you don't regularly question advertising messages.
Who believes advertising, anyway? You do! Ask any seller of a good or bad product. Advertising sells. It bombards us night and day, and very few of us can resist it.
Which brings us to this reality: Even the best, most honest and ethical advertising has one goal: to sell, whether or not the product or service or idea is good for you. And if you are gullible… If you're an impulse buyer... If you're constantly making "wants" vs. "needs" decisions, you're the perfect target for advertising that could hurt you rather than help you.
And there's the problem: If an advertisement's goal is to get you to quit smoking, that's terrific. But a lot of advertising isn't good for us. And a lot of the time, we don't have the foggiest idea what's really happening in an ad. But we fall for the ad, anyway.
Memorable ads: A quacking duck! A gregarious gecko! Terrific ads. Lots of insurance sold, solely on the charm of those two characters. But the best ads don't necessarily mean the best product or service. Aflac and GEICO may well be the best. But their commercials certainly aren't the reason, if they are.
Ads designed to protect sellers whose products may hurt or kill you: How many times have you seen ads that talk about your chances of dying or otherwise being devastated by the lovely product the ad is presenting? What's going on? "I told you so! So don't blame me!" is the way I see those messages. Good luck on holding that company accountable if their product hurts you. But the products sell the moment the ads run.
Fine print! Why is it there? Many times fine print tells you that the promise or guarantee presented in the big-picture means little, if anything. Ever caught a fleeting glimpse of this line? "The claims presented have not been verified by the Food and Drug Administration." Who would buy a product that discloses the product's claims are virtually worthless? Millions of people.
Ads that tell half the story: "Fat Free!" doesn't mean an item doesn't have fattening ingredients. "New and Improved" has absolutely no legal meaning. But the phrase—with no proof—normally means you're paying more for a product. "Satisfaction Guaranteed!"….or what? Ever looked at the fine print attached to that claim?
Invisible ads: The music! Lovely, sincere people! Ads that read like articles! A spokesperson you just love! If you're normal, you're taken in by this stuff, even though you think you aren't.
How can you make advertising helpful rather than harmful? Build a habit of routinely questioning all advertising. If you have a family, teach your kids to routinely question advertising, too.
What's hard about that? You have to first break your habit of automatically accepting advertising as truthful. "Speed bumps" can help you build that habit. Our resources on the website give you more details, but here's a summary:
Use advertising as an awareness tool, not as a decision tool. You see an ad for an amazing new product. Outstanding! But rather than buying it, you search for respected reviews of that product and others like it.
Don't rely on "guarantees" to protect you. If your idea of doing research is looking for the word "guarantee", you're in for trouble. Assume what you're buying has no guarantee. Would you still buy it?
Don't buy until you can actually read—and understand—the fine print. In the real world, that probably means you'd never buy anything. So, at least try this: come to a full stop if you're considering spending money on anything with unintelligible fine print.
Be alert when you're in danger zones. Grocery stores and the web are your biggest danger zones—dollar-wise—when it comes to advertising traps. Religiously sticking to a shopping list is a virtually foolproof way to make it through the danger zones.
Practice resisting the hot buttons: Every time you are tempted by "Sale!" or "Discounted" or "Half Price" ask yourself these two questions: "Do I really need this? Is it the right one?"
Reward the good sellers. If you're being ripped off or misled—at a financial institution, for instance—move all your business to a better institution.
Teach your kids to question advertising. Can you think of a better life lesson than teaching your kids—by example—to think critically before spending money?
Check out our other resources about handling advertising messages correctly.
If you haven't explored our sections on "Wants" vs. "Needs" and "Impulse Buying", do it! Just click on the tabs at the top of the page.
The Gullibility Project's goal is pretty simple: to help you avoid the Gullible "traps" that destroy about $500,000 of your lifetime income—waste that money. You can train your mind to habitually avoid those traps.
Why not start by really thinking about the next "advertisement" that tries to snare your pocketbook?