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TRICKS ADVERTISERS USE: THE FULL TRUTH ABOUT HALF-TRUTHS

Gabriel Wilensky

How to avoid being deceived

C an I tell you a secret? Someone is trying to trick you! They were trying a minute ago, and they surely tried a hundred times earlier today. It’s true. Every day, someone tries to convince you to do something you don’t want, or tries to make you buy something you don’t need, or tries to persuade you to vote for a candidate or to support a cause you may not believe in. Many of those times the techniques they use are a little underhanded, to put it politely.

You need to learn to identify these crafty practices and recognize the language they use so you are not tricked into doing what you don’t want. Sometimes you may benefit from doing want they are asking you to do or by using the product they are peddling. Other times you may become victims of some nefarious or selfish purpose. But the point here is not to discuss the ultimate goal of what these manipulators are trying to do, but rather to raise awareness of some of the stratagems and subterfuge they use to accomplish it. Once you take a closer look you’ll discover that often these manipulators exploit your naïveté and prey on your mental laziness. So, here you’ll learn to recognize some of the tricks advertisers use so you can avoid being deceived.

Once you take a closer look you’ll discover that often these manipulators exploit your naïveté and prey on your mental laziness.

Example

Imagine the following scenario: at some point you did a little research online on ceiling fans for your house. Then you began to see these ads for Top Breeze ceiling fans on every website you visited, and the ads claimed Top Breeze fans move a lot more air than the top brand, and on top of that are quieter! It certainly sounds good. Should you go and buy one? Not yet. First you need to do a little bit of critical thinking and a little bit of researching.

Tricks advertisers use

Claims like the one made by Top Breeze fans in the example in the sidebar are very common, and the following discussion is applicable to the myriad variations you are likely to encounter a hundred times a day. What’s wrong with Top Breeze’s claim? Why shouldn’t you just go and buy one of those fans? After all, they “move a lot more air than the top brand” and they are “quieter”!

The problem with Top Breeze’s claim and many like it is that it’s misleading, and is meant to be that way. The ad is making claims that sound like facts, but as far as you know they can be their opinion, or they could refer to something else, or may be making you think about something different than what the ad suggests. Think of all the unanswered questions that little ad raises: Maybe they do indeed move more air than the leading brand, but is that at all speeds?

  • How do you know Top Breeze doesn’t move more air than the leading brand fan only when it’s set to the top speed whereas the leading brand fan is on the second to top speed?
  • How do the fans compare when they are both set to each of their comparable speeds?
  • Which brand is the leading brand?

The ad does not give us any of this information.

This makes it an incomplete claim, and as a consequence you are unable to know exactly what it is it’s claiming. It just sounds good, that’s all. Until and if you can determine what it is that it’s claiming you cannot accept it even as a tentative truth. The same applies to the second claim made in the ad, namely that Top Breeze is “quieter”. Quieter than what? Implicit in the way the ad is written is the suggestion that Top Breeze is quieter than the top brand. But a careful reading of the ad reveals that it never claims this. Indeed, you are being manipulated by the writers of this piece, as they know you’ll automatically assume Top Breeze is quieter than the top brand.

But they would never be liable for such a claim as they never actually made it! We tend to hear what we want to hear, and the unscrupulous advertisers know what that is and write copy that is inherently misleading this way. This is a classic trick advertisers use. By assuming Top Breeze is quieter that the leading brand we are falling into the ad’s trap, which is exactly what the makers of Top Breeze want. This tactic is good for them but not good for us. But it is more common than you think. If you start paying attention at the myriad ads you are exposed to every day you’ll see hundreds of examples of ads like this, in which you are presented with incomplete claims 

Typically these ads:

  • Leave out important information
  • Use vague wording, or
  • Compare items that cannot be compared (thus rendering the comparison meaningless)

Beware of ads like this. Always wear your critical thinking hat and beware of any claim that is vague or incomplete.

We tend to hear what we want to hear, and the unscrupulous advertisers know what that is and write copy that is inherently misleading this way.

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Beware of Test and Studies Claims

Many times you see claims in ads or from politicians or anyone bent on manipulating you who appear to be backing their claims by using tests or studies. But you need to be very careful with these too, because they can be equally as misleading if not more so than incomplete claims. The reason for this is that a claim that appears to be supported by a test or study seems to carry a certain patina of respectability, which of course is what the manipulator intended to do in the first place! Another trick advertisers use. For example, imagine the makers of Top Breeze put out a new ad that claims:

“Studies show that the new Top Breeze ceiling fan outperforms the leading brand in laboratory tests and is quieter than Vortex at all speeds!”

Even though this new ad effectively solves the problem of the previous one in regards to the “quieter” claim, it still should not automatically drive you to buy a Top Breeze fan. Why? Because it’s still an ad and you should always be skeptical of ads and question their credibility. An ad is always motivated to make you do something, and is not necessarily concerned with the truth or your well-being. But with this last ad you should be especially skeptical because they mention “studies”. This is meant to reassure you of the validity of the claim but in a situation like this it should raise all sorts of red flags instead. For example:

  • Who was responsible for carrying out the studies?
  • How were the studies carried out?
  • What was tested in the studies?
  • What exactly were the results? 
The important thing to keep in mind is that tests, surveys and studies can be invalid, improperly conducted or can be manipulated to show specific (misleading) results. You must always be skeptical about things like tests, studies and surveys until you can get answers to the questions listed above. At best, you should take them as tentative truths until proven otherwise. The key thing you need to scrutinize when analyzing the results from studies is who conducted them. This is because you must ensure the entity that carried out the study was independent. Why? Because this is the only way you can assume the study was unbiased. If the entity is associated in any way with the subject of the study or have a stake in the outcome of the study then you should be at a minimum very suspicious, if not disregard the result altogether as untrustworthy.

Example

Imagine the entity that conducted the study about Top Breeze’s ceiling fans was Industrial Testing Labs, Inc., an independent organization whose purpose is to test commercial products. In this case, you may tentatively accept their findings because you can assume they do not have a stake in the outcome of the study. If, on the other hand, the study was conducted at Top Breeze’s facilities by Top Breeze’s employees, then the likelihood of bias would be extremely high and you should be exceedingly skeptical about their claims. This is why it’s imperative to know who conducted the test.

The important thing to keep in mind is that tests, surveys and studies can be invalid, improperly conducted or can be manipulated to show specific (misleading) results.

The Truth About Half-Truths

Another common way in which advertisers, politicians and other manipulators try to exert their influence on you is by using half-truths. A half-truth is a statement which combines an element of truth with a false one, or a statement that is only partially true, in either case with the deliberate intention of misleading you. The purpose of half-truths is to deceive you into thinking that what you are hearing is based on evidence or actual knowledge, when in fact it may be just an opinion or belief.

The purpose of half-truths is to deceive us into thinking that what we are hearing is based on evidence or actual knowledge, when in fact it may be just an opinion or belief.

CLAIM INTERPRETATION
I only had two beers. A police officer hearing this would have to be very skeptical, because the person might have also had 5 tequila shots or he might have had two 1 liter beer bottles instead of the normal size bottle or can.
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Clearly Bill Clinton was hiding behind an implicit or unclear definition of what he meant by “sexual relations”.
Every person in our company earns an average $1,000 a year bonus. This can be a misleading half-truth and a common way in which the term “average” can be misused for this purpose. If the company has 100 employees, 10 of whom earn a bonus of $9,100/year and 90 earn a bonus of $100, then the average is indeed $1,000, but in all likelihood you’ll earn just $100.
I n short, certain statements presented as incomplete claims or half-truths appear to be really appealing to you because they look and sound persuading. These are common techniques politicians, advertisers and others bent on persuading you to buy something, do something or think in a certain way will typically use.

You must be very careful not to be deceived by these tactics. Always be on the lookout for deceptive claims that make the argument seem to be more compelling than what it actually is.

What do you think?

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