Advertising Lies You Believe On A Daily Basis

Many millennia ago, our ancestors developed language so that we could coordinate our hunting, band together against the elements, and tell each other what podcasts to listen to. The purpose of language is to communicate meaning. Unless you work in advertising. Then the purpose of language is to create meaning-like sound sharts to get people to buy things. Here are five common advertising claims that aren't just half-truths; they're empty nonsense which advertisers have tricked us into thinking actually convey information. They're like the Coke Zero of language: They give the impression of substance, but have no real content and are probably giving us butt cancer.

#5. "Up To 15 Percent Or More"

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When they hear "You could save up to 15 percent or more," most people interpret that as something like, "Most people will save around 15 percent by using our product." But that is precisely what the ads have -- very intentionally -- failed to say. It's not that you couldn't save 15 percent or more by using a given product; you certainly could! You could also save zero percent! Or -60 percent! Or all of reality could be the dream of a sleeping space turtle, and switching to this service might make you king of the dream! None of these things would falsify the sentence "You could save up to 15 percent or more."

"Up to 15 percent or more" means "literally any number." They have included 15 as a mockery of the usual informativeness of numbers. Or maybe they used to date a girl named "15 Percent Jones," and this is their sly way of throwing shade at her and offering her up for everyone as a prize -- but a prize no one will ever get, because their number-fudging bullshittery means you won't save jack and she'll never return their calls.

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"Honey, call the math department. The wireless bill is here."

The statement "You could save 15 percent or more on car insurance" is vacuously true, saying nothing more than "Switch to our service. Also, 15 percent is a number."

Products that qualify: insurance plans, bulk package of batteries, letting your dad talk you into a timeshare

#4. "Made From All-Natural Ingredients"

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We all want to eat healthy foods that haven't been covered in pesticides, preservatives, and factory worker goo. Is that too much to ask? As it turns out, yes. Yes it is. "But what if I eat only things labeled 'natural?'" asks some poor schmuck who still thinks words have meaning. "Surely, those have to be natural, right?"

Most of us haven't thought much about what the word "natural" means when used on a food label, and as it turns out, neither has the FDA! The regulators have not defined "natural," in part because it actually doesn't make much sense to apply it to human food other than salads and fresh veggies.

The FDA is considering regulating this term, so they asked people to write in what they thought it should mean. Predictably, the internet gave them some poorly-thought-out answers with a light dusting of racism. People said that "natural" food shouldn't be "processed" or contain "chemicals." That's hard to do, because basically all matter ...

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Like water, for example.

... is made up of chemicals. Similarly, most of us actually do want our foods to be processed. Specifically, "cooking" is a process most of us like a lot of our food to have gone through, lest we bite into a sweet salmonella nugget and end up in the ER. "Being cut up" is another process people are fond of, for anything from watermelons to chickens -- both of which you can eat whole, but at a great toll to your spiritual and social existence.

People also seem to think that "natural" means good. I do not know where they got this idea from, given that mankind has spent most of its existence locked in a battle to not be drowned, starved, poisoned, or crushed by nature. All kinds of terrible things occur naturally. Chewing on a bunch of apple seeds will release enough cyanide to kill you. Frogs in a completely natural rainforest contain the natural extremely lethal poison batrachotoxin. Hell, even plutonium and the cast of Real Housewives occur naturally.

Thomas Reekie/iStock
Only one of those last two things makes us fear for the future of the world, and it's not pictured here.

The combination of people not knowing what's meant by "natural" and still having a positive association with the word means that advertisers use it on any product they like, just to mean "good." They get to use it even when their ingredients include things like potassium sorbate, natamycin, and sodium benzoate. My family's traditional recipe for sodium benzoate involves centrifuging the cranberry extract by hand. Sure, it takes longer, but you can really taste the benzoate.

Crude oil is every bit as natural as sea salt. Opium is more natural than a beet and goat cheese salad. In order to have completely unnatural ingredients, you would have to summon them to Earth from a different dimension, and in his house in R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu who waits dreaming would sprinkle them on your Cheerios and the FDA would still be mostly OK with calling it natural if they survived.

Products that qualify: ammonia, feces, Pete Burn's face

#3. "Best"

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Another word that advertisers have forcefully stripped of its meaning is "best." It's gotten so bad that we even let a store name itself "Best Buy" when it is one of the worst places to buy anything, especially the things they actually carry.

In order to claim that your product is the best, you just need some metric on which your product is the best. It doesn't matter if this metric isn't what most people care about when it comes to your product. For example, your metric for "best writer" could be the one my dad loves unconditionally. If you picked that one, you could put ads up saying that the best writer in the world is Tony Robbins.

Wikipedia
Best teeth, too.

Sure, that isn't what most literate people mean by "best writer," and it's a painful reminder of my personal failings each and every time dad calls to recap a chapter to my voicemail, but legally speaking, it isn't any less valid a metric than any other.

This is why all four cellphone carriers in the U.S. can claim to have the "best" service in some respect. Verizon has the best download speeds, Sprint has the best latency, and AT&T is the best at being a company named "AT&T." The other company is the best at me not remembering who they are. It all depends what measurements we pay attention to.

All you have to do is refrain from saying how your product is the best. Then you can call your product "the best" just as easily as you can drink from a "World's Best Dad" mug (which should maybe be harder to get than they currently are).

Products that qualify: buys, western inns, Taekwondo movies starring Eric Roberts

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Aaron Kheifets

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