George Hrab said it best at TAM, the cornerstone of the skeptical movement is consumer protection. It is what we do best. Education and activism to protect people from dangerous and worthless products/services/treatments. I like to think that woo true believers can agree to consumer safety and truth in advertising. That even they want to get what they pay for. I hope that we can also agree that products and services should be safe, or the dangers are well understood.
Yet the fog of marketing plays on our very human tendencies. Trying to sell us useless or occasionally dangerous products and services. Marketing and buzz words are everywhere in modern society. No area of marketing is more plagued with deceptive terminology than than alternative medicine, weight loss, and food. Certain buzz words have become pervasive, primarily because they are so effective. Marketing that cloaks dangerous pseudoscience in imagery of safety, science and banality.
Marketing works, and I don’t need research to prove it.
- Organic farmers on average have double the income of conventional farms. The CFFM says a study of more than 2,000 conventional farmers showed an average profit last year of nearly $200,000 per farm.
- The vitamin and herbal supplement industry, according to consumer reports, made 27 billion in 2009 and is expected to hit 107 billion by 2017.
- The weight loss market in the United States alone made 61 Billion dollars last year.
- The Tobacco industry is declining in the US but world wide record profits 346 billion.
I hear the same worthless buzz words repeated over and over again in all types of media radio, TV, internet, press and even films. I will review some of the most repeated and egregious non-sense words that constantly brow beat us. I want you to know that when you hear marketing weasel words you have good reason to be skeptical.
- All Natural– This term is 100%…. meaningless. You can find natural on any product or service that might be offered. It has no parameters. There is no definition. Marketers expect you to fall into the trap of the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy would have you believe that natural=safe or better. This is simply not true. Most things in nature will kill you. There is an even deeper problem with the term natural. How do you define natural? What is nature? People have very definite ideas about what “nature” is. Realistically it is making up your own definition. Natural is defined by most people in reverse. Framing things intrinsically found to be “not nature”. Something like Pringles potato crisps. Pringles are mashed up compressed and fried potatoes salted and stuck in a can. You can travel the world and not see them growing in someone’s back yard. You can find potatoes however. So at what point is the potato “unnatural”. It sounds easy to distinguish, but is it? At what point is corn un-natural? If you eat a fresh picked ear of corn, that is natural, right? Maybe. Some people would say it is not natural unless it is grown organically(I will address this separately). Again, that same ear of corn is unnatural in the extreme if it is GM corn. I would point out that all corn is un-natural. It is a cultivated species that has been modified through the centuries by humans, using selective breeding. There is no such thing as “natural” corn, whatever that means. This thought experiment just scratches the surface of how deep the rabbit hole goes with this weasel term. If you want, you can live in cave with animal skins for clothes, eat hunted animals, gather plants, and never have medicines or clean water. Good luck with that, because you are now 100% natural, with a life expectancy of 27 years. Truth is when marketing says “all natural” they are trying to elicit an emotional and romanticized visualization from you. Trying to get you to make a mental leap, natural=good. Asking you to draw the lines of evidence that they cannot produce. It is a weasel word and when you hear it be skeptical.
- Clinically Proven- This weasel statement is everywhere. Everything is clinically proven. At one time clinically proven had meaning. Clinically proven meant that there had been one controlled study. The legislation that de-fanged the FDA with supplements has made even doing that little bit unnecessary. There is no method to determine if there was an actual clinical trial. This study does not need to be peer reviewed, published or methods known. There is no government over-site for calling something clinically proven. For example, If I ask six of my patients “is Kleenex is better than puffs for a runny nose?” Pay them for their time, tell them that Kleenex is superior and ask 4 to agree with me. I have now clinically proven that Kleenex is better than puffs. That is all you need to do, nothing more. Clinically proven is meaningless. The marketers are trying to lean on your faith in science and the scientific method. Trying provoke an emotional response of security. Anything, and I mean anything, that is “Clinically Proven” is synonymous with useless.
- Supports your…..- Whenever you see the term “Supports Your (enter any word here)” you have crossed into the land of make believe. Terms like supports your weight loss, supports your immune system, supports your memory, et al… meaningless. What a marketer is really saying, “I have something useless but I want to make you think it does something.” Supports is weasel word to give you the idea that it makes some process “better”. If that product/service actually did anything you would not have to say “support”, you would be able to market it as “does this”. By saying supports the immune system, the marketers are trying to make you draw a conclusion that they cannot say. Namely, that their useless product somehow affects what it is “supporting”. Don’t you believe it. Save your money. The moment you hear/read the word “supports” in advertising stop right there. You have learned that it is useless.
- Minimally Invasive Surgery– Minimally invasive is a marketing term not a surgical procedure. All surgeries are invasive. I challenge surgeons to tell me that they prefer maximally invasive surgery. It is a marketing term, not a medical one. It is a way of saying that we use the most up to date surgical techniques. Marketers try to give the emotional impression that my guy won’t hurt you but another other doctor will. Playing on your fear. What is important for surgery is the doctor not how invasive it is. The right surgeon will make the right judgement about how invasive a procedure needs to be. The real important questions for elective surgery are; how many procedures have you done, infection rate, and where do you perform your surgery? Minimally invasive procedures done now will be considered invasive 10 years from now.
- Organic- I suggest you listen to skeptoid episode 166, to hear why organic is really a marketing term. At least this label in the US is truth in advertising. A Organic label means a product produced a certain way. Organic labels are being stuck on anything that they can be stuck to. Ensuring premium pricing. Despite mountains of poorly done research vainly looking for a nutritional benefit in organic farming. There is no discernible nutrition/safety benefit. Organic labeling is way to play on your emotions. It makes you feel that you have gone the extra mile to make your family safe. It is an illusion playing on your fears and misunderstanding of toxicology and chemistry. Throw in a little naturalistic fallacy and voila you pay a premium price for an cheap product.
- Super/ultra/triple strength/foods or supplements- As a rule any food or supplement advertised as super-better-ultra is the same as saying useless. These products are based on nonscientific concepts. Generally oversimplifying how complicated the human body is. Ignoring completely the fact that your body is adapted to use a wide variety of very different foods to get the same results. This is well discussed in the recent skeptoid episode 395.
- Healthy- The real definition according to the WHO: “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Healthy has been co-opted by marketers and it has become a weasel word for selling marginal health claims and products. Though not inherently poor like supports it is associated with a lot of woo, be suspicious.
- Cure for Cancer- Not a cure for a certain cancer, like colon cancer, rather a cure for all cancer. Cancer is not a single disease. It is a classification of diseases that share commonalities. There will be no one cure for cancer. If someone is selling you anything and they say it will cure all cancers, walk away.
- Too strong for you– This is a small thing but I hate it when marketers use a pedantic reverse psychology ploy. “If you only need to lose 30 pounds or less you shouldn’t take supplement X.” Banking that if you are paying attention you probably do need to lose more than thirty pounds(13 Kg). They are betting that this statement will evoke the idea that the product is extremely powerful. Don’t buy it. If you can take a pill and lose weight without any change in diet or exercise it will not be sold in an infomercial. It will be the most expensive drug ever marketed.
Bottom line for everyone. Marketers are very good at playing on our weaknesses. Strategies that work are used over and over again. Don’t buy it or believe it. Don’t let marketers play on your emotions to sell you a false bag of goods.