by Jeffrey Schrank
In the essay that follows, Jeffrey Schrank gives a list of the techniques advertisers employ to make claims for their products. Written by a teacher, this selection should serve as a tool: its classification of advertisers’ promises and claims can be used to analyze and evaluate the fairness of the language in many ads. As you read it, consider additional ad claims that fit within each of Schrank’s categories.
Students, and many teachers, are notorious believers in their immunity to advertising. These naive inhabitants of consumerland believe that advertising is childish, dumb, a bunch of lies, and influences only the vast hordes of the less sophisticated. Their own purchases are made purely on the basis of value and desire, with advertising playing only a minor supporting role. They know about Vance Packard and his “hidden persuaders” and the adwriter’s psychosell and bag of persuasive magic. They are not impressed.
Advertisers know better. Although few people admit to being greatly influenced by ads, surveys and sales figures show that a well-designed advertising campaign has dramatic effects. A logical conclusion is that advertising works below the level of conscious awareness and it works even on those who claim immunity to its message. Ads are designed to have an effect while being laughed at, belittled, and all but ignored.
A person unaware of advertising’s claim on him or her is precisely the one most defenseless against the adwriter’s attack. Advertisers delight in an audience which believes ads to be harmless nonsense, for such an audience is rendered defenseless by its belief that there is no attack taking place. The purpose of a classroom study of advertising is to raise the level of awareness about the persuasive techniques used in ads. One way to do this is to analyze ads in microscopic detail. Ads can be studied to detect their psychological hooks, they can be used to gauge values and hidden desires of the common person, they can be studied for their use of symbols, color, and imagery. But perhaps the simplest and most direct way to study ads is through an analysis of the language of the advertising claim. The “claim” is the verbal or print part of an ad that makes some claim of superiority for the product being advertised. After studying claims, students should be able to recognize those that are misleading and accept as useful information those that are true. A few of these claims are downright lies, some are honest statements about a truly superior product, but most fit into the category of neither bold lies nor helpful consumer information. They balance on the narrow line between truth and falsehood by a careful choice of words.
The reason so many ad claims fall into this category of pseudo-information is that they are applied to parity products, products in which all or most of the brands available are nearly identical. Since no one superior product exists, advertising is used to create the illusion of superiority. The largest advertising budgets are devoted to parity products such as gasoline, cigarettes, beer and soft drinks, soaps, and various headache and cold remedies.
The first rule of parity involves the Alice in Wonderlandish use of the words “better” and “best.” In parity claims, “better” means “best” and “best” means “equal to.” If all the brands are identical, they must all be equally good, the legal minds have decided. So “best” means that the product is as good as the other superior products in its category. When Bing Crosby declares Minute Maid Orange Juice “the best there is” he means it is as good as the other orange juices you can buy.
The word “better” has been legally interpreted to be a comparative and therefore becomes a clear claim of superiority. Bing could not have said that Minute Maid is “better than any other orange juice.” “Better” is a claim of superiority. The only time “better” can be used is when a product does indeed have superiority over other products in its category or when the better is used to compare the product with something other than competing brands. An orange juice could therefore claim to be “better than a vitamin pill,” or even “the better breakfast drink.”
The second rule of advertising claims is simply that if any product is truly superior, the ad will say so very clearly and will offer some kind of convincing evidence of the superiority. If an ad hedges the least bit about a product’s advantage over the competition you can strongly suspect it is not superior–may be equal to but not better. You will never hear a gasoline company say “we will give you four miles per gallon more in your care than any other brand.” They would love to make such a claim, but it would not be true. Gasoline is a parity product, and, in spite of some very clever and deceptive ads of a few years ago, no one has yet claimed one brand of gasoline better than any other brand.
To create the necessary illusion of superiority, advertisers usually resort to one or more of the following ten basic techniques. Each is common and easy to identify.
1. THE WEASEL CLAIM
A weasel word is a modifier that practically negates the claim that follows. The expression “weasel word” is aptly named after the egg-eating habits of weasels. A weasel will suck out the inside of an egg, leaving it appear intact to the casual observer. Upon examination, the egg is discovered to be hollow. Words or claims that appear substantial upon first look but disintegrate into hollow meaninglessness on analysis are weasels. Commonly used weasel words include “helps” (the champion weasel); “like” (used in a comparative sense); “virtual” or “virtually”; “acts” or “works”; “can be”; “up to”; “as much as”; “refreshes”; “comforts”; “tackles”; “fights”; “come on”; “the feel of”; “the look of”; “looks like”; “fortified”; “enriched”; and “strengthened.”
Samples of Weasel Claims
“Helps control dandruff symptoms with regular use.” The weasels include “helps control,” and possibly even “symptoms” and “regular use.” The claim is not “stops dandruff.”
“Leaves dishes virtually spotless.” We have seen so many ad claims that we have learned to tune out weasels. You are supposed to think “spotless,” rather than “virtually” spotless.
“Only half the price of many color sets.” “Many” is the weasel. The claim is supposed to give the impression that the set is inexpensive.
“Tests confirm one mouthwash best against mouth odor.”
“Hot Nestlés cocoa is the very best.” Remember the “best” and “better” routine.
“Listerine fights bad breath.” “Fights,” not “stops.”
“Lots of things have changed, but Hershey’s goodness hasn’t.” This claim does not say that Hershey’s chocolate hasn’t changed.
“Bacos, the crispy garnish that tastes just like its name.”
2. THE UNFINISHED CLAIM
The unfinished claim is one in which the ad claims the product is better, or has more of something, but does not finish the comparison.
Samples of Unfinished Claims
“Magnavox gives you more.” More what?
“Anacin: Twice as much of the pain reliever doctors recommend most.” This claim fits in a number of categories but it does not say twice as much of what pain reliever.
“Supergloss does it with more color, more shine, more sizzle, more!”
“Coffee-mate gives coffee more body, more flavor.” Also note that “body” and “flavor” are weasels.
“You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse.” Sure of what?
“Scott makes it better for you.”
“Ford LTD–700% quieter.”
When the FTC asked Ford to substantiate this claim, Ford revealed that they meant the inside of the Ford was 700% quieter than the outside.
3. THE “WE’RE DIFFERENT AND UNIQUE” CLAIM
This kind of claim states that there is nothing else quite like the product being advertised. For example, if Schlitz would add pink food coloring to its beer they could say, “There’s nothing like new pink Schlitz.” The uniqueness claim is supposed to be interpreted by readers as a claim to superiority.
Samples of the “We’re Different and Unique” Claim
“There’s no other mascara like it.”
“Only Doral has this unique filter system.”
“Cougar is like nobody else’s car.”
“Either way, liquid or spray, there’s nothing else like it.”
“If it doesn’t say Goodyear, it can’t be polyglas.” “Polyglas” is a trade name copyrighted by Goodyear. Goodrich or Firestone could make a tire exactly identical to the Goodyear one and yet couldn’t call it “polyglas”–a name for fiberglass belts.
“Only Zenith has chromacolor.” Same as the “polyglas” gambit. Admiral has solarcolor and RCA has accucolor.
4. THE “WATER IS WET” CLAIM
“Water is wet” claims say something about the product that is true for any brand in that product category, (for example, “Schrank’s water is really wet.”) The claim is usually a statement of fact, but not a real advantage over the competition.
Samples of the “Water is Wet” Claim
“Mobil: the Detergent Gasoline.” Any gasoline acts as a cleaning agent.
“Great Lash greatly increases the diameter of every lash.”
“Rheingold, the natural beer.” Made from grains and water as are other beers.
“SKIN smells differently on everyone.” As do many perfumes.
5. THE “SO WHAT” CLAIM
This is the kind of claim to which the careful reader will react by saying “So What?” A claim is made which is true but which gives no real advantage to the product. This is similar to the “water is wet” claim except that it claims an advantage which is not shared by most of the other brands in the product category.
Samples of the “So What” Claim
“Geritol has more than twice the iron of ordinary supplements.” But is twice as much beneficial to the body?
“Campbell’s gives you tasty pieces of chicken and not one but two chicken stocks.” Does the presence of two stocks improve the taste?
“Strong enough for a man but made for a woman.” This deodorant claims says only that the product is aimed at the female market.
6. THE VAGUE CLAIM
The vague claim is simply not clear. This category often overlaps with others. The key to the vague claim is the use of words that are colorful but meaningless, as well as the use of subjective and emotional opinions that defy verification. Most contain weasels.
Samples of the Vague Claim
“Lips have never looked so luscious.” Can you imagine trying to either prove or disprove such a claim?
“Lipsavers are fun–they taste good, smell good and feel good.”
“Its deep rich lather makes hair feel good again.”
“For skin like peaches and cream.”
“The end of meatloaf boredom.”
“Take a bite and you’ll think you’re eating on the Champs Elysées.”
“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”
“The perfect little portable for all around viewing with all the features of higher priced sets.”
“Fleishman’s makes sensible eating delicious.”
7. THE ENDORSEMENT OR TESTIMONIAL
A celebrity or authority appears in an ad to lend his or her stellar qualities to the product. Sometimes the people will actually claim to use the product, but very often they don’t. There are agencies surviving on providing products with testimonials.
Samples of Endorsements or Testimonials
“Joan Fontaine throws a shot-in-the-dark party and her friends learn a thing or two.”
“Darling, have you discovered Masterpiece? The most exciting men I know are smoking it.” (Eva Gabor)
“Vega is the best handling car in the U.S.” This claim was challenged by the FTC, but GM answered that the claim is only a direct quote from Road and Track magazine.
8. THE SCIENTIFIC OR STATISTICAL CLAIM
This kind of ad uses some sort of scientific proof or experiment, very specific numbers, or an impressive sounding mystery ingredient.
Samples of Scientific or Statistical Claims
“Wonder Break helps build strong bodies 12 ways.” Even the weasel “helps” did not prevent the FTC from demanding this ad be withdrawn. But note that the use of the number 12 makes the claim far more believable than if it were taken out.
“Easy-Off has 33% more cleaning power than another popular brand.” “Another popular brand” often translates as some other kind of oven cleaner sold somewhere. Also the claim does not say Easy-Off works 33% better.
“Special Morning–33% more nutrition.” Also an unfinished claim.
“Certs contains a sparkling drop of Retsyn.”
“ESSO with HTA.”
“Sinarest. Created by a research scientist who actually gets sinus headaches.”
9. THE “COMPLIMENT THE CONSUMER” CLAIM
This kind of claim butters up the consumer by some form of flattery.
Samples of the “Compliment the Consumer” Claim
“We think a cigar smoker is someone special.”
“If what you do is right for you, no matter what others do, then RC Cola is right for you.”
“You pride yourself on your good home cooking….”
“The lady has taste.”
“You’ve come a long way, baby.”
10. THE RHETORICAL QUESTION
This technique demands a response from the audience. A question is asked and the viewer or listener is supposed to answer in such a way as to affirm the product’s goodness.
Samples of the Rhetorical Question
“Plymouth–isn’t that the kind of car America wants?”
“Shouldn’t your family be drinking Hawaiian Punch?”
“What do you want most from coffee? That’s what you get most from Hills.”
“Touch of Sweden: could your hands use a small miracle?”