TRUTH (and consequences) IN ADVERTISING

There was a sign on my supermarket cart: “Does the pain in your back ease up as you push this cart?” I suddenly realized my usually aching back did feel better. I thought maybe they’ve invented therapeutic carts, but the second line read, “If it does, you may have spinal stenosis” and then gave the name of a clinic I should contact immediately. Talk about unsettling advertising.
U.S. companies spend about $250 billion a year to pitch their products, often with unsettling ads. A pharmaceutical firm promises relief from a minor ailment, but then mentions a long list of the possible side effects of their medicine beginning with diarrhea and ending with suicidal tendencies. Don’t they realize they’re scaring the bejeebers out of us, especially if we’re already taking their overpriced concoction?
A comical radio skit I once heard poked fun at the this lack of empathy in our commercial world. First, a staid BBC announcer delivers news of the imminent end of the world: “It is with deep regret we report the earth and all its inhabitants will be destroyed by a meteor in 24 hours. All BBC programming will be cancelled following that event.” And then we hear how the same news is presented in the U.S.A. “Here’s a bulletin, just in,” the American newscaster shouts. “It’s been confirmed by White House sources and Judge Judy, the world is ending tomorrow at noon. And now a word from our sponsor.”
Many years ago roving salesmen were known as “drummers” because they beat bass drums to announce their arrival in village squares. Similar primitive advertising was still going on when I was a boy. The local fishmonger, leading a horse-drawn wagon loaded with ice and the latest catch, would get neighborhood housewives’ attention by blowing a large tin horn and shouting “Fresh fish!” The knife and scissors sharpener’s truck had melodious chimes and the Good Humor man rang his bells.
Virtual signage is fairly new and rather sneaky. The billboards you see behind the batter when you’re watching a ballgame on TV aren’t what they seem to be. Stadium fans don’t see the ads. They only exist on TV and aren’t the same for all viewers. A Yankee Stadium sign might ballyhoo one product for New York viewers and something else for those watching the game on their sets in Boston.
I must admit I find the commercials on the high numbered TV channels quite fascinating. There are so many interesting products: Indestructible glareproof sunglasses and night vision binoculars; solar-powered lanterns, security lights and bug killers; sealants for leaky basements and rowboats and unkinkable garden hoses. There are new miracle gadgets every week and, amazingly, most cost the same $19.95. But wait! Suddenly, they’re BOGO or toofer as we used to say, and often with free shipping. It’s all so tempting. I really don’t need them but the two razor sharp knives at $19.95 total plus free shipping and a six month supply of bandages should be arriving any day now.

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