When I watch TV, drive by billboards, read newspapers & magazines or check out the internet, I look at all content though a marketing language lens. I try and understand what an ad is really trying to sell me and how it’s trying to deceive me. I spent a lifetime crafting words and advertising language so it’s natural that “claims” stick out for me. It’s almost as if the language of an ad should be translated to reveal the true value proposition of the ad.
While this comes as second nature to me…this is hard for most people because ad content is designed to tap into our emotional desires and basic instincts. We are already invested in viewing content such as drama, action, comedy, news or romance so our critical thinking is disarmed. Some ads stick out like as sore thumb and most people can recognize misleading ad language ...but most times...if you can recognize it..its been poorly constructed… most are cleverly written to disguise the “claim.”
The following list of ten advertising claims, written by Jeffrey Schrank, who teaches at the University of Mississippi. The list includes many real world examples that will help you use your critical thinking skills to uncover exaggerated or just plain false claims.
1. The "Weasel" Claim
A weasel word is a modifier that practically negates the claim that follows. 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."
"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 " Claim
This kind of claim states that there is nothing else quite like the product being advertised. 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 "Endoresement "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 "Complement 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 or Question" Claim
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?"