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Home > Media

Adverjism: 97% More Nothing

9 September 2005

Everybody, even the most liberated of libertines, needs some sense of familiarity in their lives. Something solid on which to stand while a mad senseless world howls about their ears. A straw to clutch. Best of all, a statistic to cite, so you can shout, ‘There, argue your way around *that*, smartarse’ over breakfast. In fact, what better place to anchor yourself in an anarchic world than the breakfast table – that bustling oasis of familial cosiness at the start of a new day?

Good old dependable Kelloggs have just what a family needs. Moving on from the fabled Normal Woman to the perennial Active Child, their new ‘Spot The Difference’ campaign targets the bouncing back-to-school boy. By way of his Normal Woman mother, obviously. It goes a bit like this – a split screen shows one sleepy, tousled-haired kid and one bright little spark full of beans stopping just short of chronic ADHD. Sleepy kid slouches over the table, tries to eat a pencil, looks bewildered, pulling up just shy of early-onset juvenile depression. Sparky kid munches through a bowl of Corn Flakes – for it is they – and beetles off to face the challenges of the new school year. It wouldn’t be much of a leap or an affront if the advertisers were suggesting with these images, in some quaint 1950s throwback way, that Corn Flakes make you happy. Everything that is advertised, without exception, is meant to make you happy, or at least less like committing seppuku with your personalised letter-opener. But no, there is yet to come The Science. ‘Research shows’, chirps the voiceover, ‘children who eat cereals like ours are on average 9% more alert!’

Aside from the feat of cramming more ambiguities into one sentence than you could shake Lena Zavaroni at, credit is due for sheer cereal-flogging chutzpah here. It immediately begs several thousand questions including but not limited to: Why didn't they round it up to 10% if they were going to faff about with negligible percentages? How the hell do they know what 9% more alertness looks like in a ten-year-old? And how precisely does one measure the shininess of hair or the prevalence of split ends, anyway? This kind of anti-scientific piffle is indeed more commonly found lurking amongst the organic micro-particles of beauty products, and it mostly gets waved through like a Hummer full of hand-grenades into Baghdad. No one has the faintest inkling what Boswelox is. No woman living knows a ‘revolutionary amino-clusteresterone compound’ from her scented, exfoliated bottom. The advertisers, of course, bank on this – the interchangeable scientificky phrases are repeated, mantra-like, to soothe and reassure. Ladies, don’t fret; the scientists are in control. Your hair can be up to four times shinier and/or 18.3% less likely to make you look like Anita Dobson dangling upside-down from a crane. A riot of immeasurables gallivant by in a ticker-tape parade of £20 notes, and real science weeps into its petri dish.

This goes unfettered until once in a while, some cosmetics giant makes a claim so outrageous that the regulators deliver an overdue bitchslap. Last month the Advertising Standards Authority forced French beauty leviathan L’Oreal to withdraw their ads for an anti-wrinkle and an anti-cellulite cream (‘cellulite’ having been conveniently coined out of nowhere by fellow Frenchmen some years before), on the basis of them being very silly little ads. They claimed that 76% of women had ‘visibly reduced expression lines’ with the former, and that 71% of women found that the latter ‘visibly reduced the appearance of cellulite’; when asked to back these up, L’Oreal shrugged a big Gallic wrinkle-free shrug. Those stats aren’t even as dodgy as many flying about – they suggest that at least some kind of survey of desperate placebo-susceptible women had actually been taken. But they weren’t tolerated. And nor should they be. For every insultingly jerry-built ad-fact that we’re invited to set up home in, another million national brain cells bite the dust. Advertising permeating as it does so deeply, we get softened up, primed for gullibility; or we run the other way, embrace cynicism like Jonestown residents clasping Kool-Aid, and never believe the evidence of our own eyes again. Too high a price, really.

The Corn Flakes ad shows scant departure from L’Oreal’s brand of shameless rib-nudging, only it’s using the familiar Pavlov tinkle of lunatic statistics to get women to leave their wobbly thighs alone for a mo and tend to their offspring. But said offspring are growing up in a world full, frankly, of needless marketing bilge, and no amount of alleged alert-making maize mush is going to alleviate that.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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