Most Americans probably understand the danger of taking ads at face value. Political ads are rightfully regarded with deep suspicion. But many of us may not recognize how misleading the numbers we see (and some that we don't see) in commercial ads can be.
As a naive kid I learned this lesson the hard way. I ordered a "pocket" radio kit advertised as having certain dimensions that made it sound as if it would fit into my pocket. This was before transistorized radios were available, so it incorporated a very tiny vacuum tube.
The trouble was that the ad only mentioned two of the dimensions — length and width — and for some reason neglected to include the third dimension, depth. I didn't notice this omission.
The third dimension turned out to be quite impressive. This radio might have fit into a kangaroo's pocket, but not mine! What I shelled out for that radio was my first tuition in the school of hard knocks!
Have you noticed how often TV advertising announces that you will save a certain amount of money if you "act now"?
An ad for a new shower, that repeatedly shows up on our local news, announces that you can save $2022, an obvious reference to the current year. I think maybe I'll wait until next year!
This ad is not telling us what the price of the shower is from which the $2022 will be subtracted. Wouldn't it be better to tell people what the actual price will be than to give them information which is basically meaningless?
Of course that depends on the marketing strategy of the merchant running the ads. And it has a lot of company. I see repeated ads saying we can save 25%, 35%, even 40%, but not telling us 25%, 35%, or 40% of what.
Then there are the ads giving the actual price of something that will be shipped out, but adding (at the last minute, or with an asterisk) "plus shipping and handling." The latter amounts are often not specified and can be substantial.
In extreme cases, the ads have the nerve to say that the product is "absolutely free, you just pay shipping and handling." This latter unspecified amount is, no doubt, ample to pay not only for shipping but also for the product itself.
On top of all this, consider the hotels, car rental agencies, telephone companies, and others which advertise prices but don't bother to inform us of "taxes and fees" that will be added on. Airlines used to do this but are now required legally to disclose the total cost of tickets early in the process, so customers can take them into account in comparing costs with their competitors.
But people who do not know the specifics of state and local tax laws in other parts of the country may be in for an unpleasant surprise when they go to pay for their car or hotel room.
I won't even get into hotels that tack on mandatory "resort fees" but do not disclose them.
Finally, and this is no small matter, there are the hospitals and other medical service providers which refuse to disclose what they will charge for a room, an MRI, an operation, a consultation, or a drug.
Free market enthusiasts often argue that there is no need to regulate medical charges because competitive markets will protect the public from price gouging. But how how are people to comparison shop when the prices they will be charged are practically state secrets?
Of course when medical emergencies arise people would have no time to compare prices even if they could get them.
The bottom line here is that we should regard any numbers we find in ads with the deepest suspicion.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. Read Professor Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.
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