I’m going to shock you: facts and fakes in ads

When Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, let it leak that the website would not even attempt to monitor politicians’ (purchased) ads for lies, a lot of people got righteously mad.

One of them was Elizabeth Warren, who has openly stated she thinks Facebook is too big, too powerful, too monopolistic and should be broken up.

This pissed off Zuckerberg, who described Warren’s policy as an “existential” threat and said he’d fight her.

Zuckerberg’s cartoon flailing — combined with putting out the welcome mat for political liars (as long as they pay the toll at the door) — is proof that one bright business idea is not evidence of great intelligence, let alone a guarantee of emotional maturity.

So Warren just bought her own political ad on Facebook which tells lies about Trump and Zuckerberg and then exposes the lies, as a satirical rebuke to Zuckerberg.

I’m betting that Warren is going to win this battle; she’s so much smarter and stronger than her opponents, Trump and Zuckerberg.

I bring this pretty vital controversy up as a lead-in to part of a chapter of my book, How I Learned The Facts of Life, about advertising — both commercial and political. And I’ll bet what I’ve learned will shock you.

One major aspect of pondering the facts of life is thinking pragmatically about how to convince people that it’s a good thing to be able to distinguish between facts as presented in news media, and fake news as presented by political propagandists and trolls.

A while ago I picked up this ultra disheartening information from 538’s Significant Digits, which in turn got it from the Wall Street Journal, which in turn got it from Stanford U:
82 percent: the percentage of middle school students who weren’t able to determine the difference between sponsored content and a real news article, according to a new Stanford University study.

That’s pretty frightful news.

So what happens when you, an adult, watch TV commercials, i.e., sponsored content, for products such as cars, insurance policies, face creams, beer and prescription meds?

I’ve got to assume you know when you’re watching sponsored content and know you’re getting a sales pitch for a product. But you’re getting much more than that: you are getting facts.

You just snorted out your tea, right? TV commercials for products are factual?

Yes, they are.

The National Advertising Review Board (NARB) is the appellate body for advertising industry self-regulation. If an advertiser or a challenger disagrees with a recommendation about the accuracy of an ad, it may appeal the decision to the NARB for additional review.

The National Advertising Review Board is made up of 70 professionals from three different categories — national advertisers, ad agencies and public members, made up of academics and former members of the public sector.

You’re probably tempted to sneer at that “self-regulation” bit. But if you consider it for a second, you’ll see how deviously clever it is. I’ll help you:

The friend who first told me about the National Ad Council was at the time working on a national advertising campaign for a face cream. In doing so, she went to the laboratory where the cream was developed and asked specific questions about what was in the cream and how it worked.

Her approach to her ad campaign was specific: she would not make claims for the cream that could not be proven factually and scientifically.

Here’s why. Let’s say a face cream’s TV commercial claims it reduces age spots. (The commercial, of course, uses softly filtered shots of utterly gorgeous women’s faces, sans age spots.)

But a face cream competitor challenges the ad as misleading – claiming no over-the-counter face cream can reduce age spots.

Manufacturer of first face cream now faces (pun intended) either fighting an expensive multi-layered battle with its competitor, or pulling its expensively produced ad from expensively scheduled and pre-paid TV programming, print venues and the internet. And coming up with another expensively produced ad campaign, et cetera.

Not cheap. Better to write and produce an ad campaign that cleverly claims that after two months, “Nine out of ten women say they’ve noticed their age spots have faded.”

Get the difference? The face cream company isn’t claiming the cream reduced age spots. They are merely claiming their customers “noticed” their age spots had faded. (Sure, the customers have invested, say, $50 on face cream and are more than happy to justify the expense by seeing that, yes, their age spots are fading away.)

As a fact controller, this self-regulatory system works quite well. It uses capitalism’s insistence on free markets and competition to control, i.e., regulate, itself.

Now let’s deal with prescription drug advertising.

If you, like me, watch and listen to TV prescription drug commercials, you’ll have noticed with some amusement how Rx ads have shifted, changed, even sometimes dropped off the air.

You’ll certainly have observed how, after a warm and fuzzy introduction with lovely-looking people and their puppies and/or grandchildren with puppies, the narrator’s dulcet voice switches from all the terrific advantages of the drug to the multitude of potential dire side-effects, up to and including death. While remaining dulcet.

During this voice-over recital of the catastrophic possibilities, the actors on camera go about their business smiling, jumping up and down, laughing, playing with the puppies, all that stuff, while we’re simultaneously hearing the disasters that could befall us if we take the drug.

It’s like watching the antics of someone with a split personality.

So why do these commercials inform us about the dangers of using the drug? Better stated, who forced Big Pharma to produce commercials with these warnings?

The Federal Drug Administration.

From the FDA’s web site, with my bolding:

For decades, prescription drug makers promoted their products exclusively to health care professionals, who were expected to interpret drug information for their patients. Beginning in the early 1990s, some drug manufacturers began targeting consumers due, in part, to the aging baby boomers and to an increase in the number of patients participating in their own health care decisions. Since then, DTC advertising has become a popular promotional tool.

The FDA oversees the advertising of prescription drug products under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and related regulations. That means the agency must ensure that prescription drug information provided by drug firms is truthful, balanced, and accurately communicated. This is accomplished through a comprehensive surveillance, enforcement, and education program, and by fostering better communication of labeling and promotional information to both health professionals and consumers.

I, for one, would be happy if drug makers could no longer directly promote their products to me. I don’t ask my doctor if Xylophlat is right for me. I trust my doctor will tell me what’s right for me. Ergo, I don’t feel the need to report to her whether I have an erection lasting more than four hours, or stopped breathing, sort of forever.

And imagine how much money Big Pharma would save if they didn’t spend $fortunes on a barrage of TV commercials. They might even be able to reduce their prices.

If we can trust that TV commercials for consumer products give us the facts, can we also trust we get the facts from political TV ads?


There are no agencies comparable to the National Ad Council or FDA that monitor political ads.

Don’t you think there should be? I do.

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