Thursday, October 25, 2007

I want to sell you FEAR......mwah ha ha ha ha (etc)

Your humble bloggist has a dirty secret which must be shared with the world. Outwith the realms of e-wittering, I'm a salesman.
I've said it.
Hundreds of books and seminars have covered the topics of selling - how to grab your audience's attention, how to push them to buy, how to press their buttons that will make them part with their cash.

In the world of TV advertising, one of the easiest ways to do this is as follows:

1. Place Mrs Mugwump in a situation she understands. (Chopping veggies in the kitchen - make sure Tarkwin gets his five-a-day!).
2. Slap her repeatedly in the face with mangled science and occultic statistics.
3. Frighten the bejesus/be-allah/be-vishnu out of her.
4. Introduce your product as the saviour (non-denominational) of this oh-so-rational fear.

Fear selling uses dirty tricks to play with words chosen to purvey a different impression from what's actually written. For example, a few months ago I saw an article for padded bicycle shorts which informed me that not using them can lead to some of the symptoms similar to prostate cancer. Let me write that again:

can lead to some of the symptoms similar to prostate cancer

Two modifiers (can & some - a far cry from 'will' and 'all') and two "surrogate end points" of sorts (symptoms - may not have anything to do with having the cancer, and in any case the symptoms are only similar - pain in the hips/pelvis and lower back pain to name two. I reckon these are the least of my pains after 25km of muck, stones, hills etc).

I use the above as an example, and not as proper investigation as to whether heavy-duty multi-terrain mountain biking gives you 'issues'. The real thrust of this blog comes from our great Sentinels of Selling, the Advertising Standards Authority.

Every week, they publish on the web every complaint that has been made about an advert, and whether or not the complaint is upheld - generally makes for interesting reading, not least to see the crazy things people complain about.

Let's go back to fear selling, and a complaint made by 3 different people regarding Dettol Multisurface Cleaner. The advert told us:

"Fact, your chopping board harbours 50 times more bacteria than your toilet seat. But Dettol Surface Cleanser kills 99.9% of bacteria, including MRSA, E.Coli, salmonella and even the flu virus ..."

Now, apart from anything else, I don't count the flu virus as being alive therefore I don't have any truck with products that claim to kill it, but that's a personal thing. Also, they didn't even have the decency to class the bacteria as 'good' or 'bad' - a distinction they were keen to keep to themselves.

Anyway, the ASA asked parent company Reckitt Benckiser to prove this 'fact'. As it happens, it turns out the 'fact' was derived from taking samples at 5 houses in Hertfordshire (all with kids under 3 years old) and the ASA in their good wisdom reckoned this wasn't representative of the nation. Complaint upheld.

In addition, the 5 chopping boards DID have bacteria on them but they

"did not show that the bacteria found posed a risk to health ... and it was unclear whether they had been cleaned normally after use

Next we get the 'playing with words' - US or UK, harbours/harbors indicates a long term holding - harbouring anger against Sarah Beeny for talking rubbish about chemicals, for example. The ASA also felt that by using the word 'harbour' RB were inferring that these chopping boards were crawling with all this bacteria after being washed by a normal person in a normal way. The evidence produced by RB indicated (as most people know) that rubbing a couple of chicken breasts on a chopping board before using it to wipe your arse produces a surface which may be "unsafe for food preparation". What they didn't provide evidence for was that if you wash it in the normal way, you'd be surprised how clean it becomes, that is without using an antimicrobial.

And therein lies the rub. The Dettol product didn't claim to clean better than other products, it just claimed to clean, but pressed the fear buttons of MRSA, E.Coli and salmonella.

I would like the advert to be run again, with a bit more accuracy:
"Fact - your chopping board harbours some bacteria. But don't worry, they won't do you any harm if you've washed it in the normal way after it was last used.

If you do have an irrational fear of things you can't see/understand and want to live in an artificial, sterile, (in)sanitary bubble, then using **branded** Multisurface Cleaner will kill things like MRSA, E.Coli and salmonella, even when they're not there.

Do remember, that the moment you touch your nose, a lot of your work will have been in vain.


There are further fun and games from the ASA website regarding all the upheld complaints about the highly dubious York Allergy Tests by YorkTest Laboratories. Not surprisingly, everyone's favourite pill peddler Patrick Holford is a fan - read the outcome on HolfordWatch.


  1. Discussion with a microbiologist who used to take swab samples around a manufacturing site revealed that a toilet SEAT is actually the cleanest bit, as (Accidents aside) it only has skin contact. The bowl is quite clean, as its flush washed after use.

    The dirtiest bit is the handle that you flush, as who washes their hands before you pull the chain?
    So reckitt and dumpitt, the bog seat is no dirtier than any surface touched in the house


  2. Cracking stuff Dr T.
    Valueaddedwater - excellent point about washing your hands before pulling chain. I wash the flush handle when I've finished. Will that do the trick?