“"Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”
While you keen-eyed few might know that quote is actually the code the assassins live by in the Assassins Creed video games, very few people know that this code was actually stolen by advertisers in AD 1200 and is now many company’s secret slogan to live by.
As the code states, everything is a lie, and you can do anything to make people believe this lie. Sounds rather cynical, doesn’t it? But in a time of 'fake news', ‘alternative facts’ and misleading statistics, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for people to know if what they are seeing or reading is actually true.
One misleading piece of advertising I discovered last week is the 100% chicken trick. Picture the situation. You’re looking for your value pack of chicken nuggets in the freezer isle of your local supermarket. One packet catches your eye, it gleams with its big bold letters: “Made with 100% chicken breast!” Great! It doesn’t contain any of the other crap that all these other chicken nuggets might have. Or does it?
Go back to the previous paragraph and read the statement again. Now read this statement, but put stress on the italicised word: “Made with 100% chicken breast.” Notice the difference?
Having studied linguistics at undergraduate level, the semantics of such a simple phrase fascinate me. Reading the phrase quickly without particular stress allows the advertiser to read what they want you to read; that the product consists of only 100% chicken breast. But it doesn’t. It can contain 100% chicken, but that doesn’t stop the product containing many other things.
It can contain 100% pork, or 100% beef too, which are all mixed together to create your chicken nugget. Just because it contains 100% chicken, doesn’t necessarily mean the whole product is 100% chicken. Try substituting “with” in the phrase with “of”. Semantically speaking, “of” creates a much more semantically true statement, it’s just “with” works a lot better from an advertiser’s perspective. Of course, “Made with 100% chicken breast” could also mean the food contains no chicken, but the cook’s pet chicken oversaw the process. Semantics allow for many different meanings, although in this case, it’s likely the former.
A similar thing occurs with the candy known as Tic-Tacs. Formerly the king of ‘candy on the go’ for those that didn’t like chewing gum, Tic-Tacs boldly advertise on its packaging that they contain 0g of sugar, despite the simple fact that Tic-Tacs are pretty much just tiny solidified pieces of sugar. Each Tic-Tac contains 0.5g of sugar, so because it contains less than 1g per serving, the company is allowed to advertise them as containing zero sugar. Each pack of Tic-Tacs contains roughly 40 of them, meaning that if you eat the whole pack, you’re actually eating 20g of sugar, not 0g. If you’re an adult, that is 66% of your RDA intake for sugar, just from a little pack of candy that advertises itself as ‘sugar-free’.
It’s not just food either. Toothpaste maker Colgate was caught out back in 2007 for their misleading advertisement. The company proudly displayed in its advertisement that 80% of dentists recommend their toothpaste, without disclosing the fact that the dentists they asked were free to recommend as many different toothpaste brands as they wanted, not just the one. Needless to say, the company got into a lot of trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority, but not before many people fell for the sneaky piece of advertising.
These are just three examples, but the truth is that you can’t take what you see at face value, in advertising and beyond. As the late Abraham Lincoln once said, “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”