Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Sins of Omission

Recently, a national pizza chain started advertising a new pie with extra cheese baked into the crust and promised its customers, “You won’t be able to stop.” In light of the national obsession with obesity, I thought this was either an amazingly ballsy or amazingly stupid ad. In the end, I think it’s both.  It isn’t the first time that advertising promotes excess, of course. I remember a few years ago a campaign to sell potato chips with the same gusto and message—“You can’t eat just one!”

Pizza is one of those foods with a high degree of instant gratification. With fat, salt, and sugar (in the pizza dough), pizza-makers hit the holy trinity of addictive chemicals most of us long for in what we eat.

All this leads me to wonder why preaching overindulgence in food is acceptable.

Any ad campaign pushing beer or cigarettes in the same manner would be banned quickly. Imagine, “Budweiser! You Can’t Drink Just One!” But then, come to think of it, isn’t ‘lite’ beer marketed so we can indeed consume more? Hmmm. TV ads, we all know, are inherently deceptive. They seldom show fat people stuffing themselves, nor drunk people swilling the product being pitched. They never tell you about the opportunity cost of the latest gadget you must have, nor that a new car depreciates the moment it is driven off the lot. We are not told that cholesterol-laden foods are deadly, not about the potential dangers involved in drinking. Ads never tell you about hidden costs, either. Some, like come-ons for various drugs, do indeed issue warnings, but in such a way that they are either anodyne, or (the four-hour erection from Cialis) laughable.

But back, for a moment, to the concept of advertising toward excess.  All advertising is basically designed to (1) wrest your allegiance from one manufacturer of a product to another and (2) make you believe your life will be enhanced by the purchase of the item being advertised. Along the way, some ads will provide a trickle of information about the thing at hand, but since a little information is a lot more dangerous than no information at all, it’s often better for the ad to gloss over even the most basic of practicalities. What ads can do is target your weak spot. Food, for example.

Advertising is the ultimate realization of what the Catholics call ‘a lie of omission.’ It does not mislead overtly, it simply fails to reveal the whole truth. Telling people their taste buds will be so enchanted that “you won’t be able to stop” is perfectly OK but only if you add “until you have consumed thousands of calories and added to your cholesterol.”

Real truth in advertising would be a boon to American saving accounts. Imagine if, before buying an expensive big screen TV, you were told: “This product will not make the insipid shows you watch any better!” Or, when purchasing a car, you were informed that, “You will still be a lousy and accident-prone driver,  more likely now than ever to kill yourself and others since you have a new and more powerful vehicle.” Or, as you contemplate a box of donuts, “This product is made with sugar, the most addictive known to man, according to the Food and Drug Administration.”

Wouldn’t that make you think twice? No? Me neither.

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