FREAK Shots: What Good Is Honest Advertising?

While advertising may try to mislead you, this piece of marketing — which a Freakonomics reader named Matthew Limber found on his milk cap — takes a completely honest (and apparently self-sabotaging) approach.

MilkPhoto: Matthew Limber

So did Listerine’s TV ads from 2005, which claimed that “Listerine’s as effective as floss at fighting plaque and gingivitis,” but cautioned, “There’s no replacement for flossing.”

Listerine’s double message still upset the American Dental Association and producers of dental floss; they were concerned that customers would ignore the flossing part.

Listerine’s Web site no longer carries the claim.

Any other examples of too-honest advertising?

(Send your FREAK-worthy photos here.)


Although not quite what is wanted, Lipton Iced Tea ads in Australia were funny. Using the slogan "Lipton Iced Tea is refreshingly honest" they ran a series of ads showing 'honest' conversations while drinking the product. There's one at the beach where the guy is telling girls he doesn't surf, he only carries the board to pick up chicks and one at the mechanics where the customer says he knows the mechanic is going to rip him off. Made you remember the product, didn't make you necessarily want to drink it though.


There was a parallel sort of thing. A meat packing house wanted to test all of their cows for Mad Cow Disease, so they could export them to Japan. The Republican Administration forbade it. Americans might have wanted the same thing. We couldn't have that.

By the way, I am persuaded that genetically modified foods will be required to feed the world by the end of this century. But why have these silly laws against labelling?


1. BGH is not added to milk, it is added to cows.
2. BGH is a naturally occurring hormone, so it is not possible to have milk from "BGH free" cows, it is only possible to have milk from cows who have not received BGH supplements.
3. BGH is not detectable in milk so there is no way to determine -- from the milk itself -- whether the milk came from a cow that has been treated with BGH or a cow that has not been treated with BGH.
4. FDA does not allow advertising that makes unsubstantiated health claims.


I saw a billboard for a Scion recently that said something like ".000024% all new for 2009." I thought it was hilarious.

Then I saw another one for Scion that had two empty check boxes:

Love to hate

Hate to love

They kind of have the self-deprecating thing down, at least.


I don't think it's honest, the milk is probably packed with "natural" additional growth hormones.


It's good marketing, because it implies a "them and us" mentality, and a distrust of big science that the consumer knows better.

In a way, it suggests the consumer is ahead of the crowd, by choosing the milk before science finds the link.

It appeals to people who have personal experience - e.g. that arnica helps them heal quickly, or acupuncture or homeopathy work,even though measurable effects haven't been replicated in lab conditions. It suggests the consumer knows best.

By including the claim they imply value. As the Tui beer billboard "Yeah, Right" advertising campaign in New Zealand would put it:

No significant difference have been shown...Yeah Right

M Todd

Sometimes the best product features are not lies, but by just stating them makes them special. The classic is Folgers Coffee "It's mountain grown, which is the riches kind" All coffee is mountain grown it will not grow in low elevation. Did Folgers lie? No, all they did was state something not known about coffee as fact. Yes, coffee grown in the mountains is the richest kind, but so is mildest kind of coffee since both only grow in mountains.

The best ill conceived advertising of recent was KFC that said two pieces of their chicken was less fat than a Whopper with cheese. If they would have left it at that they may have gotten away with it, but they said by eating KFC you are eating healthier. The results were ridicule which caught the attention of the FAA and FDA.

Now if anything less than the fat ladden Whopper was the standard of healthy eating then they would have been OK, but KFC was making a claim that was way outside the bounds of common sense. It would be like saying eating fried chicken is healthier than eating a stick of butter, but both are not considered low fat foods.



How about those Volkswagen commercials from a few years ago where people were getting into wrecks?


American Petrofina's 1950s campaign that said, "Work hard, sell a good product and don't try to kid anybody." Then they went on to promote "Pink air."
Later, "PFLASH", was promoted as an ingredient in FINA gasoline that would improve driving pleasure by "turning red lights green," "smoothing out rough roads," "improving the food at roadside restaurants" and "making you feel less sorry you ever got a driver's license."


I think you're not getting the context here. They're required by law to state that there's no difference if the cows were treated with growth hormone or not (conventional milk producers pushed for this). Yet lots of folks still prefer to buy the milk from untreated cows (including myself). So they have the make the "disclaimer", but the info about there being no hormones is still useful to customers who care about this feature.


> hormone doesn't transfer to milk


The Commish

Wasn't there one for a small sports car like a Porsche? The general context was something like:
"Porsche. Too small to get laid in..., but will help you get laid once you're out of the car."
(Please excuse the language)


I'm kind of dumb, but what the heck does that bottle cap mean? "No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones"? What's not significantly different from what?


I don't know if this qualifies as "too honest", but kid's cereal advertisements always note that their product is "part of a balanced breakfast", followed by a shot of the sugary, dyed cereal surrounded by the most nutritious breakfast you've ever seen in your life. It's truly a "part" of a balanced breakfast I suppose, but it doesn't really say whether or not it's a positive part.

On a similar note, a kick to the groin makes your back feel great - provided that it is administered along with a week-long massage.

Huh Huh

"Breast milk is best. But Carnation good start is made to be gentle."


I saw an ad on TV, just once (you'll understand why in a moment) for a cholesterol drug which I think was Lipitor, but I could be wrong. I think the reason it was only shown once was that among the side effects were "diarrhea and oily discharge". I guess admitting that it made you crap oil wasn't a great selling point, but it sure made us laugh. Unfortunately I was too shocked that they actually admitted that one out loud to remember what the product was.


I'm interested in cases where deceptive advertising ruined any chances for a product's success.

For example, a few years ago Fox developed a sit-com about two geeky brothers running a bookstore. The Fox marketing department was worried nobody would be interested in that, so they called the show "Stacked" and ran a campaign designed to trick viewers into thinking it was a show about Pam Anderson's breasts. Frat guys watched the show once, quickly realized it was about geeky guys running a bookstore, and never watched again. Meanwhile those who would have actually been interested in the show were scared away by the promos. So the show flopped.

A few years later, CBS developed a nearly identical show. They called it "The Big Bang Theory," marketed it honestly, and now it's a hit.

Michael F. Martin

Honest advertising is part of the mechanism for synchronizing the outflow of product supply with the inflow of product demand.

The reason the government requires the disclaimers is because dishonest advertising leads to short-term, non-sustainable growth in demand.

stats instructor/scientist

#39: Actually, I don't know of any scientists who would say two things are "identical" or even "statistically identical". The phrase "no statistical difference" simply means that any differences are due to chance or random variation. If few milk samples were tested, then there could be quite large differences between BGH-treated cows' milk and non-treated cows' milk that are technically not statistically significant. In that sense, the scientific perspective is similar to your explanation of the lay perspective.


Yeah, Listerine was forced into it too: