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.)


So as a vet student, I can explain at least what we have been told by our production animal vets at school. You can test for levels for BGH in milk. The deal is that BGH levels in milk from cows treated with it and those not on BHG are indistinguishable from eachother. Depending on the day, the non treated group may actually have higher levels than the treated group or visa versa. Yes, BGH is essentially the same thing as human growth hormone, both are proteins. Meaning they are broken down in your stomach before you absorb them (unlike testosterone or estrogen which are steroid hormones). So even if you are getting BGH in your milk, your body digests it before absorbing it. Regardless of a farm's claim on BGH, they are ALL still using reproductive hormones to help get the cows pregnant otherwise it would be impossible to stay in business.

Jeremy Coloma

Wow! I find this quite funny but angry at the same time. Like how can people sell their products, saying what it can do, and later on say that whatever they said is not true. People were probably feeling good using the Listerine what the owner had finally told the truth. Brought many peoples hopes down.


the listerine and BGH examples are not examples of advertizing which is too honest, but about entrenched intrests which force competing ideas to label products in self-defeating ways.

another example is stevia (a potential sugar substitute which advocates claim as none of the standard cancer/brain related problems of most fake sugars), which due to lobbying from the sugar industry, can only be sold as a "dietary supliment" or some such nonsense.

i don't know the specific benefits or problems of stevia, and frankly, it doesn't matter. this has little to do with the truth of the claims, and i figure there are "experts" who will line up on either side of these issues and take different stands. it is about the power of the ADA, or Monsanto, or the sugar industry, etc.


Parity. That's what it boils down to. There are too many products at parity and marketers are scrambling to find a way to distinguish their respective product in the market place. Honestly, how many versions of the same thing do we really need? Going to the grocery store can be a dizzying experience. Forget electronics, they're even worse. The best products, those that offer distinguishable differences, don't need to make false, misleading or nebulous claims. Want to find the best products in a given category? Just look for the advertising you can understand -- or the lack there of -- great products don't always need promotion.

Oh, and a side note on organic milk: it tastes better and has a longer shelf life than "regular" milk. Funny.


There are blurbs on poultry containers these days saying something along the lines of:

"Grown without artificial growth hormones*

* FDA regulations prohibit the use of hormones on poultry"


My favorite product taglines are the ones that say something to the effect of "No chemicals added!"
That's right folks, this product is made of pure energy.

Miss Middle of Manchester

Here in the UK, Marmite ran a series of adverts pointing out that about 50% of the population loathed it with a violent hatred.

A very successful series, however.

Might just be British humour.


It's mandated thanks to Monsanto, who, p.s., OWN the U.S. Agriculture department, in case no one's noticed.


If you want to learn the whole story behind this, it can be found in the article "Monsanto's Harvest of Fear" in Vanity Fair (link below).

When independent, small farmers began a strategic marketing campaign to carve out a competitive niche, Monsanto began to lose market share, and pressured the U.S. to make the small farmers put that disclaimer on labels. Nevermind it's untrue.

Ken Mayer

I view non-BGH milk and other organic products as not necessarily healthier for me and my family, but as healthier for farmers and farm communities. It's a tax I pay for a better environment and so I can swim in pesticide-free rural creeks. It also supports small farmers instead of agribusinesses.


uhh...just because the FDA says something doesn't mean it's true. The FDA is controlled by Big Chemical. Canada and the UK believe rBGH causes cancer.


ps my fave claim on a product was always Ricola's: "Useful in not promoting tooth decay."


At least the milk part is incredibly simple. BGH became incredibly common in milk, but some people didn't want BGH in their milk, citing health reasons.
Farmers responded to consumer demand by offering milk from cows which had not been treated with BGH.
The Companies behind BGH then used their influence with the government to add the disclaimer to any BGH free milk, fearing consumers would believe BGH was bad for you after they spent billions lining the right pockets to get it approved.

Jef Hall

If you look at the disclaimer on a Bath & Body Works product, it says:

"This finished product not tested on animals"

When do you test a product?

The disclaimer leaves open testing in development as well as testing of the parts that make-up the product.

While I am not against testing, it is a deceitful way of putting it on a label.


Unfortunately it's not honest advertising. It's misleading to nonscientists. To a scientist, "No significant difference" means "these are statistically identical by our tests".

But to a lay person, it doesn't mean that. "No significant difference" means "there are no huge differences but there still could be differences".


I am pretty sure the labeling restrictions are made on a state-by-state basis.


I always thought the simple questions were the best. Avoiding any seething rants by one side or the other I always like to ask "why?" We give cows X,Y, and Z. Why? was there something wrong with the milk before? Or the cow? The decisions to administer pharmaceuticals to livestock or "gene-therapy" to plants didn't come about because of some deficiency in the plant or animal. Only our approach. I don't want to digest pharmaceuticals because people were too lazy to come up with a better idea.

mister worms

Note that the cap says *artificial* growth hormones. Posilac is Monsanto's genetically engineered bovine growth hormone. Perhaps Monsanto's studies haven't shown this, but others have noted that milk from cows treated with rBGH/rBST has higher levels of IGF-1. IGF-1 is suspected to raise certain cancer risks (lung, colon, prostate and breast).

You present this as a misleading advertisement, and indeed it is, because the fine print is BS.


Despite Monsanto's efforts for "truth" in advertising, consumer demand for rBGH-free milk continues to grow.


I think the important thing here is to note that via extensive lobbying (and the infamous monsanto revolving door with the FDA / USDA) legislature has required that this disclaimer be placed.

Most likely the ironic thing is that this 'disclaimer' has never been proven, because the only tests of the product have been done by the company who produces it.

Perhaps there's some economic argument I dont know about, but there is no economic incentive for the company producing the product to be honest about it in the conclusions of their "tests".


Growth hormones have been shown to hurt the health of the cows. There are perfectly non-health related, ethical reasons for consumers to want to have this information.