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Phony reviews, phony news, phony search engines…

It seems there are no limits to the economic corruption of 21st century media. Not only can you not distinguish digital from real images in movies and television, but now you can not assume that product testimonials, “news articles”, internet search engines or restaurant reviews are independent from the manufacturer/advertiser.

I think the trend to what I call “camouflaged advertising” has accelerated to the point of ridiculousness.

In contract law, there is the concept of “mere puffery”, being harmless and obvious exaggeration by an advertiser. Current practices go miles and miles beyond the line of puffery, well into the realm of what I would call, “consumer fraud”. It is deliberate misrepresentation made with the intention of deceiving the recipient into making an economic decision to the benefit of the advertiser.

Why this is permitted by governments and consumers unabated is complex. The biggest reason is that people are becoming increasingly skeptical and resilient to all advertising, even indirect advertising.

For the sake of discussion, I’d like to examine a few of the more objectionable kinds of camouflaged advertising.

Phony Testimonials:
Just as it is better to have someone else extol your virtues to a potential client or baseball coach, it is more effective to have a respected expert or public figure praise your product or service. Praise coming from someone else garners more credibility than boasting. Real testimonials are priceless: phony testimonials are the best money can buy.

Moreover, our obsession with celebrities, however notorious or odious, gives the celebrity testimonial tremendous horsepower. We want to do as the celebrity does; to do so raises the standards of our mundane little lives.

Time after time, celebrities and others are caught in the lies of their testimonials: using golf balls other than those endorsed by the golf pro, the cola spokesperson drinking the other brand, and the actor who doesn’t even know what he’s promoting, never having used it before or since. I would speculate the vast majority of celebrity/phony expert endorsements are out and out lies.

Call me paranoid, but I think there is another reason for the prevalent use of these phony testimonials. If a manufacturer says that its product “eliminates the effect of aging”, it will be prosecuted for false advertising. However, if a person, ostensibly (but not actually) independent of the manufacturer, states that “this product eliminates the effect of aging”, then it is merely the expression of an opinion. And hey, we have freedom of expression, right? I believe false testimonials are a commonly used way to slip in unsubstantiated claims.

It is bad enough that a celebrity will prostitute their reputation for a few bucks, falsely endorsing a product, but what really gets me steamed are these phony experts: some dentist with a lab coat telling us how wonderful this toothpaste is. Or, the quasi-expert, like a race car driver endorsing a car wax. What the hell does a racer know about car wax?

We know some celebrities will endorse anything, and that these TV white lab coats are three-dollar bills. It’s still false advertising, and I surmise that it fools some of the people some of the time. If it was ineffective, they wouldn’t be increasing their use of this technique (or so you would think).

I would like to see the Competition Bureau require every person giving a testimonial to swear an affidavit attesting to their use and satisfaction with the subject product or service.

Phony News & Reviews
Primarily in the printed media of both large city and small community papers, “articles” are published as if they are news reports. The odd one has the word, “advertising” in small print above it, but most don’t bother anymore. What appears to be a critical review of a restaurant or a product is found to be a puff piece, often written by the advertiser itself.

Some of these so-called articles are press releases, printed almost verbatim. Other ones are set pieces meant to fill out a page or section of theme advertising, be it wireless technology, legal software or gardening. Once you read the first few lines of the story, you realize it’s journalistic crap, just a promotion piece, too general to be useful, or a decade out of date.

The notorious has become the normal, without apologies from the publishers.

The print media would have us believe that they cannot afford to pay for high quality journalism based on independent research. So they are compelled to stuff the newspapers with pap, and surround the pap with ads.

You could say this practice is no worse than the kick-back system used by retailers to allocate shelf space to products. You want shelf space, you pay the store a lot of money. If you want editorial coverage of something, you buy large display ads in a theme section. Who’s screwing who is somewhat of a quandary. Well, no, we the readers are getting it.

Like phony testimonials, our reaction to these phony articles is to ignore them, though every once in awhile we get tricked into reading a few paragraphs before we realize that the words are tainted. It insults our intelligence, and confirms our view that much of contemporary newspapers is fish wrap, a waste of time.

Phony Internet Search Engines
Beware of the common misconception that new-age entrepreneurs hold themselves and others to a higher level of integrity (as contrasted to smoke-stack industrialists). As nifty internet ideas are now required to demonstrate potential profitability by investors, the dot-coms and search engines must resort to traditional sources of revenue such as advertising.

Banner advertising on websites is automatically blocked out by most of us, so they have created new ways to capture our attention and thereby earn advertising revenues.

Now, when you go to one of the omnibus sites that is designed to serve your every need (sports, hobbies, news, financial info, personal, etc.), and plug in an area, you are dished up those link(s) which have paid for exclusive connections to the search engine/website.

For example, I go to one of these sites, and request a search on travel to New York City. Instead of numerous hits on interesting and independent sites featuring travel information on New York City, I get another site which sells only its own limited packages and connections. I find this quite annoying: it wastes my time.

As a result, I tend to use a multi-searcher called “Sherlock 2” which uses several search engines at the same time. One of them usually gives me something useful.

None of these phony things are worth getting your dander up about. However, it indicates a further slide in the integrity of the media and the internet, leading to more selective utilization by we users. We will vote with our feet, or with the click of our mouse.


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