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Lies, Damned Lies, and Ads

Entry 1807, on 2016-08-16 at 21:47:41 (Rating 3, News)

I generally despise advertising. I dislike commercialism in general, but to me advertising seems to be the worst manifestation of commercialism. Basically it is the attempt by companies to persuade people, using whatever strategies they can, to buy stuff which it might or might not be in their best interests to buy.

It's probably a bit unkind to tar all advertisers with the same brush, but in general it is at least a good approximation to the truth (a bit like the ads themselves, I guess, so there's a bit of irony there). Some ads are quite entertaining I admit, at least the first 3 or 4 times you see them, after that they are just as tedious as all the rest. And some ads do make at least a superficial effort to impart real information, but none are truly unbiased appraisals of the truth.

But the worst ads are those which are nothing but lies. Regulations exist to prevent ads being misleading but these are ineffective for 2 reasons: first, generally the ad runs and does the intended damage before it is stopped by regulators; and second, it is possible to lie while still telling the truth (I will explain this bizarre claim below).

The latest example of the worst type of ad - which was not only full of lies but was clearly harmful to the community - was one run on New Zealand TV by a group called Fluoride Free New Zealand. As the name suggests, this is a group which wants to stop the use of fluoride in New Zealand drinking water.

So let's look at some of the claims in their advertising...

First, they say that fluoride is a waste product from the fertiliser industry, and contains traces of lead, aluminium, arsenic, and sometimes uranium. It is has to be handled by workers in hazmat suits. And it cannot be released into water or air because it is toxic.

These things are all true... in a way. One source of fluoride is as a byproduct of an industrial process and the contaminants listed are genuine. But fluoride isn't the only useful product derived from the waste of another process, and that in itself doesn't make it good or bad.

And contaminants like those listed are everywhere in small quantities, not just in fluoride. In fact "clean" water contains hundreds of "contaminants" including arsenic, lead, and uranium. And these aren't just from human sources - they are all natural parts of the environment. But they are in such small concentrations that they aren't a hazard.

You can't talk about toxicity without stating the dose. Everything is toxic in large enough quantities, even water. And everything is safe in small enough quantities, even uranium. When handling a concentrated form of a chemical it is often necessary to use protective clothing, but once that chemical is diluted it is totally safe.

The second claim is that fluoride doesn't work. The anti-fluoride activists quote "facts" like the rates of dental decay in some parts of Europe where fluoride isn't added to the water are as good as, or better, than the rates in places where fluoride is used.

Again, this is true. But there are a few factors they don't mention. For example, fluoride is added to salt and milk instead of water in some parts of Europe. Also, fluoride occurs naturally in the water in many parts of the world so there is no need to add to what is already there.

Many of the people in the anti-fluoride camp aren't stupid. They must know the facts that I have stated here. And they must also know that practically every expert in the field agrees that fluoride is safe and that it works. So they must know that their arguments are misleading at best, and yet they use them anyway.

Why? I guess for the same reason that people who, for political reasons, don't want to accept the reality of global warming so deny all the evidence using exactly the same tactics as I have mentioned above. And for the same reasons that religious people reject the fact of evolution and continue to accept the most ridiculous nonsense that any competent, intelligent, unbiased person would laugh at. And for the same reason that some groups believe in 9/11 conspiracies, UFO cover-ups, vaccination dangers, and an apparently endless variety of other stuff.

There's nothing much that can be done about these people because once they start venturing into the realms of conspiracies then all evidence against the conspiracy becomes part of it. Every new professional body which supports the use of fluoridation is just another part of the cover-up making their mission of exposing it even more critical. And if no professional bodies supported it then that would also indicate fluoridation should be rejected. There is nothing which can disprove their ideology.

So the nutters will always exist and we need to accept that, but they become dangerous when they start influencing the ignorant public with misleading propaganda in TV ads. But, as I said above, just about every ad is designed to do exactly that. So it becomes difficult to say which ads are OK and which aren't.

I'm fairly sure that this campaign will be found to have been against the advertising regulations because it is so misleading. But the damage is already done. People have been exposed to those images of fluoride being scraped out of fertiliser factory chimneys and being distributed by workers wearing hazmat suits. Any correction is unlikely to erase those powerful images.


Comment 1 (4526) by richard on 2016-08-19 at 11:38:59:

Good post - Totally agree that some ads are bad for distorting truth, but eradicating it - well 'She's a pretty big job'. Expecting big companies with big bucks on the line to care at all? 'Maaaate - you must be dreaming'... :-)

'But wait - there's more'... it's also very easy for us all to slip into 'misleading mode'. Without considering the evolution debate itself at all, 'clinical tests have shown' ;-) that your statement meant to imply it's only religious people that doubt evolution as a fact, is also completely false and misleading. What do you mean by evolution? There are a number of meanings. There are lot's of religious people that do embrace 'evolution', and there are lots of completely non-religious people that do not. 'Bugger' :-)

Yes - the nutters will always exist, and while some damage is done with misleading ads, one would hope that if informative corrections are also posted, the damage is... 'for a limited time only'.

In the meantime - still waiting for my set of steak knives...


Comment 2 (4527) by OJB on 2016-08-19 at 21:54:14:

It's more than "some" ads which distort the truth. I would say it is the majority. Surely that is the whole purpose of advertising, because there are very few products and services which are really so different from their competitors that they would be preferable based on their merits alone. Of course, that was just a peripheral issue to the main point anyway.

I have never found any significant group who doubt evolution for reasons other than religion. There are, of course, the majority of people who have never even thought about it and don't care. They might say they doubt it but only through apathy rather than any true opposition. And there are a few outliers in other areas, but nothing of any significance.

Unfortunately the corrections to damaging information rarely attain the same high profile as the original misleading stuff. That is why these groups know that, even if they are forced to withdraw their claims or apologise, it makes little difference. Also, the people correcting the deliberately misleading claims tend to be more honest and their points are less sensational and therefore less memorable. It's a sad fact that the truth - which is often uncertain and nuanced - has a lot less impact than misleading or incorrect but sensational claims.


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