Saturday, December 23, 2006

Commercial Skepticism

Getting new people into skepticism is one of the hardest problems we face. Skepticism isn't magical, it doesn't seem to let you in on secret knowledge (though in some cases, we are the very few sane ones), and it doesn't offer miracles. All we really offer is reality, and that isn't enough for many people. So, we need a hook, and here's what I've come up with:

Skepticism will save you money.

Skepticism will prevent you from spending your money on useless products and services. Intrigued yet? Hopefully with this tact, people will be more likely to give it a shot, find that it works, and then start applying it to other things.

(Note to medical skeptics: Yes, I know it can also save your life, but the problem is that woo will also claim to be able to save your life, so we don't come out ahead here in the view of the layman.)

So, I'm going to do a post today on an advertisement I found dumped in the backseat of my mother's car, presumably found plastered to her windshield. Conveniently, it's for a psychic. Here's basically what it looked like (sans graphics, some formatting, and contact information):

World Renowned Master Psychic

I will tell you enough of your past to convince you of your future without you speaking a single word. One does not live without problems such as: love, marriage, health, business, etc., yet why endure them when a gifted PSYCHIC can and will help you with WHATEVER THE PROBLEMS MAY BE.
  • Ora Analysis
  • Aroma Therapy
  • Past Life Readings
  • Dream Interpretations
  • Tarot Cards
  • Crystal Readings
You May Have Seen Her
On TV or Read About Her! Now You
Can See a "True" Psychic For Positive Results

[Phone number and pricing cut]

Normally, I typically go after spelling, grammar, and formatting first. However, this is an advertisement, so note that a lot of my guidelines for formatting don't apply here. Spelling and grammar still do, of course. So, let's get nit-picky!

  • "World Renowned" should be "World-Renowned." Multiple-word adjectives should be hyphenated, just like "multiple-word" in this sentence.
  • "Ora" is most likely a horrible misspelling of "aura." This one's really amateurish.
  • Again, "Past Life" should be "Past-Life."
  • For the last block of text, don't switch overall formatting in the middle of a sentence. Particularly in advertisement, where periods aren't always required, people are going to mistake this as being a break between sentences at first glance.
  • Keep consistent with your capitalization scheme. You can capitalize every word, or you could do every word except "small" words (articles, conjunctions, and prepositions of 4-letters or less), but don't switch around.
  • The viewpoint changes throughout the advertisement. Sometimes it's the psychic talking in first-person, sometimes it's third-person.
And now, one formatting quirk that's not so nit-picky: The quotation marks in "Now You Can See A 'True' Psychic For Positive Results!" Here, "True" has quotation marks around it. Is this for emphasis? My formatting rule against this still applies; quotation marks should never be used for emphasis. The problem is that the quotation marks could also imply the word doesn't mean its typical definition, and in the case of "true," that's a big problem. It could be that she isn't a "true psychic" at all, and they're just using this to cover their asses so that they can claim some other bogus definition of "true" when she's challenged.

Now, we go on to three tasks you should always perform when dissecting an advertisement. The first of these is to look for loaded terms. These are terms that carry emotional weight, but may not mean anything in the real world (you can't falsify a claim that uses them). A brief look through the advertisement gets the following:

  • "World Renowned" - Makes it sound like she's known all over the world. But could you bring a court case against her with this term? Nope, she could just claim she has a cousin in Italy or whatever, so she's known by someone over there. This term is essentially meaningless.
  • "Master" - This generally means one of two things. In trade skills, it means you've taken on apprentices. In other cases, it means you're perfect at your profession. People are going to assume the latter, but again this is unfalsifiable. She could simply claim that being a psychic by nature has uncertainties, so even someone who's mastered the art will sometimes be wrong. She could also claim she was using the first definition, and she has an apprentice.
  • "Gifted" - Someone with an ability beyond most other people is called "gifted," but ask yourself this: How many people are there in the world who don't excel in some area enough to be considered "gifted" in it? Very few. It might be quantum physics they're gifted in, or it might be trivia about The Beatles, but claiming you're gifted is almost always safe. In this case, I'm guessing she thinks she's gifted at fraud - though I don't think this is a particularly good attempt at it.
  • "You May Have Seen Her On TV or Read About Her!" - Was she on TV as a psychic, or was she on TV because Penn and Teller were debunking her on Bullshit!? Was she in a book about famous psychics, or was she mentioned in The Demon-Haunted World? It makes a difference, but the advert never says.
Now, the second task: Look for cop-outs. These are weakening phrases or disclaimers put in to cover their asses from false-advertisement suits. This ad is pretty clear of them, and the only one is "may have" in "You May Have Seen Her On TV or Read About Her!" This normally means that you might not have seen her simply because you weren't watching or reading the right things. It could also mean, however, that she actually wasn't on TV on in print at any time.

And finally, the third task: Look for what isn't said. Often, advertisements will leave out information that seems like it would be important. That they left it out can be really telling. This case is no exception. Go up and see if you can spot it for yourself.

Found it? The big ingredient that's missing is the name of the psychic. She's world-renowned, we may have seen her on TV or read about her, but you won't tell us who she is!? Now that's suspicious. My guess is that they're doing this as they don't have just one psychic at this agency, so they can get away with multiple people giving readings without the customers knowing, much like the Miss Cleo scam.

Now, there's something else I'd like to point out in this particular advert:

I will tell you enough of your past to convince you of your future without you speaking a single word. One does not live without problems such as: love, marriage, health, business, etc....

Is it just me, or is she completely giving away the scam here? She'll tell you things about your past that happen to everyone on earth, and use this to convince you that she's also right about your future. Also, I doubt that the "without you speaking a single word" part is true. Psychics often engage in Cold Reading to draw information out of their victim subject, and this relies on their responses. But maybe this one is too lame to even do that.


Nes said...

Also, I doubt that the "without you speaking a single word" part is true.

I guarantee that it isn't true. Many "psychics" (that was proper use of quotes!) say that while knowing full well that most people will (unintentionally!) provide information anyway.

My verification word was: ryhtjg. It means: one who washes clothing while nude.

(That's something I saw someone else doing somewhere; I'm hoping to make it a meme and spread it around. Just make up some quirky "meaning" for the "word.")

Infophile said...

I'm with you on the meaning, but how do you pronounce it? I'm pretty sure the Welsh would have a way to pronounce that, but FSM knows what it is.