10 Surprising Marketing Tricks You Should Be Aware Of

by Paul Michael on 21 February 2013 11 comments
Photo: ashleigh290

As an advertising professional, I get exasperated by the use of deceptive language and product claims that are misleading. From ambiguous wording, to modern examples of snake oil, here are 10 things you should know before spending your hard-earned money.

1. Excedrin — Many Names, One Product

You’ll see this not just with Excedrin, but with a multitude of products in the pharmacy section. Why sell just one product when you can repackage it many different ways and grab more of the market share? In this case, Excedrin Extra Strength, Excedrin Migraine, and Excedrin Menstrual Complete all contain exactly the same ingredients, at the same strengths. Buy one; you’ve got them all.

By the way, this also goes for Tylenol Simply Sleep, Benadryl, and generic allergy meds. The only difference is the price and the packaging. (See also: Market Clones: How to Pay Drastically Less for Pricey Products)

2. Beware of "Organic" Eggs

As we all try to do our bit to encourage better food production practices, we often spend a little bit more on eggs to ensure they’re organic and also cage free. But some of those labels are misleading. In one recent case, the 36,000 hens at Chino Valley Ranchers produced eggs for a variety of different labels, ranging from Walmart’s Great Value label to Eggland’s Best and Horizon Organic. The same eggs were repackaged and the prices varied depending on package and destination, but not the treatment of the hens.

3. Chocolate and Champagne Diamonds Are Usually Poor-Quality

Here’s another example of an already scandalous industry trying to make even more money from something that has little worth. It’s no secret that the diamond industry hordes diamonds to keep the prices artificially exorbitant. But now, there’s a new scam. Although there are genuine brown diamonds out there, the vast majority are dusty, cloudy, poor-quality diamonds that have been exposed to radiation, turning them brown. You wouldn’t want these "gems" anywhere near your rings and necklaces, but they have been rebranded as "chocolate" or "champagne" and their prices marked up accordingly. Avoid them.

4. Subway's "Cold Cut Combo" Is All Turkey

Strange but true. Even the Subway menu has it in writing, saying, "The Cold Cut Combo is stacked with turkey-based meats — ham, salami, and bologna." Now, call me old-fashioned, but I always thought ham was made from, well, ham. This is not the case at Subway. Salami and bologna, I was willing to accept that they would be a mixture of different meats. But ham? Even the term "Cold Cut Combo" implies a selection of different meats.

5. Jose Cuervo "Especial" Isn’t Special

If I sold you a cashmere sweater, and you discovered it was made with 51% cashmere and 49% cotton, how would you feel? If I sold you a diamond necklace, and you later found out only 51% of the diamonds were real, would you be annoyed? Well, this is the same deal with Jose Cuervo Especial. The law states that you can label a drink Tequila if it has at least 51% agave. And Jose Cuervo Especial meets that bare minimum. The rest is fermented from other less expensive sugars. Ironically, it’s the most popular brand of Tequila, due to price and some very smart branding. But if you want the real deal, stay away from Especial, and go with their Tradicional and Reserva De La Familia varieties. Better yet, buy a bottle of triple distilled Corralejo Reposado. It’s under $50 a bottle and tastes divine.

6. You Cannot Name a Star

It’s a nice idea, right? To name a star after a loved one as a birthday present or anniversary gift? And there are plenty of sites out there that will let you name a star for as little as $20. They’ll even send you a frameable certificate and a picture of your newly named star.

Well, it’s completely bogus.

Those names are not recognized by anyone outside of the company you paid. Only the International Astronomical Union assigns names to stars, and usually they are a long string of numbers containing the precise coordinates of the star. So, if someone gives you a "star" as a gift, you can smile and say thanks, but just know it means absolutely nothing.

7. Certified Angus Beef May Not Be All That

This is another example of the power of marketing.

In 1978, the American Angus Association coined the term "Certified Angus Beef" as a way to promote Angus as a higher quality beef than other cattle breeds. And now it’s seen as a label of real quality. But the major control method used to determine this Angus "quality" is that the meat comes from a cow with at least 51% black hide. There are other control methods, too, but many butchers will tell you that you won’t be able to taste the difference between regular beef and Certified Angus Beef. If you want quality, look for the USDA Prime label. But note, only 2 to 3% of all beef can receive that high grade.

8. Power Balance Bracelets Do Absolutely Nothing

Well, let me rephrase that. They make money for the companies selling them. And they take money from the poor suckers who believe the hype. But other than that, they are just silly pieces of silicone and plastic that do not contain any special powers at all.

It’s all about the power of suggestion and the placebo affect. If you think you’re getting some benefit from one, it’s because you think it’s working. Mark Cuban famously trashed the stock of power balance bracelets in the NBA dressing room. Oh, and the makers settled a $57 million lawsuit because they had to admit the product does not do what it claims. Still, they continue to be sold on sites like Amazon, so please, avoid them.

9. 73% of Doctors Do NOT Recommend 5-Hour Energy

Have you seen the 5-Hour Energy ad that shows a woman sitting next to a massive pile of papers? There are some incredible claims made in that ad, but this is a classic example of the power of words and the way in which they can be manipulated. It would take a long time to explain it all, and other outlets (Forbes, BrandFailure, BlenderLaw) have dug into the ad in detail. In a nutshell, the ad claims that "73% of doctors who reviewed 5-Hour Energy said they would recommend a low calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements." It’s garbage. It’s deceptive. And it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Doctors are not recommending this product; they are saying that healthy people who are already taking energy supplements should take a low-calorie version. It’s unbelievable that this ad even aired, and as someone who works in advertising, I’m ashamed of this kind of misleading rubbish. Not only that, but 5-Hour Energy has been linked to a number of deaths. Having this ad out there, linking it to doctors, is beyond irresponsible.

10. Vitamin Water Should Really Be Called Sugar Water

This is another example of blatantly deceptive language in an attempt to cash in on many consumers' desire to eat healthy and stay fit.

You’d think a product like Vitamin Water would be a healthy one, but once again it is marketing at work. The two main ingredients in the drink are water and fructose. And while the label states there are only 13 grams of sugar, there is deception at work yet again. Why? Because there are 2.5 servings in a bottle of Vitamin Water! That means a bottle contains 32.5 grams of sugar, which puts it up there with most sugary soft drinks. As for the vitamins in the bottle, they are in there, but they’re trace amounts of synthetic vitamins. The greater danger here is that because of the deceptive language, people are chugging these bottles of "healthy" water without realizing that they’re as bad for them as a bottle of Coke or Pepsi. Even Coca-Cola’s lawyers (Coca-Cola produces Vitamin Water) say that it’s not a healthy beverage! Don’t buy into the hype. Drink water, preferably from the faucet.

How have you protected your wallet by avoiding misleading marketing or outright scams?

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Guest's picture
Tim

I'm trying to parse the above article for you recommendation for "Organic Eggs." Are you saying that we are being fooled by the Organic label because of a case of a company cheating on labeling? The reason I ask is because in subsequent items you say "Here’s another example of an already scandalous industry" and "This is another example of blatantly deceptive language in an attempt to cash in on many consumers' desire to eat healthy and stay fit."

For the people who would like to purchase better eggs, why not suggest they purchase them directly from a farmer or farmers market where the production practices can be questioned?

Paul Michael's picture

Thanks for the comment Tim. It's not illegal to do what they're doing, but they are putting the same eggs into different boxes and charging different amounts for them. I think your suggestion is excellent, buy direct from the source if you can. That goes for as many items as possible, including dairy, meats and your fruit and veg.

Guest's picture
Rohit

I was under the impression you could name the star! oops. Well they should let you do it. It would be amazing and is a good way to remember someone

Guest's picture
Michael

I never really thought about whether all of the various pain medicines were really that different, but what you're saying makes sense. After all, how much could they really change the entire formula in a way that's really going to target your pain? It kind of makes sense on why drugstores (as an example) have such a bigger footprint of those 25-40 years ago. The additional shelf space required to carry all of these identical bottles of medicine is so much larger than when they'd just have the original formula.

Guest's picture
Guest

for some drugs it's not "just" a marketing tactic, though certainly that's part of it. While all those variations of excedrin may have the exact same ingredients, the directions for use are different. Migraine sufferers are directed to take more frequent doses of the medicine than regular headache/aches/pains sufferers. By all means buy the cheaper version, but make sure you're following the correct dosing schedule for your needs.

Guest's picture

I know what you mean Paul, especially with Excedrin. Most of these are just fancy names to sound interesting and new.

Guest's picture
Cody

I can't say there are many surprises here. I pretty much assume that anything that makes big claims without a shred of evidence is going to be a scam. The worst of the bunch is probably those bracelets. We have some different ones here in Canada that have been flooding the TV lately with commercials of happy, smiling, miraculously cured people. I hate to think of how may have been suckered in.

What did surprise me though was the Subway one. The Cold Cut Trio is all turkey? You just blew my mind! I haven't had Subway in probably five years but in high school I ate one of those almost every day and never knew. I guess I just smothered it in enough horrible sauces to not even notice?

Guest's picture
zackrobbin

I never had any trouble spotting the "all turkey" description on the Subway Cold Cut Combo. I thought it an odd name but I always got it anyway. I like turkey and it's the cheapest sandwich on the menu.

Guest's picture
Tom327Cat

I am glad I am not the only one who thought, "Hay! It is better for me than I thought!"

Guest's picture
Guest

"73% of doctors who reviewed 5-Hour Energy said they would recommend a low calorie energy supplement to their healthy patients who use energy supplements." Interesting - this does not say doctors specifically recommend 5-Hour Energy; it doesn't even say *what kind* of energy supplement they recommend. Very careful wording - probably deliberately constructed to avoid legal action.

Guest's picture

This is kind of scary, but not in any way surprising. Its incredible what marketing and advertising agencies will do to make money. Pulling the wool over consumers eyes is a regular practice for almost all big corporations or industries. The only way to really get what you pay for is to do your research and know what you're buying before you buy it. Thanks for the article!