Friday, June 10, 2011

Maybe It's Because

One particular group of commercials has drawn my ire lately.

No, but that's a really good guess.

Wrong aga-- wait, huh? What? Really? Wow. Just wow.

While these ads are undoubtedly the scrambled transmissions of the Hell-damned desperately trying to communicate their pleas for salvation to the living, they are not our focus here. No, we're focusing on ads that use a certain weasel phrase, one of the many, many finely-tuned techniques designed to separate you from your money or your vote.

That phrase is "Maybe it's because."

The typical set-up for the phrase will be for the ad to ask a question of some sort. A company may ask why their products are so popular or sell so well. A candidate for office might ask why their opponent voted a certain way, holds a certain view, or said or did a certain thing.

They will then answer their own question, starting with the phrase "Maybe it's because..."

Everything said after "Maybe it's because..." should be taken with enough salt to cure every pig in the old Chicago stockyards.

Why? Any definitive, absolute statement in an ad must be proven via FCC rules. If you make a claim without a qualification, and you're wrong, that's false advertising. With a qualification, however- any qualification- you give yourself much more legal leeway. If you make a "100% guarantee" on something, any failure of that guarantee can get you in trouble. But if you make a "virtually 100% guarantee", you have some protection when, say, someone's birth control pill fails. (As Violet Whittington of West Virginia found out in court against Eli Lilly in 1971.) You didn't actually promise 100% success. The "virtually" instilled doubt, at least for legal purposes.

"Maybe it's because" is another one of those qualifiers. Once you've said "maybe it's because," the rest of the sentence can be almost anything you want. It may be the reason. It may not. Your answer may be a total non-sequitur, or a weasel-laden string of words in and of itself.

The unspoken message given is 'Maybe it's the reason. But then, maybe it's not. Who knows? Not us. We're just speculating. It's a potential answer, but not necessarily the actual answer.' Of course, they'll never venture a second guess. And whatever their answer is, any relationship between it and the actual answer is likely to be entirely coincidental.

And that's assuming the question doesn't have flaws of its own. Take this Toyota ad...

The question is why "so many" car companies compare themselves to Toyota. But "so many" isn't defined in any way. All that you can really take from the question is that a plural amount of car companies compare themselves to Toyota. Obviously it's more than that, but you don't get a count. More to the point, you don't get a comparative count- whether more companies compare themselves to Toyota, or compare themselves to Toyota more often, than they do other companies. Maybe they in fact get more comparisons than others. But maybe they don't. Maybe other companies compare themselves more often to Ford, or Honda, or BMW.

And even if they kept a count, maybe Toyota's only counting Japanese car companies, or are using a friendly time frame, or any number of other things. It's not explicitly stated what exactly they mean by the question, and in an ad, if it's not stated explicitly, it's up for some pretty wild interpretation.

The actual "maybe it's because" answer, by the time it's given, is a naked excuse to tout sales rankings. Maybe they compare because Toyota has the sales. But then, maybe it's because the closest comparable car to whatever it is they made happens to be a Toyota. Maybe they like how their car stacks up against a Toyota. Maybe they were pouncing on Toyota's bad publicity gained from their accelerator/floor mat recalls. Maybe a Toyota ran over the opposition ad man's dog. Who knows? Who can truly know why a man does what he does? Certainly not Toyota. All they can do is speculate as to the mysteries of man.

Or, failing that, create their own.

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