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Truth in Advertising, And Other Lies

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As college English instructor, I am programmed to spot semantic errors. I've observed, however, that various companies don't appreciate my efforts to apprise them of their egregious goofs.

Case in point: Recently I marched down to our local feed store to purchase suet for the birds. On the label I read the following: attracts a better variety of birds. Were they suggesting I had been feeding no account birds, birds from the wrong neighborhood? What they meant was "attracts a greater variety of birds." I wrote to the suet manufacturer's marketing department apprising them of their error. You'd think they'd be grateful. But no thank you, no appreciation. See if I purchase their product again.

Next I wrote to a cat litter company whose product ostensibly weighs 21 pounds. A note on the box exclaimed, "Up to 25% lighter, making it easier to lift, carry and pour." Using advanced calculus and a cheat sheet, I was able to determine that 25% of 21 pounds is 5.25 pounds. So, did I purchase 15.75 pounds of litter or did I purchase 21 pounds?

A man named Ken wrote back thanking me for my feedback and offering me oodles of coupons; he also explained that "up to 25% lighter" refers to other litter brands in similar jugs, that their litter is only 75% of their competitors' weight, 15 compared to 20, or 25% lighter."

This sounded a bit squirrely to me, so I asked a math professor his opinion. He responded, "they might think that what they said is equivalent to saying their competitors' product weighs 25% more (per unit volume), but it's not the same. If the latter is true, then their product weighs only 20% less, that is 25% more than 100 pounds is 125 pounds, but 25% less than 125 pounds is not 100 pounds." (Got that?)


I wrote to Ken again. "With all due respect, it appears your company is guilty of a misrepresentation. We often get caught up in semantic conundrums without realizing it, especially when using percentages to indicate how much more or less something is." (I thought this sounded particularly fine coming from someone who is mathematically challenged.)

To date, Ken has not written back. I'm still waiting for my coupons.

With a Perspective, this is Judie Rae.

Judie Rae teaches college English and is a freelance writer. She lives in Nevada City.

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