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To protect us all from lies and fraud, the government makes sure that everyone only tells the truth in their advertisements -- in the most literal, mundane sense of "truth". However, that doesn't stop advertisers from trumping up neutral, insignificant or even negative aspects of their products as though they were positive, by using phrases like "real", "100%", "free from" and "pure". The things these ads say are true, but not necessarily good things. It works because the standards for those products are esoteric or obscure: if you hear it repeated often enough, you'll assume it actually is a good thing because you don't know any better.

For Bonus Points, the ad can imply that competitors' products fail to measure up to the same standards. After all, if this brand of dry cereal proclaims so loudly that it is 100% fat free while the rest are silent, that means other brands are just dripping with lard, right?

To be clear, this trope does not refer to labels that are used mistakenly or fraudulently. It's only Asbestos Free Cereal if the advertisement is entirely true, but misleading in that the claims it makes are actually insignificant (they apply to all products in that category, as in the page image, or just have no bearing on the product's quality at all) or negative (somewhat rarer), repackaged to seem positive and desirable.

Sister tropes are Lite Creme, All-Natural Snake Oil, and the somewhat more malicious Never Needs Sharpening. A form of False Reassurance and Turd Polish.



Straight examples:

Good, Pure, Real and All-Natural

  • Fast food companies who tout their "100% pure grade-A beef", which sounds great unless you happen to know that "grade-A" to the USDA just means slaughtered before age 30 months. It has nothing to do with quality.
  • Products that tout themselves as being "a good source of protein," "a good source of calcium" or "100% of your daily supply of vitamin C" may be full of cholesterol, fat, or sugar. It's usually not difficult to get your RDI of protein or vitamin C, so these labels are in some places relegated to meaty fast food or sugary fruit-flavoured drinks that have nothing else going for them nutritionally.
  • "Real American cheese" typically doesn't mean a single kind of American-sourced cheese, like Cheddar, Colby or Gouda, but what the USDA refers to as processed cheese, which is actually cheese sauce (the details of which are covered over in the Velveeta entry in Lite Creme) that's been colored with annatto to look like Cheddar. It's not all that bad; it at least tastes like cheese most of the time. The implication, however, is that there's worse, and there is. "Imitation" cheese, which is made from whey, oil and water like margarine, is even cheaper and tastes like plastic.
  • McDonald's emphasizes its "hand-picked Arabica coffee beans" in its McCafe advertisements. Arabica is usually considered a better product than robusta, but whether "hand-picked" matters is a difference of opinion. And most coffee beans are Arabica, anyway.
    • Maxwell House did this same "100% hand-picked Arabica" schtick long before McDonald's thought of it, and quite a few brands in the US quickly followed suit. Folger's, significantly, does not make any such claims, mostly because their product does in fact contain a large percentage of Robusta beans.
    • This stems from a price war in the 60s and 70s that, among other things, had companies moving to using only cheaper, harsher tasting Robusta beans. The practice had nearly killed the coffee market by the early 1980s.
    • On top of all these points, the phrase "hand-picked" in reference to coffee is needlessly redundant. Coffee is not a very cooperative plant and the fruit on a given tree does not ripen all at the same time, so all coffee is hand-picked otherwise half the crop would be wasted.
  • 7Up once advertised "5 all-natural ingredients" for about a month. These five natural ingredients included High Fructose Corn Syrup and Natural Flavors.
  • "100% Pure Olive Oil." Nowadays all olive oil is 100% pure - if it weren't, it would have to be marketed as "vegetable oil," and no sane manufacturer would waste expensive olive oil on that. However, before 1994 it was perfectly acceptable to blend up to 10% unrefined peanut oil - and unrefined peanut oil is chock full of peanut protein - into American olive oil. Four deaths in one year caused the law to be changed.
  • Any "whole wheat" or "whole grain" bread that is actually mostly white flour.
    • One problem is that in some parts of the US, the word "wheat" is (confusingly and inaccurately) used to mean "whole wheat". The manufacturer can claim that he used the phrase "wheat bread" to differentiate its product from (for example) rice bread, and in most of the country that would be reasonable.
  • Lots of people buy meat with the label "Free-Range" on it, thinking it means the animals are allowed to roam freely outdoors (instead of being kept in cages or overcrowded buildings) before being slaughtered. What it actually means is that the animals are allowed to roam freely outdoors, but it doesn't tell you whether that's for 5 minutes a day (the minimum F.D.A. requirement for "Free-Range") or whether the animals spend the majority of their time outdoors.

Free, Clear and Hypo-Allergenic

  • "No artificial flavours, colours or preservatives" is commonly used when there would be no expectation of having any of the above. There's also the fact that "artificial" vs "natural" only refers to the method of isolating the particular compound being used - creating them "artificially" vs extracting them "naturally". See also All-Natural Snake Oil.
  • Any plant product can be labelled "cholesterol free," since cholesterol only comes from animal products. That doesn't stop sellers from pretending like it differentiates them from their competitors.
  • This is pretty common in the food industry, and is sometimes allergy information as much as it is an advertisement. This kind of 'advertisement' usually shows up to cover one's ass if traces of other foods end up in the product after they leave the factory and prevent lawsuits. Doesn't explain some of these, however:
    • Wegman's Cola, a generic version of Coke, is marketed on the label as "Gluten free", "Lactose free", and "Vegan". So it has no wheat, milk, or other animal product, which soda never does anyway.[1]
    • Similarly, there's at least one type of white cooking wine that advertises itself as "Gluten free" but Fridge Logic kicks in when you realize that wine is made out of grapes, so there is never gluten in it. Even rice wine, which is made of "glutinous rice" is gluten free, due to an odd language quirk. [2]
    • Another joiner on this particular bandwagon is Santa Cruz Organic Peanut Butter, which is 100% made from peanuts and has the label highlighting that it is "gluten free". Even brands of peanut butter that aren't 100% peanuts generally don't use gluten-containing products.
      • While there is certainly an opportunistic advertising element to all of these examples, it's also a bit Truth In Television. To legally declare a product "gluten free" you have to do gluten testing, maintain separate production facilities, etc. Gluten contamination can occur before the product even exists- i.e., oats growing in a field where wheat was once planted.
  • "No trans fats" is an easy bandwagon to jump on, since trans fats are artificially created. Plenty of things get marked with this that wouldn't get trans fats put in them anyways, like fruit smoothies.
  • Similarly, "no carbs", though "carbs" are naturally created. Still, you wouldn't expect a whole lot of carbs in your beef jerky...
  • Australian companies advertising that their chicken is "free of hormones" in an attempt to make it appear that other companies did use hormones. Australia has banned hormones in Chicken since 1960.
    • You can't have hormone-free chicken - they naturally contain a whole cocktail of hormones (as do people and all other animals). What's forbidden is presumably injecting chicken with shots of additional growth hormone to make them grow faster. So the advertising here isn't so much absestos-free cereal as water-free milk.
  • AFACT, a lobby group of dairy farmers sponsored by hormone giant Monsanto, invoked this trope in a rather controversial case. AFACT tried to have labels stating that milk and dairy was free of bovine growth hormones banned because consumers prefer their milk growth hormone free (there are no hormones in the milk. It is chemically identical, but cows treated with it produce more milk). Their argument ran that the labels were confusing consumers into thinking that there was a health difference, and that the growth hormones were FDA approved so they shouldn't be punished for using them. So far they've been unsuccessful.
    • No removing the true claim, but the FDA now requires a counter-claim. Dairy products labeled "hormone-free" are also getting labels saying that the FDA doesn't believe hormone-free has any health benefits over the other kind.
  • The anti-GMO movement is so popular now that some manufacturers put non-GM labels even on salt. It is impossible to genetically modify salt because it doesn't have any genes since it is not an organism.
  • Any tea bags that says "Gluten Free." There is no reason any tea leaves would contain gluten. [3]
  • A frequently used version of this on instant soups and similar products in Germany is to label them as "with no added flavour enhancers". While that is technically true, most of these products contain yeast extract, which happens to be rich in monosodium glutamate, a flavour enhancer.
  • Frozen chicken products, such as nuggets, strips, etc., often proudly proclaim on the packaging that the chicken is "100% hormone-free!" The astute consumer will note the tiny disclaimer on the side of the package stating that FDA regulations prohibit hormones from being used in chicken.
    • (Technically speaking this is false advertising because all multicellular organisms, including of course chicken, produce hormones.)
  • "Dermatologically Tested" Skin Creams. When buying a skin cream, you'd hope that at some point it had been tested on skin.
  • Fat-free hard candy. In case anybody thought hard candy contains anything besides sugar and flavoring.
  • There was a bit of a scandal in the Netherlands some years ago when chupa chup lollies came on the market and made a big point about 'being healthy' (on account of the fruit-juice in it). Of course they aren't: they are full of sugar and the fruit is way to much processed to have any nutritional value. They were laughed off the market.


Other Claims (to be sorted)

  • Adverts for eggs and milk often point out that they will "give you energy". This is true only in the most literal sense: eggs and milk contain calories, and calories are a unit of energy.
    • at least eggs and milk are kinda good for you. but nutella's main sales-argument is also 'gives you energy', yeah, refined sugar tends to do that. sugar is also the main ingredient in 'energy-drinks', with the caffeine and taurine more of an afterthought.
  • Bell Canada advertises their high-speed Internet as "perfect for laptops". Well, it really doesn't matter what form of computer you're using, but sometimes an included Wi-Fi router does come in handy.
  • Certs is advertised as the only breath freshener with Retsyn. Retsyn is a combination of ingredients which is made by Certs under the trademarked name "Retsyn," so nobody else is allowed to use that name even if they use the same ingredients.
    • Ditto with Trident Xtra-Care gum, which advertises calcium-based Recaldent to "remineralize" teeth. (Recaldent, of course, is just a combination of the prefix "re-", the word "calcium", and the French "dent", meaning tooth.)
  • Several yogurt companies do this as well, having invented their own trademarked names for certain bacteria that appear in the human digestive system; therefore, Activia really can say that they are the only yogurt that contains B.L. regularis, because they are the only ones with the rights to that particular name for it.
  • Many types of washing powder ads. There was one that loudly advertised it used/contained 'blue energy'. A consumer show ridiculed it, by interviewing people and asking if anyone had any idea what 'blue energy' is supposed to be. It turns out it was actually just blue dye. Since blue neutralizes yellow in the color spectrum, washing yellowed garments in heavily-diluted blue dye will give the illusion of the material coming out whiter. (It's the same thing that gave us the Elderly Blue Haired Lady).
  • Many Role Playing Games (especially in the 16-bit era) had advertisements or box blurbs boasting "Over XX hours of gameplay!" Depending on the game, a good number of these "XX hours" would unfortunately be devoted to Level Grinding.
    • Tales of Symphonia did one better: They advertised "over 80 hours of gameplay". Actual time to the completion of the storyline, with obnoxious Level Grinding and dubious Side Quests: around 40 hours. But they've got a New Game+ feature, so that's forty hours, twice, which is totally the same thing as eighty hours!
  • "Only Birdseye peas have Birdseye's Vitamins In Peas guarantee!" Yes, because you are hardly going to give that marketing gimmick to your competitors are you?
  • In the NES and SNES era, video game ads which trumpeted that the game in question possessed "The Nintendo Seal of Quality". The Nintendo Seal of Quality only meant that the game was guaranteed to run properly and met Nintendo's standards of censorship, and the publisher had paid Nintendo the licensing fee. It had nothing to do with whether or not the game was any good. Today the seal is simply called the "Official Nintendo Seal", disclaiming any particular guarantee of quality.
  • Sega used to tout the greatness of "blast processing" technology that their consoles used. "Blast processing" doesn't exist.
  • Battery companies advertising that their alkaline batteries last 2 to 4 times longer than other brands of battery. It's true. But they always fail to point out the type of battery they are comparing to is cheaper zinc–carbon batteries rather than similarly priced alkaline ones. If compared against similar alkaline batteries, there would be next to no difference in length of use. Duracell is a major offender with this.
  • "Enriched flour" sounds impressive, but all it means is that some, but not all, of the nutrients lost during processing have been replaced, likely by synthetic vitamins.
  • Similar to the "Over X hours of gameplay!" listed above, many games would advertise having "Over X characters!" or something, and then would have X+1. A particularly bad example is Baten Kaitos: It advertised "Over 1000 Magnus!", and it has 1022. Which included things like plot and sidequest items, photos you take of enemies to sell them for cash since there are no Money Spiders, healing expendables and a whole bunch of crap in general.
  • Ultra-pasteurization is a process that involves boiling milk at such a high temperature that almost all the bacteria is removed, improving its shelf-life, which is useful for the people storing it. It also destroys most of the milk's flavor, and provides zero health benefits (it might even make it less healthy, since it destroys bacteria that would probably be good for you.) So what do you do when US law forces you to put an "ultra-pasteurized" label on your product? You put the words in big, italicized letters right on the front of the carton, as if it's a selling point, and hope the unsuspecting public assumes it means the milk is healthier or somehow better than normal milk.
  • An advertisement for a device amplifying one's hearing starts out by cheerfully saying "How would you like to have SONIC HEARING?!" 'Sonic' is, by definition, a part of hearing.
  • In 2011, the Belgian cable company Telenet has been advertising its internet via the cable as "Surf at the speed of light!" Virtually all internet traffic uses fibre-optic connection at some point in the process, which moves at the speed of light. The only thing that improves download speeds is how many signals can be sent at the same time over the same connection.
  • Brompton's bicycles claim to have over X amount of specialized parts on every bicycle (usually in the triple digits). Brompton also patented each part in a way that no other company can make parts that will fit on a Brompton. What this means is that Brompton has a monopoly on its parts. If your Brompton needs even the slightest bit of maintenance or repair, be prepared to pay through the nose because Brompton can charge any price it wants. (By contrast, there is a standard on most bicycle parts that frequently need repair, such as brakes and inner tubes, that nearly all other bicycle manufacturers follow, including those of higher quality than Brompton's.)

Lampshade Hangings and Parodies

Folklore and Humor

  • Allegedly, a company that sold canned fish realized that white salmon was much cheaper than pink salmon because there was a lower demand for it. So the company started marketing the white salmon as "Guaranteed not to turn pink in the can!" Sales increased, until a rival started marketing their pink salmon with the promise that there was "no bleach used in processing!"


Live-Action TV

  • On Thirty Rock, Liz felt socially responsible because her awesome new jeans had a "Hand made in USA" label. Then Jack corrected her pronunciation, revealing that the jeans were made by the "Hohnd" people, slave laborers in the despotic island nation of "Usa" (pronounced like "Oosa").
  • Shown in the first episode of Mad Men, about cigarettes, with the tagline "it's toasted!" which all tobacco is. Truth in Television -- cigarette companies did advertise this way.
  • The Goodies: On "It Might as Well Be String" (a spoof of the advertising industry), their ad campaign for Sunbeam Sliced Bread claims that "nine out of ten doctors agree that people who eat Sunbeam Sliced Bread are less likely to be trampled to death by elephants". Graeme does mention that it was a struggle to find the right nine doctors, however.
    • And the elephants.
  • Gob's banana stand in Arrested Development. "Finally a frozen banana that won't make you sick and kill you!"
  • An example of the harmful variation from The Sarah Jane Adventures: "BubbleShock! Contains Bane!"


Magazines and Periodicals

  • The Mad book Madvertising (Or, Up Madison Avenue) (1972) had some gags promoting a nonexistent product to mock this sort of labeling:
    • Ron's Only tomato sauce: "Does not contain any linseed oil or shirt starch"
    • Prull shampoo: "Gets hair extra clean, without drowning roots and causing baldness"
    • Mr. Chipper cookies: "And no one has ever died from eating our brand!"
    • S&R trading stamps: "Backed with a special glue that won't give you cancer of the tongue!"
    • Golf gasoline: "NO WATER to rust your tank! NO MOLASSES to gum up your engine!"


Newspaper Comics

  • One Calvin and Hobbes strip had Calvin come up with an idea for selling "Calvin's Curative Elizir". When Hobbes pointed out that it was drainage water with leaves in it, he described it as "Fortified With Chlorophyll".


Other Internet

  • Many submissions of tool-assisted speedruns to TASVideos.org mention that the run "does not color a dinosaur." (Color a Dinosaur is an infamously low-quality coloring book for the NES, and is considered by TASVideos to be a bad game choice.)
  • A study of drinking water disinfectants expresses concern that iodine based disinfectants are not regulated by the EPA in drinking water. Of course, this is because it is unheard of to disinfect water with iodine. Every system uses the much cheaper chlorine.


Radio

  • A Prairie Home Companion has segments "sponsored" by "Old Folks at Home Cottage Cheese", which is the only brand of cottage cheese which promises right on the label that it contains no arsenic. We're not saying other cottage cheeses do, but isn't it suspicious that they've never come out and said so?


Urban Legends

  • A newspaper advert for a "Genuine Mexican coathanger. Only $5." When the curious shoppers send away for their coathanger, they receive a rusty nail.
    • Similarly, an advert explaining that, while marijuana cannot be sold through the mail, "grass" can. People who fell for it got a packet of lawn clippings.
  • A Company that was selling clotheslines as "wind-powered clothes dryers".
  • A Tuna company that gets a shipment of accidentally bleached tuna and markets it with the slogan "doesn't turn pink in the can!"
    • This story is also told about canned salmon. In this (somewhat more likely) version of the tale, the salmon in question was simply a different variety whose flesh was paler, and the advertising campaign was meant to quell consumer fears that something was wrong with the white salmon.
    • There's a third version of this story out there in which the white salmon is advertised as a rare delicacy with a price to match, even though there's no difference in flavor or quality between it and regular salmon.
    • This type of salmon does indeed have different flavor characteristics than normal salmon, there is a gene that cuases their flesh not to become pigmented, and this gene also changes the way fat is stored in the flesh, causing these salmon to be much more oily, which many people do find more desireable, even though the appearance is less appealing.


Video Games

  • One of the games in Rhythm Heaven Fever, "Packing Pests", has the player working at the "Spider-Free Candy Company".


Webcomics


Web Animation

  • Bubs from Homestar Runner sells donuts shipped from a third-world country named Homemáde, so he could legally print "From Homemáde" on the box.

Notes

  1. We're not sure if Jones Turkey Soda did in fact contain animal products in its "natural and artificial flavors." A true exception is Calpis, also known as Calpico in English-speaking regions, which is fermented, sweetened, and carbonated milk. However, it looks just like milk, so a lactose intolerant person would be careful around Calpis anyway.
  2. "glutinous" just means "sticky" and is related to the word "glue", and that happens to also be the root of the word "gluten", otherwise the two are unrelated
  3. Sometimes gluten is added to foods to stabilize them, but that's only things like ketchup or ice cream (check the labels or call the number if you have celiac disease or other gluten sensitivity), but that still wouldn't apply to tea leaves!
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