18 November 2014

Science Increases Trust Addendum

There’s such a rich trove of material that could be tapped for an addendum to last Friday’s blog topic, Science Increases Trust, I thought I’d roll out a dessert cart instead offering a single treat. As a reminder, the blog post reviewed a Cornell study that documented how adding scientific-looking data to a sales pitch for a medication increased confidence in the product, even if the data provided no new information. 
A package of Ivory Soap
that I bought last week.

Ivory Soap has been touting that it’s 99.44 percent pure since the 1880s! That scientific-sounding data apparently came about when chemical analysis determined that “impurities” totaled 0.56% of the soap’s content. Actually, the impurities--uncombined alkali, carbonates and mineral matter--sound better than Ivory’s “pure” ingredients, fatty acids and alkali, which are the chief ingredients of most soap.
Most TV ads for pharmaceuticals,
2008-2010, were found to be
misleading or worse. (photo on
multiple websites)

The Cornell study addressed promotions with redundant, not misleading data; however, an earlier investigation by collaborators from Dartmouth and the University of Wisconsin took a swing at consumer-targeted television drug advertising. 

They analyzed the most emphasized claims of 84 prescription and 84 nonprescription drug ads, randomly selected from national news broadcasts from 2008 through 2010. Taken together, 57% of the claims were potentially misleading and 10% were false. Claims for prescription drug ads came out a bit better than those for nonprescription drug ads.

Graphs were one type of data the Cornell study showed could add the right touch of science to a sales pitch. Alas, graphs can also be used to mislead. For example, even if the graph’s axes are labeled correctly, not scaling to zero can cause the data to appear oh so different. Of course adding a biased title will help.
The massive increase in home prices in the top
graph doesn’t appear very massive when the prices
are scaled to zero euros in the bottom graph. (from
Dr. Phil’s Shape Up! was removed
after a Federal Trade Commission
investigation. (multiple websites)
Probably the worst purveyors of bad ads nowadays are those pitching weight loss. One such product, Shape Up!, was promoted by TV’s Dr. Phil as having “scientifically researched levels of ingredients.” Production of Shape Up! ended after a Federal Trade Commission investigation. More recently, the FTC and a Congressional subcommittee were after TV’s Dr. Oz for his weight loss promotions.

The tobacco industry’s advertising heyday has passed, yet it would be hard to top old cigarette ads for covering the bases. 

They had weight loss ads:
This ad suggested cigarettes instead of sweets to keep your weight down. (ad on multiple websites)
They had medical testing ads, such as this one, which stated: “A medical specialist is making regular bi-monthly examinations of a group of people” nearly half of whom have “smoked Chesterfield for an average of 10 years.” After 10 months, the specialist observed “no adverse effects on the nose, throat and sinuses of the group from smoking Chesterfield.”  
Arthur Godfrey, the spokesman in this cigarette ad, died of lung cancer after coming out strongly against smoking. (ad on multiple websites)
The ads had physicians:
Family doctors smoked; why shouldn’t you? (ad on multiple websites)
And for the epitome of scientific data, cigarette ads had scientists and educators. (Yes, most of us looked and dressed like the man in the ad.) 
Scientists and educators who smoked Kent weren’t thrilled to learn that the Micronite Filter contained asbestos. (ad on multiple websites)

Ivory Soap:
Dartmouth-Univ. of Wisconsin study in Journal of General Internal Medicine and article on Science Daily website:
Dr. Phil's Shape Up!:
Vintage tobacco ads: www.vintageadbrowser.com/tobacco-ads
Physicians and cigarettes: www.healio.com/hematology-oncology/news/print/hemonc-today/%7B241d62a7-fe6e-4c5b-9fed-a33cc6e4bd7c%7D/cigarettes-were-once-physician-tested-approved
Arthur Godfrey: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Godfrey
Micronite filter: www.asbestos.com/products/general/cigarette-filters.php

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