Snake Oil Salesmen

I reckon that, last week, I broke a World record. I managed to cycle through 38 TV channels in turn that were all showing commercials. OK, so I was in a hotel in the U.S. and maybe that's to be expected. And some of the commercials are more interesting than the programs. Of course, it's probably the same here in England now that we have "digital choice", but I just don't notice 'cos we let Media Center record anything we want to watch and then skip over the commercials. Mind you, we need some serious practice to make commercials that are as blatantly misleading as those I've been watching.

I mean, here in the People's Republic of Europe, the concept of "caveat emptor" (buyer beware) is pretty much obsolete because trading laws are so strict that you almost have to refund people's money before they buy stuff. We have a whole Government department whose entire job is to guard the population against misleading advertisements. Yet, surely the whole point of advertising is to be misleading. I wouldn't be tempted to buy a car they described as "fairly good except when going round corners, and bits of the fascia come loose after a while." Or a new flavor of yoghurt where the actor says "we use fresh ingredients when we can get them, they don't taste too bad, and we very rarely send them out with dead insects inside".

Yet, last week I was offered a new type of super high quality cleaning duster that magically cleans everything twice as fast as a "normal" duster, comes with an unbreakable handle, a replaceable head, lasts forever, and leaves all other dusters standing. And it was worth $40 but I was lucky because that week they were offering them at only $9.95. And for that price they would actually send you two! And not only that, but they'd also include two packs of replacement heads and a mini duster and free shipping worth a total of $70! I don't know why, but somehow I got the impression that they were being a little economical with the truth somewhere along the line.

Even better, there was a famous actor (who I didn't actually recognize) explaining that - in his 25 years on TV - he'd never seen an easier way to make "hundreds of thousands of dollars" than the new "cash flow notes" program. No investment, guaranteed money back, and only $159 to "start earning". And if you order in the next 18 minutes "while stocks last", he said, you get the whole package at a one-time special rate. And there are two free gifts as well that make it a "total $295 value" - all for just $39. No wonder we have a financial crisis...

And then there are the 20 second ones that flash past so fast it takes a while to catch on. Like the commercial for "top-up medical insurance" that covers you for stuff your existing medical insurance doesn't. Or the guy who says you can phone him now and get any three of his computer training DVDs completely free. Learn how to make money on EBay, or master Windows Vista. And, this week, he'll even allow you to order three extra completely free DVDs. You only pay $6.95 each for shipping. OK, so I'm not an expert in this area, but last time I had bulk DVDs made they cost less than two dollars each, and I'm sure it can't cost more than a couple of dollars to send a DVD by post in a padded bag. So their business model really consists of selling post and packing.

More worrying, however, is the weirdness of some of the programs. Last time I was there I inadvertently watched, while eating breakfast, a program about the top ten retail stores in the U.S. One of them was a place called Archie McPhee, which is actually in Seattle! They sell novelties and daft stuff, and I just had to pay them a visit this time. I found some useful things such as an emergency reflective jacket and a brush for cleaning my fishpond filter. However, it's probably a good thing they didn't search my case at customs on the way home as it might have been difficult to explain why I needed several packs of plasters (bandages) with toast and ninjas on, some plastic model office cubicles (plus additional figures), a bag of Mini Devil Duckies, a roll of "Crime Scene Keep Out" tape, and a shopping bag that says "My wife said I had to bring this bag with me".

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