In times past, people who bought the Elixir of Life from a moustachioed man standing on the tail of a cart did not bring a complaint against the vendor when its promises remained unfulfilled. There were two reasons for that: first, as a normal business precaution, it was the salesman’s custom quickly to repair to a different county; secondly, when the medicine failed to produce the required result and in due course the purchasers expired, their grievance accompanied them into the grave.
Today, however, thanks to more than 60 years of universal free state education we are much smarter. Hence no fewer than 23 clever people have got their complaint in early. They wrote to the Advertising Standards Authority (we do not know whether or not they used the green ink customary on these occasions) to protest that a pomegranate drink, POM Wonderful, did not, as advertised, confer immortality.
The poster for the product showed a bottle of the juice with a severed noose around its neck and read: “Cheat death – the antioxidant power of pomegranate juice”.
No sooner had their eyes fallen upon those words than the complainants sprang into fervid action. Cleverly, they had spotted a flaw in the advertising claim. Ah ha, they said as one, drinking the juice would not make them live for ever. Though they could not be sure of their facts – they did not produce in evidence the death certificate of anyone who had imbibed POM Wonderful – they sensed that science was on their side.
For its part, POM Wonderful chose not to defend the literal accuracy of its claim – proof of immortality would by definition take a long time – but fell instead on the defence of harmless exaggeration. The statement “cheat death”, it argued, was an “obvious untruth that was never meant to be taken seriously”.
The ASA listened intently, furrowed its brow, sucked on its teeth, stroked its grizzled beard and, at length, issued a solemn judgment: “Although we noted there was no intention to mislead or to make an objective claim about longer life, we concluded that the claim ‘Cheat death’ was misleading. The ad breached CAP Code clause 7.1 (Truthfulness).”
And so it was that POM Wonderful learnt that, in this breathing world, there is always someone, somewhere, who will, however preposterous a claim, take its meaning literally. Moreover, there are clever dicks who, while not themselves taking a preposterous claim seriously, will presume to act on behalf of others who might. Thus, if a jovial grocer wishing to add his scrap to the harmless stock of human pleasure were to tell you not only that the moon is made of cheese but also that he happens to have in his fridge a piece for you to taste, he would be liable to be dragged before the authorities and reprimanded.
It has become a tenet of contemporary society that our duty to protect the weak extends also to the weak-brained. And, rules and regulations being but blunt instruments, we must assume that every man woman and child is as daft as a brush unless proved otherwise.
It is also a fact that the customs and practices of everyday life are not easily adopted by commerce. So, whereas you and I employ hyperbole every day and think nothing of it, a company doing the same will in all probability have its collar felt.
For instance, in the days when it was my wont to frequent low taverns, I sometimes overheard Patron A urging Patron B to drink heartily with the words, “Get that down you, it’ll put hairs on your chest”. (I should add that this advice was tendered in the main to male drinkers.) No one, as far as I know, seriously expected to acquire whiskers on the chest or any other part of the body as a result of following that advice. You may be sure, though, that if a brewer were to make the same claim today, 23 or more alert bystanders would instantly purse their lips and reach for their pens.
The same would apply, but with even greater force, to that other expression, also heard in public bars past: “Get it down you, it’ll put lead in your pencil”. This, I need hardly tell you, was a low-life euphemism for achieving the effect now offered by Viagra. But, as every po-faced health fanatic will tell you, alcohol turns such lead as might reside in one’s pencil into putty.
The lesson for advertisers is to avoid hyperbole. For no matter how outlandish a claim might be, nor how obviously intended as a joke, someone will take it seriously and, such is the way of the world, their complaint will in turn be taken seriously. Humour, in short, is no laughing matter.