Just one simple tip

Maybe I’ve been visiting different websites than I usually do, but lately I’ve been noticing an abundance of advertisements offering to cure some ailment or solve some problem with “just one simple tip.”

For example, apparently there is now a “mom’s white teeth trick”—a secret about which “dentists don’t want you to know.” Who knows what that means? First of all, what does my mother have to do with it? And if this is a secret known by mothers, why don’t they just tell their children? After all, the mothers are the ones paying the dentist’s bill. I suppose “dentists don’t want you to know” about this secret because it will put them out of business, but viewers must recognize this as nothing more than a shameless advertising ploy designed to prey upon their own curiosity. Are advertisers hoping that viewers will click on the ad just because they give in to the suspicion that their dentist (or mother) has been keeping something from them? Perhaps I’ll have to ask mine the next time we talk…

In another ad that seems to be all over the Internet these days, we learn that there is “one weird tip of a flat belly” [sic]. Here, too, the wording of the advertisement (not to mention the grammar) leaves us guessing. Is it really possible to flatten your stomach by following just one tip? And what’s so weird about it, anyway? Some variations of this ad also suggest that this is “an old trick your grandmother knew.” Perhaps that’s what’s weird about it? Or perhaps we’re meant to assume that the trick has been lost in the sands of time, only to have been recently rediscovered by this particular advertiser.

On the radio, I’ve frequently heard advertisements for something called a “transforming debt into wealth program.” The operating theory here is that if you’re buried by loans and/or credit card debt, you can in fact turn this debt over to someone else, who will not only lower your payments but also “put your debt to work for you,” allowing you to actually make money on the side. That must be a pretty nifty system, if you ask me.

For every advertisement I described above, there are at least a thousand similar schemes out there on the Internet, television, and the radio. And there are probably just as many people who are seduced by the before-and-after photos, the ridiculous number of exclamation points, and the “low, low cost” of signing oneself up for the benefits or purchasing the product or plan.

As P.T. Barnum purportedly said, there’s one born every minute.

However, the point here is not to rail on those who may have been misled by such advertisements, but rather to look briefly into the aspects of human nature that make such ads so successful in the first place.

We all have things we dislike about ourselves. Sometimes, this may be a physical characteristic—we may wish for whiter teeth, or a flatter stomach. Sometimes, this may be a life factor instead; for example, we may hope to finally overcome our credit card debt. For most of us, it will be some combination of the two… and no matter what it is, there is an ad out there that seems like it was written just for you.

This means that such ads target viewers who are, for the most part, already vulnerable. If someone feels quite secure in his appearance or her position in life, such ads will not attract any attention. But for those who spend much of their day feeling insecure about some aspect of their lives (and let’s face it; everyone is insecure about something), the foundation for advertising success has already been laid in their own minds.

After all, the beauty of it is that it’s just one simple tip, so the fortress of reason may fall quickly. Viewers are attracted by the promise of no expensive course of treatment, no laborious regimen, and no difficult transition. The combination of “one” and “simple” is particularly brilliant; it suggests that this tip will be easy to remember, easy to carry out, quick, painless, inexpensive, and most likely effective.

Of course, any tip that meets this description would also be extremely easy to share.

So why is nobody sharing?

Perhaps dentists wish to keep their teeth-whitening trick a secret, but is it really possible that no dentist has ever leaked the hint, perhaps to a family member or a close friend? How long would it take before the tip blazed its way through the community? As for the stomach flattening, if your grandmother knew a weird old trick for accomplishing this goal, why did she not tell her daughter, and so on down the line? Are grandmothers everywhere holding out on us? And even if they were, wouldn’t such a short, simple secret wind its way through the generations in spite of advertisers’ best efforts to the contrary?

You get the picture.

If a tip were really so short and simple that it could be used to whiten teeth, flatten stomachs, or transform debt into wealth, everyone would already know it. If you knew the secret and had a friend dealing with the pertinent problem, would you refuse to share it with him? Of course not. And this is why such ads misjudge both probability and the human experience.

On the other hand, they’re more tuned in to the human experience than we might at first think. They know, as I said above, that there’s something about each of us that makes us feel bad about ourselves. They know we know that (at least in many cases) there are long and possibly painful ways of reaching our goals in these areas.

The shortcuts they offer represent the fast track out of such laborious processes and reflect the desire for instant gratification under which we have all grown accustomed to living and working. If the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, how much better if the single step ends the journey, as well!

Jamie Cullum sings a song called 7 Days to Change Your Life, in which he addresses our gullibility. The refrain lyrics go like this:

In just seven short days
You’ll change your life
All of your innocence found
You’ll even lose a few pounds
See yourself making a mint
Quality time with your kids
Send me your money and I’ll change your life

Aside from the question of whether anything supposedly done so easily is even worth doing, Cullum’s lyrics also raise this important point: combining the promises of every “one simple trick” scheme makes them all seem ridiculous in a way that they are not when seen in isolation. In one man’s lifetime, such a list of promises could never be kept by any one mortal.

But perhaps there’s just one simple tip out there for immortality, too.

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