THE Federal Trade Commission has been issuing “complaints” recently against certain television commercials. Some of the statements made on the airwaves — not all, of course — verge on the extravagant, the Commission is discovering. One assumes the Commission had no TV set prior to the spring of this year, but it appears to have taken advantage of the low prices and the ridiculously easy terms and bought one, with the result that since May 15 it has issued no less than six complaints, two of them against shampoos. This does seem a rather small bag, but the FTC was never the agency for headlong action, and its monitoring unit is still new at the grim business of ferreting out hyperbole in shampoo announcements, if that is what they can be called. As the New York Times story put it: “Slowly, the unit has gained eyes as agents are assigned to spend time before television screens and radio sets.” So, after being more or less deaf to radio for almost forty years and blind to TV for a decade, the FTC is now on the prowl for the delinquent commercial.
One of the first to be unearthed by the FTC sleuths was “Helene Curtis Industries, Inc.,” which used “scare tactics, alarming and frightening beauty-conscious young girls by audio-visual representations to disparage competitive shampoos.” The “scare” in this case consisted of telling these “young girls” — and everyone else, one supposes — that certain other types of shampoo would “burn the hair.”
It is odd to find a shampoo company and its copy writers falling into such a trap as an explicit statement, possessing some meaning, to which the FTC could object. Any TV watcher could have told them that the successful commercial, no matter how scary or false or preposterous its implications, is always meaningless. One of the most conspicuous shampoo commercials is really nothing but flurry and uproar in the audio and a few quick flashes on the screen that come and go so fleetingly that no one can be sure just what he has seen.
The meaningless shampoo commercial begins with an announcer shouting at the top of his lungs something about a woman whose hair is “five times lighter.” On the screen, facing away from the camera, appear two women. They are ornately waved and curled, and just as the viewer is deciding that both look alike, an arrow or legend indicates that the woman at the left is the “five times lighter,” but before this can be examined as a fact, the picture vanishes. The announcer continues shouting “five times lighter,” and we are confronted by what seems to be a close-up of a light meter, whose indicator is jerking all the way across the dial, apparently just from being in the same studio with the “lighter” coiffure, which, incidentally, never does look “light.” No “than” ever follows the “five times lighter,” and it remains at all times what William Johnson, Boston correspondent for Time, has termed “the dangling comparative.”
There comes to mind also the commercial about the wonderful white paint that actually looks white when the camera eyes it, in appalling contrast to other brands of white paint which — so the camera shows us — turn odd colors and begin to flake and peel almost before they have dried. A meter or gauge of some kind is used to reinforce the declarations of the announcer, and here again is the proposition that any movement of an indicator across a dial is proof positive that what the man is saying must be so. The formula is simplicity itself: Just keep on bellowing the same statement, while a needle is made to twitch across the dial or a column of mercury to race up or down in a tube. (“The cane you ring is the cane you win!”)
At this early stage of its enlightenment, the FTC may be unaware of the TV and radio commercials in which a worried woman begins a question with the words “Tell me, doctor,” only to be answered not by a doctor of anything whatever, but by an actor who explains learnedly the complex physiological blessings to be gained from stopping “taking whatever you are now taking” and beginning regular dosages with a pill made by the actor’s employer. What makes this commercial practically honest is that the actor does not call himself a doctor, it’s the woman who does, and that’s just her hard luck, poor ignorant creature that she is. Some of the “doctor” commercials on TV have become so honest that the actor has even put aside the doctor’s white coat and appears in an ordinary business suit, although the interview still takes place in what TV producers believe a doctor’s office looks like.
Even more honest is the commercial with an actor in a gray smock or duster, who talks about queer chemical reactions that show his employer’s product is superior to others. He proves his point by causing a glass flask of the competitor’s product to turn into a horrid murk, while his employer’s remains clear as a bell, but this actor never admits that he’s a chemist and nobody calls him one. What could be more honest than that?
But scruples of this sort seem commonplace when compared to the prodigious lunge toward business piety announced recently in a compact between the Chicago Daily News and automobile dealers. Between them they created an “Honestly Advertised Car Code,” and when one reads the three principles laid down in this renunciation, one can see readily just what automobile advertising in Chicago must have been like before the adoption of standards almost puritanical in their rigors. In the new arrangement, described in Editor & Publisher, the newspaper requires the dealer to sign a statement that he is complying with the code:
“1. Honestly described. Any description given in an ad by a dealer on a specific automobile will be accurate.” (The attempt here is to hinder dealers from putting into their advertisements statements that are absolutely not so.)
“2. Honestly advertised. Any car advertised will be at the location advertised on the day of publication, or a bona fide bill of sale will be in the possession of the dealer to account for the absence of any car,” (The dealer covenants not to advertise for sale a car that he does not and never did possess — that is, a car that doesn’t exist.)
“3. Honestly priced. When full selling price, cash or terms are mentioned in a dealer’s advertisement, it will be the amount the car will be delivered for, except for taxes and license fees.” (There are other ways of interpreting “honestly priced,” but in this case “honestly priced” simply means that the price quoted in the advertisement is the actual price.)