Just thinking

Hucksters lurk on, under labels


While grocery shopping years ago -- decades, really -- my husband noticed that the label on a store-brand can of tomatoes had torn. Behind the paper was the can itself, on which clearly was printed the word HUNTS. As in Hunts tomatoes. Hunts tomatoes were hiding behind a store-brand label.

He showed me the can, and we appreciated the price difference between the store-brand tomatoes, which were cheap, and the Hunts tomatoes nearby, which weren't. But the product, as my husband had discovered, was exactly the same.

At this point, another shopper approached and began putting cans of Hunts tomatoes into her shopping cart. Because my husband is the kind of guy who will remind people they don't need to feed the meter on a holiday, he shared his discovery.

"Look," he said. He pulled back the label to show that the can underneath was a replica of the cans she was piling into her cart.

"But the price is a lot lower," he said helpfully.

Here's what happened: The woman gave him a dirty look. Then she walked away, pushing her cart with the Hunts cans inside.

What part of this encounter annoyed her? I've never figured it out. Did she not trust young people? Did she think we had no business looking behind the labels of cans we hadn't bought? Was this woman such a cynic that she didn't trust fellow shoppers?

I thought of her again this weekend, when my husband -- the same one -- showed me an advertisement for corn oil. I'll call it Corncobby corn oil.

Above a picture of a grilled chicken breast was a headline announcing that Corncobby corn oil has "more cholesterol-blocking plant sterols than other cooking oils ... and FOUR TIMES more than olive oil."

Plant sterols are actual things, in case you're thinking, as I did, that my husband was pointing out a made-up but scientific-sounding phrase. Plant sterols discourage cholesterol from clogging people's arteries, similar to gutter guards. Now, to read this headline, you might think that Corncobby corn oil has tons more sterols than its competitors. After the words "olive oil," however, is an asterisk. You know what an asterisk means. It means what follows is stuff a lawyer said had to be included.

But apparently nobody said the legal stuff had to be large enough to read with the human eye. The size of the print is smaller than those pictures of bedbugs we keep seeing. When squinting didn't help, I found a magnifying glass.

"Comparison based on 2010 USDA comparison of cooking oils: Corn oil has plant sterols content of 131.6mg/serving vs. 29.8 mg/serving for olive oil, 42.8 mg/serving for vegetable oil and 93.8 mg/serving for canola oil," the label said. Or rather, whispered in a tiny, microscopic voice.

In other words, I thought triumph-antly, all corn oil has more sterols than other oils. And here Corncobby is strutting around as if it deserves a medal.

I read on:

"Corn oil is a cholesterol-free food that contains 14 grams of total fat per serving ... Very limited and preliminary scientific evidence suggests that eating about 1 tablespoon (16 grams) of corn oil daily may reduce the risk of heart disease due to the unsaturated fat content in corn oil. FDA concludes there is little scientific evidence supporting this claim. To achieve this possible benefit, corn oil is to replace a similar amount of saturated fat and not increase the number of calories you eat in a day."

In other words, what the Corncobby oil people have just announced as thrilling news -- that Corncobby oil consumption reduces a person's risk of heart disease -- is iffy at best. For one thing, were their claim true, any corn oil would offer the same benefits. But it likely isn't true. The study is "very limited and preliminary." "Little scientific evidence" supports it.

I love it when my husband points out this sort of thing. Not because I have anything against Corncobby corn oil. I just like seeing how far out on a scrawny little limb advertisers are willing to crawl. This limb is dipping perilously close to the ground, but only my husband has noticed, at least so far.

I wonder why Corncobby decided to promote this selling point, which any reader of small print can see is weak, if not downright misleading. Why not tout product features that cannot be disputed? "Pop corn with Corncobby! It works much better than tomato juice!" Or, "Hey, kids! Pour a bottle of Corncobby on the Slip'n'Slide this summer!" These claims are indisputably truthful; no asterisk needed. Extra space in the ads could be used for pictures of slick, shiny children shooting down the Slip'n'Slide and halfway across the yard.

Truth in advertising! It's not just a slogan. According to the Federal Trade Commission, ads must be truthful and non-deceptive; advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims. If an ad doesn't meet these guidelines, the smart business person will turn to a promotional tactic that's been wildly successful in thousands of print ads and commercials the world over: puppies.