Dubious advantages

"We do not generally employ people who have spent a career doing something
else and who have turned to executive search as a second career. We want our
people to be the best at hiring great management. … To do this well you
need to get the kind of commitment you have in a first career, not a second
Armstrong International advertisement, 2003 campaign (Source: The Economist,
29 March 2003)

The comic alter ego of Graham Fellows, the hapless singer-songwriter John Shuttleworth,
had a wonderful line in his stage show when he evangelised to the audience over
the merits of a well-known sports drink. "It’s isotonic," he said,
"it cares for the environment."

As with so much of the Shuttleworth act, behind the banality lies an astute
observation. Like many of us, Shuttleworth is easily impressed by the claims
made by manufacturers and advertisers for their products, even when he doesn’t
understand what these claims mean. The mere fact that something is presented
as an advantage is enough to win him over.

This is a version of the wider problem that if a claim is made with sufficient
strength, conviction or authority, it tends to be accepted whatever its merits.
The sub-species of "dubious advantages", however, works this trick
in a slightly more sophisticated way. It works by presenting a claim which is
factually correct, but in such a way as to make it appear like an advantage.

The classic version of this comes with the many foodstuffs which are advertised
as "95% fat free" or similar. There is nothing at all factually incorrect
about this. But the way that the claim is splashed over the packaging makes
it evident that this fact is supposed to describe an advantage. What could this
advantage be? Many consumers will assume that it means the product is healthier,
or is a better option if they are trying to lose weight. But many such low-fat
cakes, for example, are loaded with sugar and a serving can contain just as
many calories as other regular-fat alternatives. In short, the fact that something
is 95% fat free isn’t necessarily an advantage, even though it is being sold
to you as one.

Once you become alert to this, examples leap off the supermarket shelves and
the advertising billboards. Why is it good that something contains Guarana if
the amount it contains is less than that required for it to have any effect,
assuming it has a desirable effect anyway? Why is it better that something comes
in a new, bigger size, if the price has increased proportionally? Why should
we rejoice that a cereal now comes in a foil bag when it was perfectly crispy
in the old plastic one?

What makes the Armstrong International advertisement particularly interesting
is that by spelling out so clearly why it is supposed to be an advantage to recruit people who are starting their first career, Armstrong are being more open than those who
merely imply their dubious advantages, but they also thereby make the questionable
nature of this advantage clearer. For it just doesn’t seem at all evident that
people are more committed when on their first career than their second. Indeed,
many people just drift into their first career, and the move to a second one
often requires more commitment. And people on their second career have more
experience, including that concerning which kinds of people make great managers.
Prima facie, then, the claim that this feature of their recruitment practices
is an advantage is questionable and it seems unlikely that any empirical evidence
exists to back it up.

The presentation of dubious advantages probably works because we are cognitive
misers who will always make as few judgements as possible to get by. We prefer
"that’s true" or "that’s false" to "the factual part
of that claim is true but its implied advantages are not real." The latter
requires us to distinguish the factual content from the evaluative implication
of a claim and when we’re glancing at advertisements or product packaging, that
can be a cognitive task too many. It’s not that we’re stupid, it’s just that
we are already bombarded by commercial messages and we’re doing all we can to
filter them out. Also, there aren’t many of us who are at our mentally sharpest
when doing the shopping.

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